The Benefits of Volunteering: Opportunities, Learnings and Experiences
When I first arrived in the US in May 2004, for the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) Annual Meeting in San Francisco, I was given some excellent advice from one of the founding members of SSP, Barbara Meyers Ford. I was adjusting to life in the US having been in China for the last four years and my boss at the time introduced me to Barbara. Barbara is always open to help, support and encourage people within this community. Her advice to me:
‘You should look to volunteer on one of the SSP committees, it’s a great way to network/meet people, and to keep up-to-date with the latest industry developments.’
(Barbara has written a couple of guest posts for Digital Science, her career advice post I think especially resonates across cultures and stakeholders.)
Taking on Barbara’s wise advice, in 2004 I volunteered on SSP’s Annual Meeting Program Committee. It was here I was lucky enough to work with industry veteran and former SSP President, Carol Anne Myers. We worked together on a panel session called, “The Journal of the Future” enlisting great visionaries from within the industry like Geoffrey Builder who explained how they saw the future of publishing. Sadly, I can’t find the archive to see how close we were to predicting the future, but suffice to say, as a planning group of speakers, moderators and shepherds, we had some formative discussions.
I stayed on the SSP Annual Program Planning committee for a few more years, working on topics like global publishing and the latest developments within the Chinese, Asian and South American publishing markets, to bring a more global speaker perspective to the meeting.
The good thing about volunteering on committees is there’s a rolling set of volunteers, some experienced, and others starting out their careers. Each year, the topics of interest of the meeting change and develop. As a volunteer, the main responsibility is to join a monthly call. The annual committee can be anywhere up to 20-25 people and during the planning and calls, you discuss both your own committee ideas for what will make interesting panel topics, you also review ideas that have been submitted by members, and you are assigned a session to manage/organize. As part of the planning committee, you also get a chance to work closely with colleagues in marketing, communications and sponsorship, sharing messages and updates more widely to members.
I continued to widen my volunteer experience and after a few years I was asked to co-chair the SSP IN meeting, an interactive and innovative meeting incorporating exercises and group learning activities.
As well as these experiences, I’ve also worked on a collection of other volunteering projects: An International Task Force – looking at ways to broaden membership and contributions from outside Europe and North America; SSP’s Regional Philadelphia meetings, the SSP Professional Development Committee – supporting and reviewing Fellowship Grants, and starting up a mentoring pilot program. I was also lucky enough too to be voted onto the SSP Board, and work at board level to help support and meet member needs, and set higher level vision/mission for SSP.
On top of this, I’ve also volunteered with ALPSP and the Council for Science Editors and I am an Associate Editor for Learned Publishing Journal. All of the above organizations offer excellent annual meetings with a chance to network, meet colleagues in person and hear the latest hot topics and issues the industry faces. These meetings really help bring the different stakeholders together, to share ideas, updates and hear different perspectives.
Making time to interact and volunteer for things outside your comfort zone enables you to learn more about yourself. You get to meet diverse groups of people, work on common goals, and over time, you realize what skills sets and unique strengths you bring to the table to help the community. In my personal life, both when I lived in China, and when I moved to the US, volunteering for local charities has served me well. I have worked with organizations across a number of areas ranging from supporting disabled and handicapped children, to animal rescues, and also arts and mural projects in the urban inner-city areas.
But with all this volunteering, and personal time and commitment, you may ask ‘what’s in it for me?’ Here are my reasons:
- You get to meet, network and become friends with some amazing people, making lifelong friendships.
- You get to work on topics with common goals across the community, which helps breaks down barriers, and gives you a feel good factor – helping and supporting the community you work and live within.
- Perhaps most importantly, career wise, it keeps you up-to-date with the latest issues and topics, and lets you communicate in a trusted way with peers outside of your own organization, giving added experience, knowledge and confidence.
Ann Michael SSP Past President, who interestingly attended her first SSP meeting the around same time as me in 2004, said at the 2016 SSP annual meeting, attended by around 1000 scholarly communications experts:
“I started off not knowing many people within this community, now some 13 years on, I probably know everyone in the room.”
Reflecting back on my years of volunteering, it’s been rewarding, fulfilling, and I’d say helps make many new contacts, gives you confidence and exposure to new experiences. Being committed, reliable and having a positive outlook are just some of the qualities volunteers have. If you want to get involved, most industry organizations will have a volunteer sign-up form, or member support person who can help direct you. Even within your own organization there may be opportunities or special projects – all you need to do is step forward and ask – from my experience, it could end up being very rewarding even beyond the professional realm.