Volunteering develops workplace skills — if you do this one thing
It’s well established that employee volunteering can be a powerful learning tool. It places people in new settings, has them do things outside their routine and can serve as a novel application of workplace skills. One study conducted in the UK, for example, found that supervisors assess the skills of their employees — including communication skills, adaptability, influencing and negotiating skills — as higher after employees have participated in company-organized volunteering.
Many volunteer efforts, however, undermine the skill development prowess of volunteering by failing to do one thing: Reflection. Reflection is a standard element in adult learning theory that involves thinking about the experience (in this case, the volunteering) and identifying what was learned and how it can be applied (in this case, at work).
Reflection is key to learning because it’s the process through which we make sense of our experiences. If we don’t construe meaning from the volunteering, we cannot learn from it. To generate meaning, what psychologists call “meaning making,” we need to think about the experience and, ideally, verbalize our thoughts. Researchers have confirmed that both knowledge and application of skills is improved when learning experiences concluded with a reflection exercise.
Having employees spend a few minutes reflecting at the conclusion of a volunteer shift, then, is key to having them develop workplace skills from the volunteering. Because verbalizing the thoughts is important, the reflection exercise ideally involves sharing the thoughts on the experience with others or writing them down.
American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey might have said it best: "We do not learn from experience ... we learn from reflecting on experience."
Want to learn more about including reflection as part of the volunteer experience? Download the Post-Volunteer Reflection Exercise Instructions (members only) at the OneOC Knowledge Center.
 Corporate Citizenship. “Volunteering – Volunteering - The Business Case: The benefits of corporate volunteering programmes in education.” May 2010.
 Di Stefano, Giada and Gino, Francesca and Pisano, Gary P. and Staats, Bradley R., “Making Experience Count: The Role of Reflection in Individual Learning.” June 14, 2016.