I’m the first person to say that volunteering should be done for the sake of others, and not for personal gain. The act of service should inherently not be selfish.
However, research shows that people benefit when they serve others… and even companies that sponsor volunteer programs realize surprising benefits when they encourage these activities.
We’ve even published before that everyone wins when people are more selfish in their service. But beyond the personal benefits that come with volunteering, one of the most profound benefits that people realize through volunteering is becoming more innovative.
How does serving others make you more innovative? It’s science – seriously!
According to the publication Scientific American,
Decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers show that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups – Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.
When you volunteer, you expose yourself to lots of different types of diversity at once: people, professional, cultural, organizational to name a few. This exposure to diversity improves your ability to work with diversity in the future. And, as research shows, diverse teams are the best teams. According to professor Katherine W Phillips:
The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think. This is not just wishful thinking: it is the conclusion I draw from decades of research from organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers.
If, for no other reason, volunteering makes you more innovative because it exposes you to more things. However, volunteering also makes you more innovative because of the skills you develop by volunteering.
Indeed, the simple act of volunteering is also proven to help you develop new skills that combine to make you more innovative. A growing body of leading thinking published by Harvard, Fast Company, The Muse, and leading authors like Scot Kaufman, Keith Sawyer, and Eric Barker show that developing the following traits are correlated to helping you grow as a more innovative leader:
- Thirst for learning
- Being culturally and emotionally aware
In our own research, and in research published by others that cover volunteer activities, volunteering actually helps you develop in each of these 7 categories:
1. Volunteering makes you more humble
By exposing you to others, it shows you how much you have. In also shows you how many different way there are to solve problems, helping you realize your way is not the only way. It also connects you to the human side of things, which research shows to develop more humility. This breeds humility, which in turn breeds innovation.
2. Volunteering make your more empathic
Working with people from different areas help you create social bonds, which make you more empathic to more people. Especially for those that volunteer overseas or other very diverse settings, building bonds to more cultures and social groups help you develop your empathy. According to the book, Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential – and Endangered, “Another important factor is ongoing exposure to different types of people. Diverse, multicultural schools and communities can help children become familiar with people of other races, socioeconomic classes, religions and cultures. Familiarity is a great way to increase empathy…”
3. Volunteering helps you grow your network
By volunteering, you connect with people from very different settings, industries, skills sets, and often times, parts of the world. The network you build as a result will help you professionally and socially. However, it also exposes you to lots of new ways of doing things which will make you better at networking in the future, and more innovative in the process. As Adam Grant highlights in his best-selling book, Give & Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success
“If we create networks with the sole intention of getting something, we won’t succeed. We can’t pursue the benefits of networks; the benefits ensue from investments in meaningful activities and relationships.”
4. Volunteering makes you a better learner
To only way to get better at learning is to practice learning. When you volunteer, you have to learn new things. The more you do it, the more you get better at learning in all avenues of life. Quickly learning on a volunteer project will make you better at quickly learning on your job and future work projects. Becoming better at learning also makes you more innovative.
5. Volunteering makes you more creative
Often times, when you volunteer, you are spending time with people and organizations that have less, and as a result, have had to be very creative using limited resources. Necessity is the mother of invention. By working with people that use different tools, systems, language, and cultures, you’ll learn to be a better listener and more collaborative. In exchange, you learn new insights and ways of doing things that make you more innovative. In the book Wired to Create, author Scot Kaufman shares that
” ‘openness to experience’ is the number one thing to cultivate for both personal meaningful creativity and world changing creativity”.
6. Volunteering makes you better at collaborating
Exposing yourself to different personalities while volunteering makes you better at connecting with other people in the future. In fact, the act of interacting with people from different cultures will boost your emotional intelligence – this enables you to better understand other situations you’ll encounter in the future, and your ability to innovate through them.
Finding the right volunteering project to make you more innovative
In a previous post, Leveraging Your Volunteer Experience, we shared a number of people with powerful volunteer stories, as well as recommendations on how to find your own. Here are some things to think about (and yes, it is OK to be selfish in picking your next service opportunity).
1. Pick a project that will expose you to very different scenarios
Never lived abroad? Try volunteering overseas or Experteering
Live and work in downtown? Look for opportunities in nature or the country.
Work in a big team? Try volunteering on a small project or as an individual contributor.
2. Find a project that will connect you to a new network of people
Don’t just volunteer with your company, alumni, or existing groups. Look for a new group, try volunteering on your own so you’re forced to meet new people, and find a project that will attract other volunteers or stakeholders that are of interest to you.
3. Use your skills
Experteering or “Skills-based volunteering” will put your existing skills to work in a new and diverse setting, forcing you to improve them. You can use platforms like MovingWorlds, Skills for Change, CatchaFire, and Linkedin For Good to connect with real projects.
4. Stretch beyond your comfort zone
While we can’t urge you enough to make sure you will make a positive impact, it’s normal to feel beyond your comfort zone. This is healthy. While you should absolutely make sure you can make a positive impact, the more you can stretch yourself in the experience, the better.
5. Connect with the people you’re helping
Partner with your beneficiaries in an empathetic way, not sympathetic. Be aware that you probably have a single story of them, and you should strive to build a real relationship with those you’re supporting, and realize that you have as much to learn as they from you.
6. Set intentions and reflect on your experience
When you start your experience, be sure to set goals for the things you’ll learn, people you’ll meet, and opportunities you’ll connect with. Afterwards, reflect on the things you experience and how they’ll influence you moving forward. There are many resources about how to reflect on your experience once you finish.
The truth is, we live in a time where a lack of empathic and globally minded leaders is hindering our progress. By giving your time and skills today, you can help solve real challenges while growing into the type of innovative leader that the world needs you to be.
Need help finding projects? Here are skills-based projects overseas.