Vera N. Held, B.A. Eng., Cert. PR., Tesl Cert., M.Ed.
Coach, facilitator, speaker, writer and PR consultant.
Author of international best-seller "How Not to Take it Personally".
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Volunteering can improve job skills
Others do it to give back to community

by Vera N. Held

Volunteers, those legions of unpaid workers who help to keep many projects and associations afloat, want to make a difference — in their own lives and the lives of those they serve — but their time can also boost their career.

Unpaid labour can hone professional and leadership skills, add to a professional network, lead to direct and indirect job referrals and even lead to money-making endeavours.

For many who have already reached success in their professional lives, it’s a question of giving back to their communities.

Entrepreneur Gord Dreger, 35, chair of the Bloor-Yorkville Business Improvement Area relishes the opportunity to give something back to the community he lives in; he also works on behalf of an organization that owns property in the area.

“ Bloor street is my front yard. Of course, I want it to look better. It’s easy to sit by and idly point fingers when things aren’t what you’d like them to be or you can get involved and change things. This leadership role presents me with a unique challenge,” he says.

Dreger is referring to the $30 million Bloor St. revitalization project that will commence first quarter of 2005.

As chair, he lobbies for funds from senior levels of government and fosters hot debate on issues such as posters and bulletins on streetlights and posts, rules for which he is lobbying to have strictly enforced. When the Uptown Theatre collapsed in 2002, Dreger helped keep the channels of communication open between retail merchants and the city’s clean-up crews. He logs 25 hours of his time a month on these unpaid projects.

“You can’t forward yourself in your professional career without giving something back. What goes around does come around, but I don’t give with an expectation of instant gratification. However, I would reconsider my involvement the moment it stopped being rewarding,” he adds.

Five years ago, 50-year old Lynn Mason Green, actor and author of “For the Love of Standing in the Wings” launched a Web site ( to assist young artists starting out.

“I knew there was abuse and fraud in the business. It made me angry to see young people and their dreams being taken advantage of; I wanted to see them get a good clean shot at the beginning,” says Green.

However, the Web site grew by such leaps and bounds that Green now acts as national online moderator for its 22 forums four hours daily, seven days per week.

Although hard access information is still free, the Web site’s 1500 members around the world pay a modest $15 per-year fee to interact live with a moderator.

This fee-based discussion board allows actors across the country to discuss national issues and policies, and to stay in touch.

“I really enjoy giving something back to a business that has been good to me. I’m thrilled to see new talent just jump up and blow me away. The Web site also raises my profile enormously and enhances my credibility in the industry,” she adds.

Status, affiliation and the ability to set policy are indeed powerful motivators to volunteer. Larry Tomlin, 45, principal of accountancy firm Tomlin Associates volunteers as the chair of the practice quality review committee for the Society of Management Accountants of Ontario—and as support staff do the leg work, it requires only a couples of days a year of his time. “I was asked to volunteer. They needed someone and I got touched on the shoulder,” says Tomlin.

He is responsible for chairing meetings, reviewing reports, helping to establish accounting practice guidelines, ruling on tough cases requiring discipline, and setting standards for the certified management account (CMA) designation the society grants. “It’s in my professional interests to ensure accounting status in this province is upheld; standards are important. It also keeps me up-to-date and I get to go downtown and sit in a boardroom. Now, that’s fun,” says Tomlin.

Some volunteer commitments are critical to business growth. Catherine McIntyre, 40, president of ICOM Information & Communications Inc., a business-to-business direct marketing firm, is the only Canadian on the volunteer board of directors of the U.S. Direct Marketing Association.

“My role is invaluable to our company in terms of exposure and networking. We could never buy the advertising and public relations this position affords us. As well, timely access to information allows us to better prepare our clients on competitive and legislative issues.”

Although her volunteer position is demanding, requiring five hours a month plus travel to four three-day meets per year, McIntyre says her unpaid work has broadened her professionally. “Now, I know how a real board functions,” she says.

McIntyre, who has two other volunteer commitments, advises those interested in volunteering to pick something they care about and which could lead them in new directions. She also says volunteering is tough work.

“It’s about doing your fair share and then some.”