What I’ve learned from volunteering

The purpose of this article isn’t to convince you to volunteer, but to give you some real-life insight into what experience and skills volunteering can give you that can provide you with transferable skills for the workplace and vice versa, what workplace skills you can bring to a volunteer role.

If anyone would have said to me as a carefree student that I would have an in-depth knowledge of the workings of a synchronised swimming club in Switzerland, I would never have believed them! And then life happened and I am the mother of an 11 year old who has been swimming in a Synchro team for 5 years with Morges Natation. At first I simply drove her back and forth to her training sessions, then one day I was backed up against the wall by a member of the committee and asked to join them.

sync swim

Three years later I am trying to make sense of my life! How did I go from one meeting every 4 weeks with very little responsibility to meetings on average once a week, countless emails, phone calls, whatsapps, lengthy conversations in parking lots, and relatively speaking quite a bit of responsibility?

Volunteering, whether it is for a sports club, a charity, an NGO, a church group, a pressure group, a parents’ group and so on, is a never-ending task. It is often a role with no job description, no working hours, no holidays and certainly no pay!

So why does anyone do it?

In my case, my initial sense of duty to give something back to the club that provides my daughter with the opportunity to fulfill her passion and ambitions, turned into the need to be on the inside and know how the club functioned and how decisions were made. I felt I could bring some of my life and work experience to the club and help it to move forwards with its goals. Importantly I had the time and the inclination.

What have I learned?

  • Human resources:
    • Regardless of the type of organisation you work for or volunteer for, inter-personal relations are the key to getting stuff done
    • In volunteer-run organisations, personalities can be particularly at the sharp edge, it is a certain personality type that volunteers, that takes on extra responsibilities, in a world where our diaries are already full…i.e. there are a higher proportion of “big” personalities around the table
    • In organisations such as the one I am currently involved in, emotions can run high, we are dealing with our own children’s fate, we must strive to keep our sentiments in check and remain objective e.g. will my child be picked for the team
  • Negotiation:
    • Volunteer organisations do not always have a hierarchical structure, thus committee meetings can be very long-winded as everyone has the opportunity to have their say, then the negotiations commence. Unanimity must be reached from subjects ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.
    • Negotiations extend beyond the committee to meetings with high-level stakeholders e.g. representatives from local authorities or national sports federations. Not everyone in the committee has the experience or is equipped to attend and negotiate at such meetings, and sometimes the most experienced person has the least availability.
  • Governance:
    • Formal voluntary organisations generally are a legal entity eg. In Switzerland they are called “associations” and thus have statutes that are drawn up to provide explicit directions on governance e.g. Morges Natation has a President and a “Comité Central” and there are two “Comités Techniques” that oversee the day to day running of these activities.
    • The volunteer must rapidly learn how the governance of an organisation works in order to follow due process, the problems arise when the volunteer wants to make a rapid decision but is bound to communicate with the committee before taking such a decision.
  • Sales:
    • I have been self-employed for many years and am very familiar with sales in the sense of networking and putting myself forward for consulting roles. My sales skills are currently being put to use in the form of fund-raising. Anyone who wants to work in business should hone their sales skills, and fund-raising is a great way to do this. Whether it is cold-calling potential sponsors, door-stepping local businesses or seizing opportunities at networking events.
  • Strategy:
    • All organisations change, grow, evolve and must adapt to outside influences. Often, we are so bogged down in the day to day running of the club that when we lift our heads up, it is the end of the season and everyone is disappearing for the summer holidays. Some strategic planning can be done at the monthly committee meetings, but some of the much longer-term planning is left to new groups to work on. The creation of the dreaded sub-committee, with yet more time needing to be given over to meetings, reading of documents, and responding to emails.

committee meetings

In conclusion, volunteering is an incredibly enriching experience, it puts into practice what you have learned academically, it hones your skills for the workplace and for life. You spend a lot of time with people you would probably never have met otherwise. You just have to be careful, if you turn out to be good at it, to not let it take over your life. Good people are spotted from afar and given more and more responsibilities. Beware of volunteer burnout! As for me, I will remain on the technical committee of the synchronised swimming club so long as my daughter swims at the club, that’s my promise to her. As for my roles in the central committee, sub-committee on revising the statutes of the club, part-time fund-raiser, category F judge at Synchro competitions and coach Jeunesse et Sport, that HAS to be reduced ASAP!

Author: Marina Martin Curran PhD, Professor at BSL


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