Advice from George Anders: The Volunteer’s Edge

As part of my effort to give students ideas about how they could use their Winter Break to develop their professional skills and experience set, I reached out via Twitter to George Anders. George is a contributing writer at Forbes magazine and author of “The Rare Find.” He also is a former trustee and treasurer of the Odyssey School in San Mateo CA, and a former trustee and vice president of Z Space, a San Francisco theatre company. He graciously accepted my request and provided the blog post below. His willingness to provide a pro bono post to someone he has never met is a wonderful example of the accessibility and kindness of many successful people. The content of his post is great advice for students. I’d ask that you thank George by tweeting him a “Thanks for the Post!” via Twitter at @GeorgeAnders and use the hashtag #UCFBusiness. Here’s George’s advice:

When someone says the word “business,” does your mind focus strictly on Fortune 500 companies that are famous for their giant factories, stores or office towers? Or do your horizons stretch a bit farther? Consider the day-to-day challenges of the clinics, schools, theatres and community centers in your neighborhood.

Yes, nonprofits are businesses, too. They don’t have the big budgets or big bureaucracy of corporate titans. But if you’re looking for a brief – and worthwhile – project to undertake during your winter break, knocking on the door of a local nonprofit could provide some surprisingly valuable business training.

Here’s what I learned in the past five years from serving on the boards of two small California nonprofits. These organizations’ leaders (executive directors) tend to be smart, dedicated, down-to-earth people. They like getting things done. They’re working miracles every month with lean staffs and even leaner resources. Yet there’s always something important that keeps getting deferred, because available time and money can’t stretch any farther. Perhaps it’s a grant application that needs to be filled out. Or a website that ought to be updated. Or maybe some budgeting and financial modeling that sits on someone’s desk, incomplete.
The lists can go on and on. In board meetings, executive directors will talk hopefully and ruefully about all the extra initiatives that could happen if they had one more smart, college-educated person who could pitch in.

You are that person. In the course of a couple weeks on winter break, you can help write that grant, organize that list of key donors, get that Twitter account kicking into gear – or whatever else needs to be done. All you need to do is make it easier for the executive director to give you a desk and a handshake than to shoo you away.

So, start by visiting for a list of nonprofits in your area. Pull up the interesting groups’ latest annual report, known as an IRS Form 990, to get the names and contact information of the organization’s top leaders. (These forms are on Guidestar.) If you like finance, spend a little time analyzing those numbers and thinking of ways you could add value. If you’re more of a marketing type, visit the organization’s website. Check out its presence (or non-presence) on Twitter, Facebook and the like. Think about ways the organization could start a Google keywords ad campaign, if it isn’t doing so already. Then email or phone the executive director, explaining to him or her that you like the organization. Propose some specific ways that you could help during your break, free of charge. If you’re in the neighborhood, pay a visit.

There’s no way of knowing whether such prospecting will pay off 20% of the time, or 70%, or something in between. But your odds of success are far better than zero. Most executive directors of these organizations would be absolutely thrilled to have a bright, college-educated person who could come in, pro bono, and take command of a two-week project.

Get something done in the nonprofit world, and you’ve got a great new element to add to your resume. You’ve also made valuable friends in the community, who may point you toward other career opportunities. And you’ve tested your classroom knowledge in a real-world setting. Those big companies on the covers of magazines may take years to hire you for your dream job. But a small nonprofit may need only 10 minutes to decide that it’s worth taking a chance on you. And – because these organizations are hardly giants, you can go start-to-finish on your project in a very reasonable amount of time. Let the executive director know that you’re working within the the time frame of winter break, and you can probably accomplish something exciting and still have some personal time to enjoy as well.


One thought on “Advice from George Anders: The Volunteer’s Edge

  1. Absolutely!! Thank you Dean Jarley for getting this important message out. As a member of numerous nonprofit boards, I know just how true George’s words are. I know what a difference a few days of volunteer time can make. I know how fulfilling it is to know you are making a difference in the world with your time supporting a nonprofit. And learning a little about what it means to bootstrap!

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