Some of my most rewarding voluntary work has been as trustee and director of a charity – helping the organisation make good business decisions that benefit its cause.

Over the years, I’ve gained more than the warm-and-fuzzy feelings I initially signed up for. Being a trustee has helped my career and helped me attract clients.

If you haven’t volunteered because you don’t like the idea of stuffing envelopes or rattling collection boxes – you’ve got the wrong idea. Charitable organisations have sophisticated business needs with limited budgets to meet them. There’s one out there waiting to take advantage of the skills you offer and would love to use outside your normal job.

People often forget that charities are businesses, which means they need real leadership from experienced businesspeople. The boards of directors are made up of trustees – also known as governors or committee members. However, many charities don’t have the right experience or skills sitting on their boards – maybe partly because you aren’t there.

This week, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations is hosting events to raise awareness of the opportunities that people from all walks of life can take advantage of as trustees.

I didn’t stuff a single envelope in my five-year role as trustee at Children with Aids Charity. However, I did help guide the organisation’s strategy, run marketing campaigns, connect them to useful people and suppliers, help them recover after a burglary and raise funds at events.

Best of all, I had the flexibility to fit this stuff around a busy lifestyle – as long as I went to a meeting once a quarter and signed a cheque now and then – the rest was up to me.

Some of the ways professional skills support a charity

  • Financial management and dealing with auditors
  • Website and software management
  • Training for staff and beneficiaries
  • Counselling and coaching senior managers
  • Social media stuff
  • Negotiate significant discounts with suppliers
  • Fundraising strategy
  • Networking – introducing them to people
  • PR and marketing support

My point is – some charities desperately need a lot of the things you do well at work. Maybe it’s time to look into a serious volunteering opportunity?

Things I gained from being a trustee

Learning to be a director, not just a manager

I had sound management skills from my everyday work. These eventually got in the way because I’d get too hands-on whenever I saw a problem. That meant spending time and energy I didn’t have to spare on battles I was destined to lose. I was taught to step back and have the confidence to facilitate and guide, rather than act. This also taught me how to get less emotionally involved when managing people.

Improving the skills I loved using

My first exposure to the charity was through volunteering at an event. I ended up involved in it events management – an area I had experience of but didn’t get opportunities in.

Before I started working in branding, I combined my PR and design experience to help the organisation update its identity. Doing this at a charity exposed me to the emotions, opinions and behaviour a consultant doesn’t usually see during the branding process. It was a surprisingly emotional experience that prepared me for some of the tougher projects I’d face in my career.

Meeting fascinating/wonderful/strange people

Thanks to charity events, I’ve got stories of bending spoons with Uri Geller, smoking with grumpy Burt Kwouk, being used as an armrest by Jonathan Ross and there’s even a Biggins story…

I worked alongside Douglas Adams’ widow on a legal issue that involved Michael Jackson and got to meet some big names in the world of HIV and AIDS awareness.

There were several amazing and inspirational staff, beneficiaries and patrons over the years. I also met one of my best friends on that board and still see some of the team regularly, eight years after I left.

A team of wonderful volunteers at a charity ball.

Improving my CV and prospects

Being able to talk about real-life management challenges and successes at interviews helped me get progress from practitioner to director. It’s difficult to gain management skills when you’re up to your eyes in client work every day – the skills I developed in my own time mattered equally to employers.

I serve a lot of charities now, including some of the world’s most famous names. I’m not sure I’d have done so without my stint as trustee. My experience doesn’t just decorate my CV; I have the insight needed to adapt techniques and processes for the third sector, which helps me bring in charity clients. I’d say I’ve had an incredible return on the investment of unpaid trustee hours!

Learning business skills I wasn’t getting at work

Business finance was something I needed to get to grips with but found boring and intimidating. As a trustee, one of my responsibilities was to make sure the charity had the money it needed to operate. By working alongside people with the right experience, I accidentally learned about profit and loss, balance sheets, tax and other boring stuff that helps me now.

Helping other people get involved

Although I’ve roped friends into marathons, bike rides and charity balls, I’ve usually encouraged people to use their professional skills to benefit charities. They’ve found the experience rewarding, while the charities I’ve worked with have found this invaluable.

Learn more about being a trustee.