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Building Professional Skills With Volunteering

This article, "Building Professional Skills With Volunteering" was authored by eXp Commercial President James Huang and originally appeared in Forbes Business Council on April 6, 2022.

Why do you volunteer? If you’re like most people, you do it because you want to give back to your community and do some good in the world. But volunteering can build more than good karma. It’s a great way to develop skills and connections that can advance your career and help you leave a legacy beyond your professional success, all while helping others. Think of it as doing well by doing good. 

Volunteering Changed Everything For Me 

I thought I had it all. The commercial brokerage firm I built employed 150 commercial brokers making $2 billion in sales every year. I was riding high. I had made it.  

Then 2009 hit, and the Great Recession took it all. I mean all of it. I ended up having to borrow money just to stay afloat. From $2 billion to begging for loans was a big, humbling kick in the face.

My pity party continued until one day when I woke up and thought, “Is money all I’m known for? Is my legacy my 15 minutes of fame for being really successful?” 

I knew I needed something more. I didn’t want my identity only tied to my financial success. I wanted something so that if I lost everything again, I’d still have an identity, a legacy beyond just dollars in a bank account. 

In 2009, I started volunteering. I was determined to find my purpose and help the world in the process. 

Not only did volunteering help me find my own passion and purpose, but it kicked open the doors of professional and personal development as well. I went into the idea of volunteering thinking I’d be doing good for someone else. I never had any idea I’d be the one who got so much from it. 

Invaluable Business Skills You’ll Learn From Volunteering 

My biggest surprise from volunteering was that I learned so many valuable business skills in the process. Nonprofits are notoriously short on high-quality help, which means there are ample opportunities for building skills all over the management landscape. Here are just some of the valuable skills you’ll learn when you work with a nonprofit. 

Leadership Skills: Not everyone has an opportunity to be a leader in their jobs. But in a nonprofit, if you put your heart and soul into the cause and work hard, it’s not that difficult to rise to a position of leadership. You’ll learn what it takes to lead people, including goal-setting, motivation and problem-solving, and you’ll develop the interpersonal abilities that make people naturally want to follow your lead.

How To Run An Organization: You’ll likely have lots of different tasks in different departments, so you’ll get a clearer overall picture of what it takes to run an organization, from menial tasks like ordering supplies to 30,000-foot-level organizational planning. 

Influence: In a nonprofit, you no longer have the power to motivate people with a paycheck. So you’ll have to flex your leadership muscles in other ways—like influence and encouragement—to get people to do what’s needed.

Event Planning: Nonprofits run on fundraisers, and that means putting on events. You’ll learn everything from booking caterers and talent to the ins and outs of marketing and registration. 

Financial Reporting And Accounting: If you end up working in the bookkeeping department or as a treasurer, you’ll learn budgeting, reporting, bookkeeping and more.

Public Relations: Appealing to the public to support your organization is a huge part of what makes nonprofits tick. You’ll gain experience talking to reporters, giving presentations at public events, working with the media and more.

Fundraising: Fundraising and marketing are close cousins, and you’ll learn a lot about how to get people to open their wallets by working at a nonprofit. 

Opportunities Come From Doing Great Work 

When people in the nonprofit see what you’re doing, business opportunities will follow. Remember, nearly everyone volunteering has a professional career outside the nonprofit, too. Once they see how passionate and productive you are, they’ll likely approach you with opportunities in both business and life. 

On the flip side, if you go into an organization and do a bad job, people will notice. Always remember to take your volunteer work as seriously as your day job, because both will have a big impact on your reputation in your community and your industry. 

Choosing The Right Nonprofit 

When I started volunteering, I just said yes to every opportunity. I learned a lot, but I burned myself out, too. There’s a better way. 

Instead, start where you’re already interested. What I’ve found is that it’s best to volunteer in something where you already have an interest, curiosity or passion. Find something you love, and then find a way to volunteer at an organization that supports it.

Don’t Stop At Membership 

Signing up to be a member isn’t enough. You’ve got to get involved, and the more involved you can be, the better. Take on a leadership role if you can, because this is the position that will teach you the most. If you are serious about taking on a leadership role, some organizations will even pay for your training.

It’s OK To Say No  

When I first started volunteering, I said yes to everything, which turned out to be too much. Because I was overcommitted, I let people down and didn’t do my best work. Make sure you manage your time so you can always deliver your best.

Volunteering Gave Me A Legacy And A Whole Lot More  

In 2020, I was approached by one of the largest real estate brokerages in the world with the opportunity to launch a commercial real estate division. The opportunity crossed my desk primarily because of the network and leadership abilities I built through volunteering.

Today, after seizing the opportunity and becoming president of eXp Commercial, now one of the fastest-growing commercial real estate brokerages in the country, I’m very happy with where I am professionally, but that’s not my only legacy. Volunteering has helped me gain purpose in my life, and it’s taught me invaluable lessons both in life and in business. Find something you’re passionate about and donate your time, and you’ll build your legacy and skills, too. 

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