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The Volunteering Value Proposition

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by Kimberly A. Edwards, freelance writer

Kimberly Edwards

Kimberly Edwards

“I call it face time,” says Becky Parker Geist of Pro Audio Voices, president of the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association. “People see me leading and helping, and hopefully over time, building confidence.” Ted Witt of Pretty Road Press calls it opportunity. “Pitching in with time and enthusiasm provides multiple benefits,” he says. “We learn more, meet more people, and expand opportunities.”

Elissa Myers, president of Advice & Consensus and a member of the Association of Media and Publishing, sums it up this way: “I see issues I care about, and want to see change for the better.” And Diane C. Feirman, public affairs director for the American Group Psychotherapy Association, says that “involvement gives members ownership, pride, and a voice.”

What these and other industry leaders convey is that volunteering means more than donating. It means stimulating wins for an organization as a brand, an individual as a professional, and the organization’s membership as a whole.

Feirman, who has a background in association management and is editor of Membership Operations: Core Competencies in Membership Operations, points to ways that volunteers help organizations flourish. “They bring credibility and boost value by fostering networking, trends and practices, and member marketability. Members create the connections that are central to the group’s existence. They organize the work and manage activities,” she notes. Feirman calls members of nonprofits “owners, if you will” because “their dues and purchasing of items and event tickets provide capital.”

How Working for Free Pays Off

Those of you who are actively involved with IBPA and/or other organizations have probably noticed that volunteering can help you refine, expand, or develop new personal skills. “It’s one thing to sit in a meeting and learn more about publishing,” says Witt, past president of Northern California Publishers and Authors. But it’s another thing to make things happen. “What I learn sticks with me longer when I have to execute a task, discover answers, and move forward,” he reports.

If he had to give advice about pitching in, Witt says it would be, “Don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. Learn along the way. It’s OK to make mistakes. If you think you are too busy, you miss out.” In five years as a publisher and three decades as an association executive and communications specialist, Witt has learned the value of widening his reach. “When our publishing network is strong, we create opportunities,” he insists. He believes that an independent publisher cannot be successful alone; the publisher needs a community of like-minded colleagues.

Interaction with fellow volunteers means that people you might not normally have immediate access to are working with you. Exchanging information charges batteries. Trading leads is vital. Personal woes take a back seat as problems are reframed. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

“The skills and contacts gained from volunteer work, especially on a committee or a board, benefit not only the organization but also personal pursuits,” says Teresa LeYung-Ryan, former officer and exhibit coordinator in the San Francisco Women’s National Book Association and other organizations. And LeYung-Ryan, who coaches writers on building platforms and fan bases, adds that “there’s the fun factor—working with other volunteers who care about what you care about.”

Lending a hand also allows members to learn how the components of an organization fit together to support the membership. “Not only do you get to know members, but the leaders and board members—these are usually people who are at the heart of making things happen within the organization and beyond,” says Stephanie Chandler of Authority Publishing, who founded the Nonfiction Authors Association.

Plus, experience in leading groups, projects, and local chapters can bolster self-assurance. Dave La Roche, a writer who has served on five boards in both Southern and Northern California, notes that “A board is a terrific training ground for leadership” since board members can “learn from experience with almost no downside, and failure is easily forgiven, if noticed at all.”

In addition to boards, most organizations have standing or short-term committees. Serving on them entails interaction with people who have diverse personalities, backgrounds, approaches, and points of view. Each member brings unique assets. Multiple perspectives brew energy and nourish discussion, enriching decisions. Bonds among members develop as they rely on each other to accomplish shared goals.

Parker Geist finds that her leadership skills keep developing and her connections keep increasing because of her volunteer work with BAIPA. As her connections grow, so do requests for her presentations and benefits for her organization. “That in turn helps our members grow and improve, which positively impacts their work and helps ‘all boats rise’ in independent publishing,” she observes. “It’s a lovely, mutually beneficial process. Step forward in the spirit of giving, and great things can happen.”

