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Five Steps to Leverage Community Involvement to Build Leadership Skills

Upon my graduation from the University of Florida, one of my bosses and mentors encouraged me to get involved in the community through volunteerism, because it would help broaden my skills and experiences as a public relations professional.   

I got involved with the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the Florida Public Relations Association (FPRA) shortly after our discussion. When my first crisis management situation occurred at the Florida Museum of Natural History, I was prepared to deal with 150+ police officers in riot uniforms, the museum’s leadership, and 60+ Native American Indian protestors who were led by Russell Means, founder of the American Indian Movement, and star of the film “The Last of the Mohicans.” Without the leadership skills I built as a volunteer, we might not have turned around the protest against the museum’s Christopher Columbus exhibit in a peaceful manner.

Since then I have made it a point to be involved with nonprofit organizations nationally and internationally to expand my skills and understanding of various topics. The experiences and knowledge gained have been profound and eventually led to me becoming an HR & Diversity leader.

Over the years, I have helped coach and get other people involved with nonprofits and serve on boards. It has been amazing to watch them build confidence by finding their voices and grow professionally as speakers, people leaders, project managers, and advocates on community issues.

In addition, I have worked with companies to build community programs connected to corporate diversity, talent development, and community relations initiatives. Some companies didn’t realize, until faced with major employment or environmental challenges in their communities, the power of employee involvement in volunteerism and advocacy. While these companies had established relationships in the communities in which they did business through their Community Relations offices, they had not connected their efforts with the Talent Management or Diversity Office, but were relying only on senior executives for involvement.

Once the companies understood that by partnering with the Talent or Diversity offices they could tap a whole new group of volunteers and future leaders, it opened a new world of possibilities. By engaging employee resource group/business resource groups (ERG/BRG) leaders or high potentials in nonprofit volunteer activities, these employees could develop leadership skills while making a difference in the community and advancing the companies’ philanthropic efforts. The companies not only benefited from the employees serving as spokes people, advocates, or knowledge experts; the employees developed critical skills that were transferable into everyday management/leadership roles like diplomacy, speaking to groups, listening, managing large scale projects or organizational budgets, etc.

If you are interested in helping to grow the leadership skills of your employees while having an impact in the community, the content that follows will help you get started. Here are some foundational steps you can take to help build high potential leaders through community involvement programs: 

1. Who to Engage in the Discussion

You will want to form a small committee that consists of a senior executive sponsor and representatives from the Talent Management, Community Relations, and Diversity Office. These individuals can be part of your working committee. You will want to start with a small group of high potentials who will be matched to those nonprofit organizations the company is already committed to financially. It will be critical to match the employees to causes that they may be interested in as well. You can also look at engaging ERG/BRG leaders to serve on local nonprofits but my recommendation is that you start with a small group of high potentials and build from there.

2. Establish a Process for Selecting Candidates

There are three possible groups of employees to engage in community leadership roles. The three groups include: a) Senior executives already in place but who could benefit from being involved with a community cause to soften their leadership skills, b) High potentials—the upcoming leaders in the company who have strong management skills but may need to develop in other areas like coalition building, influencing skills, public speaking or people management skills and c) ERG/BRG leaders who are in the frontline or middle management. These people may not be identified as high-potential employees, but show leadership skills. Most organizations focus on developing high potentials because this is the group that could generate the highest ROI both personally and professionally, and the company has already determined they are the next generation of managers, directors or vice presidents.

3. Select the Nonprofit Partners and Assess the Financial Commitment

The Community Relations or Corporate Foundation needs to identify the non-profits that best align with the company’s core values and which will provide a stretch assignment for the employees to serve on the board or lead a project with. Identify seven to 10 nonprofits, these should be ones that the company already has a financial commitment of $10K to $100K+. The larger the non-profit the greater the financial commitment will be.  I recommend focusing on nonprofits that you have a $15K to $45K financial commitment with and which the company has partnered with for at least two years. So, identify which areas you will focus on (i.e. education, human services, engineering talent, sustainability, etc.). Once you identify the organizations you are going to partner with you will want to engage them in a conversation to determine their board selection process.  

4. How to Prep Individuals

You will need to prepare your candidates by briefing them on past donations and activities supported by your company. Get their input on what nonprofits they may be most interested in. You will need to match your candidates to the nonprofits and give the candidates an opportunity to connect with the nonprofit board. The employee/candidate needs to be prepared to also make a time commitment to the nonprofit by attending meetings and activities, as well as taking on an active role in the organization. From a corporate perspective, the company will need financially support the employee who accepts the board role, and provide guidance on what activities will and won’t be supported.

5. What is ROI? What Goals Should You Set? 

There are two types of ROI you should consider when trying to measure the success of the program. First, think about the leadership skills that you would like the employee to develop through his/her involvement in the nonprofit. Align these expectations with their performance goals. Secondly, think through the kind of partnership you would like to build with the nonprofit and the kinds of activities you will support. For example, if you are trying to increase the company’s number of minority engineers, then how will the relationship with the nonprofit help you meet that goal or objective. Will you host events in partnership with the nonprofit; will you launch a mentoring program or internship program to attract more engineers? You will want to align your relationship with the nonprofit and HR objectives or business goals.

Sources to tap:

Neddy Perez is a member of i4cp’s Chief Diversity Officer Board.

This article was previously published on LinkedIn.