Starting a business often requires a steep learning curve when it comes to understanding your customers, the channels to reach them and the market you’re in. This challenge can seem even trickier if you’ve recently relocated, as I had when I decided to launch my own marketing consultancy. With no trusty address book of local suppliers, no local media contacts to call on and of course, no portfolio of projects, I had a lot of work to do. So it might seem counterintuitive that I decided to add to that workload by choosing to volunteer for some local charities. But in fact, despite creating a bit of a juggling act, volunteering has created opportunities for my business that I never expected.
Like many people returning to work after a long break, I struggled to regain my confidence after maternity leave. There were times when I wasn’t even sure what day it was, let alone how to tackle a marketing strategy. By offering my expertise on a very part-time, voluntary basis, I was given a chance to build that confidence back up in a much less pressured environment than if I was in a fee-earning position. I felt the benefit of the experience in so many areas that had gone neglected – written communication, presenting, even my creativity. It was important to deliver what I promised to the charities, and even that rigour of fulfilling a commitment on time and to a certain standard was a skill I had to sharpen. However, the relationship as a volunteer rather than a supplier meant that what was agreed was very manageable.
On a practical level, volunteering has given me a chance to get to know local suppliers and media, build up my network, learn about local events, find out more about the sectors these charities work in, and gain a better understanding of the local market. I may not have earned a penny from the work, but the skills, insights and contacts that I’ve earned are hard to put a value on. I’ve also since found paid work directly at the charities, most recently supporting a team after their marketing officer left.
As my business grows, I will inevitably have less time to do voluntary work, but I certainly won’t stop completely. There have been plenty of studies (including this interesting one in Harvard Business Review) that show the benefits of volunteering, and I have seen them clearly. While I still have something to offer to these charities, it’s a strategy I intend to continue pursuing, for my business and for myself.