Learning ‘off’ the job: recognising the value of volunteering as self-directed learning

It’s National Volunteering Week and we’d like to say a big thank you and a hooray for all volunteers, everywhere. The intrinsic importance of volunteering is more apparent than ever while we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic. It also links closely with learning and has recently come up in team conversations in several different contexts.

We like to interrogate the hidden connections between seemingly separate things at ML&C, so we’ve been asking ourselves the following:

  • how is learning in a volunteer role different to learning at work?

  • why do we not always recognise the skills we learn while volunteering (and in other parts of life, as a parent or in our hobbies) as having a value equal to those we develop at work?

  • as managers, how can we recognise the value of volunteering and the skills it helps us develop without reducing the importance of having a life outside work?

We started with self-directed learning and noted some articles that helped us to join the dots – read on to find out where they led us.

Self-directed learning and volunteering

Self-directed learning is an important concept in L&D (learning & development) and this article presents a good outline of it ’20 Steps Toward More Self-Directed Learning

You learn at your best when you have something you care about and can get pleasure in being engaged in” – Howard Gardner

Volunteering often fits this description from Howard Gardner. The article goes on to explain the benefits of self-directed learning. It got us thinking about why we might learn differently outside work compared to how we learn at work. When we have a personal connection to what we’re doing; when we’re identifying our own goals; when we’re monitoring our own learning process we’re involved in learning in a certain way. In our experience, it’s often different to training at work.

“There’s a huge amount of learning that tends to be downplayed if it’s not somehow delivered in a few very tight structures. This seemed a bit short-sighted even before the rapid change the world of work is going through now.” – Chris Pirie, Training Zone

Quote from Why the UK needs to Better Recognise Informal Learning Achievement

Informal learning and self-directed learning are different, but share some qualities that also crop up in volunteering. We often care about the cause we’re working towards; we define our own goals and we monitor or measure our own progress. In self-directed learning, informal learning and volunteering we’re constantly applying our skills.

Different motivations lead us to different skills, applied differently

We may have a chance to adapt our existing skills to a new environment when we’re volunteering, as in Paul’s volunteer story linked below, where he applied his HR background to HR policy development. Or we may learn entirely new skills, as in Wendy’s story of learning about archaeology and presentation skills at the Museum of London.

Paul’s volunteer story

Wendy’s volunteer story

These two stories (and countless others) helped us realise volunteers are often enthusiastic about applying their skills. Why is that? Because we’ve chosen to do this and we feel good to supporting others in a cause we care about. And why is applying our skills important? Because we don’t manifest the value of our skills until we apply them and get a tangible result.

As a manager, you may be asking ‘Are there possible benefits for our team or our company?’ Training Zone examined an aspect of this in a recent article on corporate volunteering, stating that

“[corporate] volunteering programmes can significantly assist in developing your employees’ confidence, people skills and productivity” Sophie van der Singel, Training Zone

The Benefits of Volunteers for UK Businesses – read the full article here.

Understandably, the article concentrates on the business’s point of view. It seems to miss an important point: those necessary skills are learned outside work in a way they might never be learned at work. People care about the issue they’re volunteering for. They witness the immediate need for the skills they’re mastering and they’re happy to apply their skills, see the results, get instant feedback and keep improving. All of this happens without over-engineering it.

If we turn volunteering into a necessary chore that’s an extension of work-life we risk losing the personal connection that makes this possible.

Looking after your people

Our ‘looking after your people’ approach would be to welcome whatever your team are willing to share about volunteering and their interests outside work. This is about discretionary effort; as soon as you make it mandatory you turn it into something else. Then, as a manager, look for ways to help them recognise and be recognised for the full extent of their skills.

So yes, encourage volunteering and informal skills development by letting your people determine their own curriculum and finding ways to amplify that. Listen to them and let them decide what they’re ready to bring to work; not the other way around.

Articles referenced: