I know you're busy -- between job, family, friends, and maybe even school, you barely have a moment to yourself. And yet, I have the gall to suggest you add one more obligation to the list: charity.
Many of us feel so overwhelmed by the demands of modern life that we can't imagine finding time to volunteer. Even people with few family obligations may feel their career ambitions consume all their energy.
However, far from competing with your ambitions, volunteering can actually help you further them.
Now, I'm not denying that there is a warm and fuzzy feeling many of us get when we share our resources with those less fortunate. Nor do I discount the moral and religious duty that is the prime charitable motivator for some people. However, your decisions to share your limited free time or money with nonprofits need not be guided purely by altruism. In addition to believing in a group's mission, it's fine to want something more in return for your contribution -- even if it's just an opportunity to meet new people. Call it selfish volunteering.
Even if you don't have a generous bone in your body, you should still consider donating your time and money to a cause or two. The nonprofit organization doesn't care a lick about your motivation, and you will still reap the benefits.
In particular, volunteering can help your career. Here's how, illustrated with examples that would apply to helping a few organizations whose work I like:
* A sense of perspective. Not a week passes when I don't receive at least one e-mail from an overachieving Ivy League type who thinks she is a complete failure because she hasn't found her "calling," as well as a way to translate it into the big bucks and accolades that she imagines all her peers are enjoying. The complainers usually have perfectly nice jobs, cars and apartments, but are making themselves miserable with their delusion that everyone else in the whole wide world is better off. Average age of these malcontents: about 25. Usually the wisdom that comes with age fixes this problem, but if there's one sure way to accelerate the process, it's by working for Habitat for Humanity, a nondenominational Christian organization that provides money, materials and some of the labor to build affordable housing for those "who lack adequate shelter." Spend some time alongside these hardworking folks, and you will get a much-needed attitude adjustment. (Prince George's County chapter, 301-779-1912; Montgomery County, 301-990-0014; Northern Virginia, 703-521-9890; the District, 202-882-4600)
* A chance to develop leadership skills. Even as you toil away among the rank-and-file at your day job, you can pick up valuable management training and experience through volunteering. Many of the larger organizations even have training programs for their most motivated volunteers, improving their skills in such crucial areas as project planning, meeting facilitation and event coordination. In most cases, though, it will be as simple as observing the current crop of leaders in the organization you work with and choosing a mentor with whom you click. Unlike in the paid work environment, the competition generally will not be as fierce for the attention of the group's leaders, and your interest will more likely be welcomed as a way to offload some of their work, as opposed to a threat to their power. If you eventually become a team leader or a committee member, definitely include this on your resume. If you're looking for hands-on leadership practice right away, consider becoming a mentor. Big Brothers Big Sisters of the National Capital Area (202-328-7181) is the local affiliate of the most famous such group, but is not the only one. Other mentor programs pair up adults.
* A networking tool. This is perhaps the biggest career-related advantage to volunteering. It pulls you out of your limited work and social circles. You will meet new people as you work on projects, as well as at fundraising parties or dinners. If you're shy, volunteering at a fundraiser could give you just the low-key prop you need to mingle. Dress for Success, which provides interview suits and mentoring to low-income women making the transition into professional careers, is hosting such a fundraiser on Thursday. Only $35 gets you into what is essentially a big party in Tysons Galleria sponsored by Saks Fifth Avenue and catered by two of the area's best restaurants. (For information, call 202-544-3373.) Who knows? Perhaps while you're cooing over the silent-auction items, you will bump into your future boss.
Join Mary Ellen Slayter for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at 11 a.m. Sept. 3 at www.washingtonpost.com. E-mail her at email@example.com.