“Once I’ve climbed the ladder I’ll finally be in a position to give something back”.

How many times have you heard this one? Maybe you’ve even said it yourself? We all want to give back to our communities, to serve others, and to go to bed at night with the warm fuzzy glow that comes from a day spent doing wonderful things for the world.

But we put it off. We’re so busy forging our careers and caring for our families that serving the community becomes a bucket list activity, and something we’ll finally be able to dedicate ourselves to when our kids have grown up or once we’ve realized our professional ambitions.

What if we’ve got it wrong though?

What if serving the community is actually the key to success, personally and professionally?

I have a graduate degree in Organizational Leadership and I have experienced many leadership opportunities during my career but, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my most meaningful education in leadership has come as a direct result of my involvement in my community.

Flushing toilets.

Talk about starting at the bottom! I spent the summer of my junior year in college interning in the Public Affairs office of Fred Meyer (prior to the acquisition by Kroger), and somehow ended up flushing toilets. Luckily other duties involved writing press releases, designing an internal communication newsletter, giving money and crucially, asking for $10,000 sponsorships.

I worked with the Environmental, Public Relations, Community Affairs and Development teams and loved every minute (toilet duty aside). More importantly I learned the power of corporate philanthropy and how to ask for money for a cause.

This was my first foray into what would become a springboard of community investment and career development. It was a huge eye-opener.

Since then I have served in Board roles for Colleges and Universities, social service agencies, political action committees, and even a non-profit financial institution. I have volunteered at events, I have delivered Meals on Wheels, and I have read to first-graders. On every single occasion I have taken away a valuable lesson that I can apply to how I live my life and how I do my job.

I believe it could do the same for you.

Making the most of your community involvement.

Of course, the service to others is its own reward. However, there is nothing wrong with approaching volunteering with a sound strategy. Not only will you take away new leadership skills and ideas for how to improve your professional performance, you’ll also provide more value to the people and organizations you’re there to help.

To give you an idea of what to expect and to help you make the most of your community time, I’ve outlined key leadership lessons I’ve learned from my years of volunteering:

  • A sense of urgency.

    While the pace of private industry may be quick and the urgency real, the sense of urgency that emerges in community work may truly be life and death problems. Talk about perspective!


  • Mentor and be mentored.

    When you have earned a seat at the Board Room table, begin with a commitment to learning. Listen, learn, and then lead. Watch the dynamics of the room, paying close attention to the words and actions of your fellow Board members. If you are a young community leader, shape your leadership style after those that are effective. Never forget what ineffective leadership looks like and avoid reflecting those actions (or inactions). Perpetuate what you want to see more of in our community. Don’t miss an opportunity to mentor as often as you can.


  • Teams matter.

    As an unpaid volunteer, you simply can’t accomplish everything the organization may need, but in a team or a small group, your combined super powers will undoubtedly make a much larger impact.  


  • Sell, sell, and sell some more.

    We are always selling. We sell ideas at work and we sell our perspective in our personal relationships. As a Board member or an advocate for a community organization, you sell the mission of the organization whether you’re asking for contributions, sign ups, or any other form of support. Watch those who do this well and take note of what they say, how they say it, and the body language they use. You’ll quickly realize the power of selling a cause will compel you to overcome any doubt you may have about asking someone for something.     

Every one of these lessons has had a direct impact on how I show up at the office, ready to work. I convey a sense of urgency (even when it’s not a case of life or death), I watch for mentors and mentor others whenever possible, I recognize the value of a team, and I’ve learned how to sell. I’ve made connections that have enriched my life and my career. I am a steadfast champion for my community but I have received far more than I’ve given.

If I’d waited until I’d achieved my career goals before giving back, I would have missed out on so many of the lessons that have made me the effective leader I am today.

As we approach the season of giving, and as you begin to consider your 2019 career goals, I urge you to always choose community. Not only will the community benefit but I guarantee you, you’ll benefit as a leader as well.  

Lisa Keohokalole Schauer is a Regent at Washington State University, a Board Director for the Children’s Center and a Founder of H-RoC. If you are interested in connecting in your community but you need someone in your corner, Lisa can help!