Through blood drives, charity runs and other special events, there are ample opportunities to become immersed in the community through volunteerism.

We live in a generous community. Gifts of volunteers’ time and dollars are invaluable resources for nonprofit organizations in central Illinois. In fact, the sustainability of local nonprofit institutions is preserved through a solid base of volunteer and donor support, strategic board decision-making and impactful community outcomes.

For emerging leaders in the “Millennial” generation, volunteering offers added personal benefits through a sense of giving back, but other, less-recognized advantages also result. In the December 2011 issue of Forbes magazine, Karl Moore emphasizes that one of the most influential ways emerging leaders can learn and appreciate the type of leadership needed for professional growth up the corporate ladder is to do volunteer work early in their careers. This assertion emphasizes that the type of leadership needed at the top is comparable to being a leader of volunteers—one who relies less heavily on a carrot/stick mentality, but rather, focuses on the ability of individuals to grasp and follow one’s vision.

While central Illinois companies possess a strong spirit of philanthropy, and community volunteerism is encouraged at the leadership level, how does one begin to find opportunities for volunteer leadership outside company walls, or prior to ascending multiple rungs of the organizational ladder?

The Heart of Illinois United Way’s GENeration United (GEN U), an emerging leaders initiative, is committed to making our community stronger by cultivating young professionals and managers with opportunities to make a difference in their own backyards.

Volunteering is a key component of this vision. Since 2009, GEN U’s monthly volunteer opportunities have contributed approximately 3,000 hours of direct community service to local agencies, and the group has raised more than $40,000 for vital health and human service programs through the United Way Community Impact Fund. GEN U believes our local emerging leaders can be influential in the way they individually and collectively utilize their time and talents.

Nonprofit Board Service

Volunteering is more than attending a weekend service project or writing a check. One of the most impactful ways to volunteer is to join the dynamic world of nonprofit board leadership. Serving on a nonprofit board carries incredibly important responsibilities, and while it is certainly an honor, it is also a big commitment.

Board member criteria should be carefully considered before embarking on a promise of nonprofit board service. In fact, the expectations, responsibilities and liabilities should be clearly communicated. Understanding these expectations is one of the key educational goals of GENeration United’s newest program, Peoria BoardSERVE. Designed for people with limited board experience, this program will provide committed volunteers with a meaningful and productive way to share their professional expertise and personal passion with nonprofits looking to develop their boards. Time is another significant factor in board consideration; therefore, aligning your passions with the right nonprofit is key. A great benefit of being involved with nonprofit work at the board level is that you can leverage your skills to help them become stronger organizations. Such a commitment can align your interests, talents and experiences with an organization for which you are passionate.

Philanthropy is Good Business

The idea of “win-win” is a staple in business relationships. An emerging leader committed to volunteerism is also a win-win relationship. Individuals gain invaluable experience strengthening nonprofit organizations, while learning transferable skills that will suit them further along their own career paths. Businesses win, too, when they understand a basic but powerful concept: businesses that give back become businesses that move forward. Corporate social responsibility is the tagline, and a number of area organizations do it very well. The value of corporate philanthropy and volunteerism can be felt in areas like employee trust and loyalty, attraction and retention of talent, teamwork, productivity and business growth.

Retention of quality employees and loyal customers is key to the long-term success of any business. A recent study by consulting firm Walker Inc. demonstrates that businesses with a higher perception of a corporate giving program retained employees and customers with greater levels of loyalty. In fact, employees were four times more loyal and customers three times more loyal to businesses with more extensive corporate social responsibility programs. Offering programs that encourage employees to support organizations in their community is one extra benefit that makes them feel pride and satisfaction—and also makes them happier, more productive workers. Companies benefit by supporting employees who volunteer, recognizing their efforts and encouraging leaders to serve on committees and boards. GENeration United’s goal is to provide opportunities for emerging business leaders to become involved in impactful ways, which will in turn continue to contribute to additional win-win relationships.

Leadership for our Community

For emerging leaders, nonprofit organizations offer unique opportunities to learn intangible leadership skills. Volunteer work is not simply an outlet for employees in search of more meaning in their everyday lives, though it certainly provides that. Increased professional and social benefits can be found as more individuals invest in agencies and organizations established to better the community where we live, work and raise our families.

There are people in our community, many of whom, through no fault of their own, must rely on the assistance of human service agencies that work daily to provide aid programs. The United Way is committed to helping these individuals by investing in agency programs that demonstrate the greatest outcomes. GENeration United’s group of emerging leaders will continue to assist in this mission by providing opportunities to volunteer, give back and grow as influential, professional leaders in our community.iBi