Practice Makes Proficient: Volunteering Grows Competencies

A win-win for you and your organization

By Phyllis G. Hartman, SHRM-SCP February 13, 2020
woman raises hand to offer to volunteer

National Volunteer Month is coming up in April. It got me thinking about how my volunteer activities have helped me grow as a professional in HR.

When I volunteered to be president of my SHRM chapter in the late 90s, I learned a lot through one of my big successes: We changed our name from the Pittsburgh Personnel Association to the Pittsburgh HR Association (PHRA). That was not easy for an organization with 70 years of history in a conservative part of the country.Phyllis Hartman, SHRM-SCP

But I learned even more through my biggest failure: We didn't make budget and had to use our reserves for the first time in the chapter's recent history. I hadn't paid attention to the numbers, due to my lack of high proficiency in financial management at the time. Luckily, PHRA not only survived (we were probably top-heavy when it came to our reserves) but continued to thrive. We even won the SHRM Pinnacle Award in 1998, which recognized our achievements and contributions in serving HR professionals.

The experience of being a chapter leader gave me a chance to try my wings and develop my leadership competencies. I've spoken with many other SHRM volunteers over the years, and most agree that their experiences as a volunteer helped them grow.

Through volunteering, you can grow and even contribute to the economy. "Nonprofit organizations play a vital role in building healthy communities by providing critical services that contribute to economic stability and mobility," according to the Aspen Institute. "Strong, well-resourced nonprofits that are connected to the decision-making infrastructure in their communities can catalyze growth and opportunity."

You do need to be aware of some challenges you might face when you volunteer. First, volunteering takes time and energy that may not directly relate to your current HR role. Also, your boss may not support your involvement with activities outside the workplace.

When you're trying to decide how to invest your time and energy, consider three things:

  1. Volunteering has few direct costs. You may need to attend workshops or other courses to catch up on skills you need, but generally the expenses are low.
  2. Volunteering is active, thereby fulfilling my mantra that practice results in proficiency.
  3. Volunteering can generate goodwill when you contribute to the creation of better communities.

Volunteer activities may be an easier sell to your boss than you think. Corporate volunteerism is part of Corporate Social Responsibility, a functional area of HR Expertise, the SHRM technical competency. Share with your boss the benefits of offering employees opportunities to engage in corporate volunteerism:

  • Attracting younger workers who want to work for companies that make a difference.
  • Increasing employee loyalty, job satisfaction and engagement.
  • Giving employees the chance to develop new skills.
  • Helping build brand awareness.
  • Providing excellent networking opportunities.
  • Offering insight into nonprofits and other working methods.

Competency development is not a one-way street. Each of us has different needs, talents, resources and ambitions. By considering the wide range of volunteer activities that can help us develop our HR competencies, we can help our organizations, our communities and ourselves.

Examples of Volunteer Activities for HR Competency Development

Leadership & Navigation

  • Join a nonprofit board or apply to be an advisor to a small family-owned business board to observe other leaders and practice new skills.
  • Get involved with organizations dedicated to leadership development (e.g., National Management Association).

Ethical Practice
  • Get involved with organizations that promote ethics in the workplace (e.g., Institute for Global Ethics).
  • Volunteer for a nonprofit focused on addressing an ethical or social issue that you care about (e.g., homelessness, domestic violence).


Relationship Management

  • Engage in activities that expose you to people outside your normal sphere, so you can get to know them.
  • Attend non-HR meetings and events, where you can also enhance your professional network.
  • Work on community projects at organizations that do good (e.g., Habitat for Humanity).



  • Speak at a local school or to members of a professional or community organization about what you do or another topic of interest.
  • Get involved with organizations that can help you practice public speaking and improve your communication skills (e.g., Toastmasters International).


Global & Cultural Effectiveness

  • Get involved with organizations that focus on inclusion and diversity (e.g., National Diversity Council).
  • Join the board of a nonprofit that assists a group you want to help and learn more about (racial, social, ethnic, gender, disability, etc.).


Business Acumen

  • Get involved with or join the board of a nonprofit to contribute your business knowledge and to learn from other business volunteers there.
  • Assist the student chapter of a business organization. Consult Rasmussen College's list of Top Professional Associations for Business Students.




Critical Evaluation


Phyllis Hartman, SHRM-SCP, is an HR consultant in Freedom, Pa. She is the author of several books for the profession, including A Manager's Guide to Developing Competencies in HR Staff (SHRM, 2017).

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