No Such Thing as Altruism?

Volunteering lands an inadvertent job opportunity

by David Davis

It was an argument that got people out of their chairs and yelling, a verbal war that pitted students’ basic moral principles against one another. In retrospect, our professor set the class up for this, delivering the carefully crafted position with a half-smile and more or less throwing gasoline onto the fire any time the debate seemed to be burning down. At issue was the assertion that there’s no such thing as altruism.

While I recognize this was largely an act of rhetorical skullduggery, the argument still comes to mind once in a while. I continue to disagree with it, though circumstance sometimes makes that difficult.

Value in volunteerism

A few years ago, I was appointed to serve on my city’s environment commission. The organization did (and still does) a lot of interesting work, much of which overlapped in one way or another with my quality roles:

  • We analyzed metrics to recommend and later assess initiatives to increase recycling rates.
  • We learned standards—in this case, the city’s existing building code, new national codes and a green building code from an adjacent jurisdiction—and developed plans for integrating them.
  • We identified key stakeholders from across the building and real estate industries to understand their needs and integrate them into our recommendations.

I also made some important connections with local volunteer groups, such as local watershed organizations, a wildlife group and service groups from several religious congregations.

At an event near the end of my term on the commission, my efforts to serve the community did something I hadn’t anticipated: They benefited me directly.

Commission members, volunteers and city staff had a get-together to recognize a brilliant and dedicated city staffer who was leaving for the West Coast and the next phase of his career. I was catching up with the environment commission’s chair, who was a senior vice president for a consulting firm. I proudly mentioned I had just earned my certified quality auditor credential. Her face lit up, and the conversation changed abruptly.

Not long after, I was hired to work with her on a consulting project to develop and deploy a performance management strategy and audit program for a large federal client in the clean energy field.

Nuts. I meant to do something to benefit others and somehow was rewarded for it. The argument about the nonexistence of altruism came to mind, and I was momentarily irritated at myself for creating a data point that disagreed with my position. Still, I had learned something important.

In pursuit of my original altruistic goal, I learned that many volunteer organizations need—often without realizing it—the kinds of knowledge and skills quality professionals use every day at the office or on the shop floor.

Nonprofit groups may struggle to demonstrate quantitatively the benefit they’re producing. This becomes a serious problem when nonprofits must compete with one another and government or the private sector for grants.

Public and private sector organizations often have professional staff members who understand project planning, metrics, finance and how those elements fit together. Smaller nonprofit groups seldom have that kind of bench strength.

I also discovered that volunteering is an opportunity to cultivate and show off your best professional qualities. The right volunteer work ignites and fuels our passions. These are the endeavors we make time for after a long day at the office. We’re willing to sacrifice time with our families for these pursuits.

The people we work with in volunteer groups see us inspired to create, solve problems, go the extra mile, and get up and try again when things don’t go our way. A good volunteer role is not only a means for contributing to your community, but also is the best job interview anyone could ask for.

Following suit

If you’d like to accidentally land a job by volunteering your quality skills, keep in mind differences in organizational culture among nonprofit groups and private firms or government agencies.

Leaders and veterans of the nonprofit organization may be wary—even dismissive—of any methods that come from business. Similarly, people may equate government work with certain political or policy positions, or with onerous bureaucracy. And for many, their volunteer work is essentially recreational work. The proposal of new administrative steps, quantitative methods or change in general may seem distasteful.

Some specific considerations to keep in mind while introducing quality methods to volunteer organizations are:

  • Understand the organization’s purpose, needs and resources.
  • Focus on what challenges, constraints and resources actually are and not what they’re called.
  • Be ready to work on anything and everything. In volunteer organizations, those who do the work often wear many hats.

And, of course, do it for the greater good. Your good works may not earn you anything directly, but there is great value in being a quality evangelist and in serving your community.

David Davis is a team lead in the energy and environmental fields at New West Technologies in Washington D.C. He has a master’s degree in management from the University of Maryland University College in Adelphi. A senior member of ASQ, Davis is an ASQ-certified quality auditor and manager of quality and organizational excellence, and a Project Management Institute-certified project management professional.

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