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Making volunteerism a win-win

The lessons I’ve learned through my volunteering experience have often cross-pollinated my corporate work, and vice-versa
CSR, volunteering
The most important consideration while volunteering is to determine what you’re passionate about and how you can align that passion with your career goals. Shutterstock

By Suanne Nielsen

I’ve actively volunteered virtually every year of my career, which spans over 30 years. When I lived in Hamilton, Ont., in my early years of HR, I worked there for an insurance company. Through my work, I started volunteering to speak to students and faculty at Mohawk College which earned me a good reputation as a public speaker.

But my first, most significant volunteer role was with the United Way in Hamilton-Burlington. At the time, the organization was undergoing a transformation. There was a demand to be more accountable to donors and institute more rigorous selection methods for agencies it would support.

I got passionately involved in ensuring United Way’s accountability to its donors. Initially, I volunteered on their agency relations committee and soon secured a role on their board.

The organization also drew immense media fire because its president at the time was also the president of the one of the agencies who received funding. Clearly, this was a conflict of interest.

I was a hard-working volunteer who not only cared for its cause and its challenges, but also demonstrated translatable business acumen. As such, during the media crisis, the organization turned to me for help.

Almost immediately, I was asked to step in as president. I was a senior HR leader at that point and was required to face the media scrutiny. This gave me a rare opportunity, very early on in my career, to provide leadership to the organization. An opportunity I would not have had otherwise.

It increased my profile in the local community but, most importantly, it pushed me to step up in a critical way. This was a watershed moment for me as it paved the way for my first vice-president of HR role in the corporate world.

In early 2000, after moving to Toronto with a new job, I could no longer stay on United Way’s board in Hamilton-Burlington. This was when I became actively involved with SCNetwork, a volunteer-run non-profit geared towards HR professionals and business leaders in the industry.  Over the years, I volunteered as a presenter of events, as a panellist representing HR executives, and chaired the corporate subscriber group.

I joined SCNetwork because I was committed to the HR profession. Through my work in the insurance and financial sector, I was deeply rooted in a knowledge-based industry that is heavily reliant on people. People are the biggest leverage point for any organization’s success and HR is the biggest leverage point for people.

Later, I began volunteering for Daily Bread Food Bank as one of their board members. I also chaired their HR committee and sat on their nominating committee.

By way of corporate social responsibility, all organizations have (or should have) programs through which they give back to the community. One of the easiest ways is by donations, but I wager that when you give back through volunteerism, it’s a win-win for both the organization for which you’re volunteering, for your own organization, and for your own professional growth.

When I was leading the Daily Bread HR committee, it was dealing with several important HR issues and the organization stood to benefit by me being in that role. For me, this facilitated learning, while giving back.

The most important consideration while volunteering is to determine what you’re passionate about and how you can align that passion with your career goals. With United Way, I thought that the insurance industry was a respectable sector that was growing fast in Hamilton-Burlington, especially at a time when the steel industry there was declining. It was time for us as an industry to step up and help these important agencies.

For Daily Bread, I was passionate about its whole mission. It’s commonly believed that Daily Bread’s purpose is solely to provide food to those who need it. In reality, its mission is to eradicate the need for food banks.

While most people think about it in terms of food donations, what they don’t know is that Daily Bread works with government at all levels to change social policy around issues related to housing — to make housing affordable so people don’t have to rely on foodbanks.  Now that’s something I could get passionate about!

As a professional volunteer, I have found that the lessons I’ve learned through my volunteering experience have often cross-pollinated my corporate work and vice-versa. Corporations need an efficient and multi-skilled talent force for the development of their businesses. The people you meet in the non-profit sector through volunteering could be beneficial contacts for the development of your corporate business.

You may meet prospective suppliers or partners who can help grow your business. If you’re an independent consultant, volunteering provides a fertile learning opportunity that could turn into a future client base.

I’ve always held that one must always lead with a “business mind.” This applies to the HR profession constantly because HR doesn’t always get a seat at the corporate table to provide financial insights or business strategies.

However, they can apply these untapped skills and expertise into a non-profit agency through volunteer roles. Organizational lessons learned through volunteer positions can be brought back to the corporate table with earned credibility. If the corporation is going through struggles like those you’ve encountered through your non-profit work, you can bring that strategic or financial literacy back to the business crisis.

When volunteering, my rule of thumb is to do due diligence to the organizations or causes you support. There are a lot of well-meaning organizations that may not be well run or may be in financial trouble. It’s important to reach out to the people within the organization. For example, if you start out as a volunteer packing or sorting food boxes for Daily Bread (a common beginner’s task), take the initiative to have informational meetings with the rest of the staff to gain an understanding of the organization’s projects, its hierarchy, its true mandate, and its daily workings.  

Currently, as president of SCNetwork, I’m privileged to have the support of dedicated volunteers in our organization (also my peers) from whom I continually learn about HR as a business practice. I give back by way of information sharing. Since its inception, SCNetwork has been known to consistently deliver access to a like-minded community and thought-leadership.

To volunteer for SCNetwork, attend our next event on Valentine ’s Day and learn how ageing and longevity, career ownership, the freelance economy, the rise of platforms, and jobs of the future — the five key drivers — are defining the Future of Work. Our speaker, Lisa Taylor, founder of the Challenge Factory, has identified these five trends and will share how HR is being shaped by them:

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Suanne Nielsen

Suanne Nielsen is president of the Strategic Capability Network and global chief administration officer at Foresters Financial in Toronto. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Suanne and do not necessarily reflect the official position(s) or opinion(s) of SCNetwork members or Foresters. For more information about the SCNetwork, visit
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