Voluntary work has become integral to professional development in management circles - improving career skills and creating networks are just a couple of the benefits, says Petra Cook

Volunteering is sometimes seen as the province of those in their retirement or students who have spare time on their hands to travel abroad, but new research conducted by the Chartered Management Institute and Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) suggests that engaging in volunteer work can actually help you develop the skills you need to further your career and allow you to gain experience in a variety of different business areas.
Perhaps surprisingly, 78% of managers are already actively involved in some form of voluntary activity, but the link between this and professional development needs aligning. The research indicates that, in some cases, there are still perceptions that long-term overseas placements are for those wanting to take a ‘gap’ year or simply travel. Maybe this has something to do with the reasons managers in the retail sector choose to volunteer. It seems that altruistic motivations of ‘giving something back’ and ‘to improve things and help people’ are the most common reasons managers volunteer their time but following their voluntary activity, they recognise that there were also career benefits which could help with future employability.
There is growing appreciation that volunteers can build new social and professional networks, learn new skills and use it as a route for
professional development. This suggests that volunteering should be viewed as part of your continuing professional path, as a route to gaining skills which can then be applied in the workplace, rather than as something separate from your career development plans. Becoming a volunteer will also allow you to meet new people from different cultures and professional backgrounds which can help strengthen communication skills and team working back in the office or on the shop floor.
So how can you get the most from your volunteering experience? Make sure that you record key activities that you undertake and also examine how you have differently applied your existing skills or learnt new skills. If you are volunteering for a local charity, for example, how do the fund-raising activities you organise help you develop skills that might be attractive to a retail organisation? If you teach children to read, as another example, are you developing personal coaching skills and styles that could then be highlighted as strengths on your CV? The research underlined key areas which should be presented to potential employers in order to successfully market those skills you have acquired. These include responsibility (being in a position of authority with accountability for results), communication with all levels of management and different types of people, creativity (having to be resourceful and find ways around problems) and commitment to projects and their work in general. If you can demonstrate how you have achieved these, your volunteering experience is more likely to be recognised.
One way of making it easier for potential employers to see the benefit of volunteering more clearly is through formal recognition. Nearly half of the managers surveyed said that they would be more inclined to employ a volunteer who has some formal recognition of managing significant change, such as chartered manager status. The message emerging is that volunteers must take the logical next step to ensure that they have proof of their experience and competency. It is not good enough to talk about what they have been doing - there must be solid evidence of how engaging in voluntary activity has developed skills and how these skills can benefit the organisation.
In the retail sector, many employers are already embracing the value of volunteering through their own company policies - just look at Sainsbury’s Local Hero scheme, which raises around £225,000 every year for a range of good causes and charities. However, organisations must also recognise the merits of volunteering as a route to professional development, and individuals must ensure they market themselves effectively so that their new skills are taken seriously.
n Petra Cook is head of Public Affairs, Chartered Management Institute