pitching in togetherAs a new small business owner, your path to success will be shorter if you find viable—and affordable—ways to get your name out there, and build a network of strong professional connections.

When I transitioned from working as a product manager at a telecommunications company to a career as a freelance copywriter, I found volunteerism to be one of the most effective ways to accomplish those things.

Finding volunteer opportunities isn’t difficult; non-profit organizations are champing at the bit to add business-savvy professionals to their ranks. Finding the right opportunities that will enable you to further your business while giving back to the community, however, can be a bit more challenging.

Not Just Volunteerism—Strategic Volunteerism

Your time is limited as a small business owner, so you should choose your volunteer endeavors carefully. I say there’s nothing wrong with thinking, “What’s in it for me?” If you’re getting something more than just an “atta girl” from the experience, your business can reap some serious benefits. And the organization will find it has a more dedicated, engaged volunteer.

When deciding what organization(s) you want to donate your time and talents to, consider if they’ll provide ample opportunity to:

  • Connect with influencers in the community.
  • Develop your business acumen.
  • Hone your leadership skills.
  • Learn new technology tools.
  • Augment your industry knowledge.

Volunteering with organizations that enable you to do these things can generate awareness of your business, build credibility and trust with other professionals, and make you a stronger, smarter small business owner.

While organizations may have rules against explicitly promoting your company’s products and services through your involvement, volunteering can still help drive new business to you.

As you make new professional connections and demonstrate your capabilities and work ethic, you’ll likely gain referrals and customers. Although I don’t volunteer nearly as aggressively as I did in the past, I’m regularly landing projects and clients that otherwise wouldn’t have crossed my path had I not donated my time.

Easy Does It

According to the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2014, the U.S. volunteerism rate is 25.3 percent, the lowest in the 12-year history of the report. That means there’s a lot of work to be done by fewer volunteers.

Too much of a good thing (even donating time to a worthy cause) can be bad for business. Having simultaneously served on the executive boards of two organizations, the board of directors of one, and on two committees, I made the mistake of over-volunteering when I first started my business. That severely limited my ability to ramp up my client base as quickly as I would have liked.

Take care not to bite off more than you can chew. Do your homework and learn what’s REALLY involved before accepting a volunteer position. Make sure you set expectations and boundaries from the beginning.

By clarifying how much time you’re willing to spend and what responsibilities you can manage, you’ll help ensure volunteering results in a win-win for you and the organization.