Within IBPA, numerous activities depend on volunteers. “We have publishers who feel they want to give back,” says executive director Angela Bole. “They’re in a place in their careers to give back knowledge and time.” Citing ways for members to volunteer, Bole notes that the annual Benjamin Franklin Book Awards program uses 160 volunteers who judge more than 1,300 books, and that those volunteers include librarians, booksellers, professional reviewers, larger indie publishers, and designers, as well as people from other demographics.

“Every year we refresh the pool,” Bole says, adding that IBPA also needs volunteers for Ask the Experts Online, the Q&A portal for information about topics such as finance, production, marketing, design, editing, and legal issues. Volunteers are also welcome as speakers for IBPA’s annual Publishing University.

Drivers for Pitching In

Myers, who has served on dozens of boards and committees, says, “One of my most profound passions is helping people learn to work together to accomplish mutual objectives. I’ve seen people accomplish remarkable goals that better their lives and better society in general. How exciting it is to see individuals articulate and then go to work on a shared vision. I feel privileged to witness the power of collective action across every sector of society.”

Motivation varies from person to person, of course. Some people volunteer their time and skills because they are driven by causes, while incentives for others include brand loyalty, artistic devotion, status, and collegiality, to name a few.

For many people, the lure is to share knowledge. “When our careers advance, we are inclined to give back,” says Wanda Little-Coffey, senior director of volunteer relations at the Center for Association Leadership. This validates what Feirman has noticed. “Right now I see mostly those who are further along in their career and are really dedicated to the organization,” she says, while younger and new members who volunteer are often people who were “introduced to us by or mentored by a very involved member who personally sold them on the benefits of volunteering.”

Myers offers a similar observation. “As a general rule I think that people further along in their careers tend to have the personal resources and independence of judgment to volunteer—and may have great confidence in their own competencies and a keener sense of what they can accomplish.”

“However,” she adds, “I think there are young people who have the passion, the self-confidence, and the drive to volunteer and who are so driven that they ignore barriers and jump in with both feet. I have a granddaughter who has been making great contributions to a variety of organizations since high school–it’s just in the fabric of who she is.”

Michael Cole, a technology engineer who manages a website for a Northern California writers club in his free time, is one of its newer members. “I derive satisfaction from knowing that I’m part of the team that makes the club a reality, from knowing that my efforts, along with those of other volunteers, create this highly effective support infrastructure that is enabling and promoting authorship,” he says. “Working with people in leadership positions is a great way to foster relationships and friendships that can be valuable in the future.”

First Steps

If you’re thinking about volunteering as a member of IBPA and/or another publishing organization, you might start by finding out where it needs help most. Another approach involves researching the organization’s committees to see which one or ones align best with your skills or offer the best prospects for personal growth.

A commitment doesn’t need to be big. Margie Yee Webb, president of the Sacramento Branch of the California Writers Club, has found that it’s important for organizational leaders to accept whatever commitment busy members can make. “Generally people want to help,” she says. “It may be that they see me and others working hard, so they offer, too.”

LeYung-Ryan also notes that an organization’s tone and leadership can inspire members to chip in. “Smart leaders create opportunities for their members to volunteer in small doses,” she says, mentioning “assignments to help a committee accomplish one specific task, to help set up or clean up one meeting or event, to staff a booth for a couple of hours, to show up on the organization’s social media pages. Volunteers who are kind to people and are having fun themselves–they’re easy to spot. They attract new and returning volunteers.”

Before volunteering, ask yourself:

  • Do I support the organization’s goals?
  • What skills do I offer, and what skills might I be interested in sharpening?
  • Am I open to working with people with different points of view?
  • Am I able to put aside personal opinions, as necessary, to work with others toward shared objectives?
  • Am I willing to make the necessary time?
  • What benefits can I expect to gain?

Myers calls volunteering “one of the great pleasures of life,” citing President John F. Kennedy’s “If not us, who? If not now, when?” Recently, a member of the California Writers Club Sacramento who facilitates a monthly networking meeting summed up her take on volunteering in just a few words. “There’s so much to do,” she says, “I find it addictive.”

Kimberly A. Edwards is a freelance writer who has worked with committees and boards. To learn more: KimberlyEdwards00@comcast.net.

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