How Being a Volunteer Made Me a Better Project Manager

How Being a Volunteer Made Me a Better Project Manager


How Being a Volunteer Made Me a Better Project Manager
How Being a Volunteer Made Me a Better Project Manager

Taking the time to volunteer for causes and organizations that are in need of a helping hand has been something that has defined my life, and which I take great pride in. As a student, I spent many evenings after class being part of a campus clubs (& student government), in my early years as a young professional I joined JCI THOE (helping to empowering young people to create positive change), and recently I organize networking events to connect Project Managers in Belgium and share professional advice across disciplines & generations (Pint of PM). 

Each of these experiences have been transformative in both making a meaningful impact to the community that I was a part of, but also at an individual level helping me to go "beyond my comfort zone". Looking back in retrospect, these experiences have helped me to become a better project manager and professional – because after all “do good and good will find its way back to you”

Here are a few skills that I learned as a volunteer, and that followed me into my professional journey:

1. Learning About Resourcefulness

Most volunteer organizations are understaffed, under-resourced but wanting to make as meaningful impact as possible. For this reason, volunteer organizations are constantly on the look-out for skilled professionals and offer great stretch learning experiences. There is a lenience to offer positions with relatively higher responsibility to those who may not necessarily have all of the qualifications to take on a similar role at work.

Not to mention that the environment is cash-constrained. I mean think about it, volunteer organizations typically don’t have heaps of cash and generous budgets to throw around. Therefore volunteer PMs, must very quickly learn about resourcefulness. Not to worry because as Tony Robbins says:

it’s not resources but resourcefulness that ultimately makes the difference

Resourcefulness is not only about doing more with less, but it is about the realization that you can do more with less because you are more capable than you first believed – this type of perspective unleashes a project team’s creativity, innovation, intra-preneurship – and will make you see beyond what is possible to achieve your goals!

2-Understanding Motivation Through Deep Listening

You are not paid for your time as a volunteer, and so if your expectations are not met it is easy to part ways with the organization. This makes the role of leading volunteer teams extremely tricky. We already know that working in a matrix environment is tough (usually two chains of command, one along functional lines and the other along project, product, or client lines) well imagine that same scenario, but where nobody receives a salary for their work. How can you engage the team to drive performance? Some would say to focus on:

-Recognition and Appreciation 


-Clear roles & responsibilities

All of these are correct, but one skill that has been extremely useful is learning to listen – specifically deep listening. Deep listening is a process of actually listening to learn. It requires the temporary suspension of judgment, and a willingness to receive new information – whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This approach allowed me to take the time and understand the reason why each volunteer has shown up and wanted to be part of the cause (and it is not necessarily related to the altruistic motive but also for personal development, networking, or perhaps even to make friends). 

Deep listening coupled with an ability to align new and interesting opportunities for the volunteers will help you to connect to each team member’s inherent drivers and motivations to participate in the project. This in turn can be followed-up on to effectively provide them with the needed development opportunities to drive meaningfulness of their work and their sense of personal responsibility for the outcome. Practicing deep listening will help you to develop your leadership style, trust with your team and their performance as volunteers!

3-Leadership with Purpose

Deloitte published on the “Purpose Driven Professional” stating that “Companies are seeking—and finding—ways to link talent development and rewarding, purpose-driven work, for both employee engagement and competitive advantage”. Most functional managers grapple with the task of inspiring their employees because they require results and the achievement of business goals. 

As a volunteer you engage with all kinds of people towards achieving a purpose bigger than yourself. And as the lead of a project you have to know your purpose-driven “business-case” down pact in order to inspire other to join the cause. As a volunteer PM you will be exposed to leading with a purpose, based on values and a deep beliefs practicing to create a jolt of positive energy that inspires your team. Such practice in a volunteer organization will naturally help you in leadership positions to see the higher purpose, but only the business objectives.

1-Gaining Relevant Experience to get Ahead

Last year I did a podcast with Management Plaza on how to gain your first project management experience. Especially because then (and still) job market is competitive and entry-level positions are in short supply. The unfortunate truth is that employers hesitate to hire untested workers, opting instead for experienced professionals. That leaves new graduates in a Catch-22 situation:

They need entry-level work experience to get a job, but they can’t get a job to earn that entry-level work experience

What are recent grads to do? Well, volunteer work helps to demonstrate a range of soft skills and experience without any professional experience. This experience can spice up your CV – and during an interview demonstrate that you have overcome problems, dealt with a mix of personalities and all while adjusting to situations outside of your comfort zone. This all adds up and helps to improve your teamwork, leadership, problem-solving and people skills. 

Here is the podcast that I did Frank Turley recent grads or young professionals wishing to get their first project management experience (LINK HERE). Moreover, wishing to change roles horizontally within your current organization, a volunteer roles could help you to gain some new competencies that otherwise you wouldn’t have the chance to delve into at work. If you are an engineer, and becoming a treasurer in a charity can offer the opportunity to become exposed to and understand finance issues.

2-Building Confidence in a Fail-Safe Environment

A fail-safe environment is a space that “in the event of a specific type of failure, inherently responds in a way that will cause no or minimal harm to other equipment, the environment or to people.” Volunteering provides a relatively safe space to learn, fail and develop skills. Practicing in such a fail-safe environment helps build confidence about one's own abilities - that perhaps cannot be so readily practiced at work (or if so with a potential risk on customer projects or reputation of the company).

 Practicing in the fail-safe environment helps you to hone in strengths and weaknesses, while also testing out new and creative ways of working. This enabled me to go beyond my comfort zone and develop into a better project manager - having experienced what works and what doesn't as a volunteer PM.

Fail-Safe learning environments can be replicated within a company to provide a safe and supportive space for employees to practice their project management skills. Creating the opportunity for an employee to take the lead of a social event or annual PM community conference enables employees to put theory into practice without risking the reputation of a client. Too often failure is viewed as taboo, something to run away from both in our work and in conversation.


From reading my previous articles, you may have seen that in 2013 I received the IPMA Young Project Manager of the Year Award. Sometimes volunteer projects are taken for granted in these types of competitions, but our team of volunteers had to overcome great challenges in leadership, communication and stakeholder engagement. 

Volunteer projects not only enabled me to make a difference in my community (helping many unemployed youth in Europe), but it also gave me the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than myself and in the process become a better professional and more effective Project Manager – what are you waiting for... find a cause worth joining!

The Author : Kamil Mroz

Kamil Mroz

About : 
I am an award-winning project leader with director-level & site-leadership experience, strong communication skills and a strategic long-term view enabling the connection between strategy and operational execution.

I am driven and energized by coaching, mentoring and developing talents, while overcoming transversal organizational challenges. My experience in people management has enabled me to discover my passion for the leadership of intercultural, diverse and technical teams composed of both direct reports and cross-functional matrix project teams. I have been awarded global distinctions from both the largest PM organizations, IPMA and PMI for advanced project management expertise, strong team work, communication & leadership.

I owe my servant leadership approach to the time I have dedicated to social and volunteer-causes where I focused on several high-impact philanthropic projects in Europe. I am also proud to have also been the first ever student to be awarded the Young Alumni of the Year by the Faculty of Engineering from the University of Ottawa and I also Chair of the ISPE BeNeLux Steerco on Project Management.

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post