I ‘Barter Trade’ My Time to Gain Business Skills
Lessons learned by volunteering for a social enterprise
I have been a volunteer for various charities/social enterprises for the last six years. My nights and weekends are busy. I do not remember ever being paid for my volunteer hours except for the occasional free meals. But here is the thing, volunteering is one of the best personal development journeys.
I have learned so many crucial lessons on what it takes to run a social enterprise business and made many friends along the way.
Social enterprise takes insurmountable determination
Most social enterprise starts with little or no money at all. They count on the public/corporate sponsors and volunteers for donations. These can come as monetary funding or skilled labor work.
Like running any business, especially when it’s a start-up, it takes a lot of courage and a super amount of determination to kick off with the bare minimum.
You can expect to work late nights or wake up in the wee hours of the morning to open shop. You are constantly charging your phone because it cannot stop ringing. You eat in between calls — when you can remember. You forget to take toilet breaks. You might have to cover volunteers who don’t show up.
Dylan, my favorite baker, shared — “The baking life has no breaks.”
Often these challenges can be managed with some proper planning and a good dose of creative thinking. While monetary funds can be a challenge, there are plenty of resources out there that are free — hosting venues, a booth to sell products, volunteers from schools/universities, etc.
It takes a bit of creativity and snooping to find these resources. It will surprise you to find that people are often willing to help with a good social cause.
Relationship building is important
“I didn’t have any money to offer.” — Dhanya, a 14-year-old student from Acton Academy.
“I reached out to an environmental NGO to request for them to give a talk. I didn’t have any money to offer them, so I had to pitch the idea using a different angle.” — extracted from Acton Academy KL’s blog.
As a volunteer, you meet different people from all walks of life. You meet sponsors, volunteers, vendors, and the local public/communities. Most of the time, you will have nothing to offer back except ideas and possibly some scraps of paper explaining your mission and plans.
You learn quickly that communication. Precisely, relationship-building skills are crucial.
Regardless of who you meet, listening to what people need and what they expect helps you tailor your communication and your product/services better. You build connections with them to bring them on board your mission.
But be prepared for some raw uncensored feedbacks.
Pitching and selling skills
Most social enterprises will have products or services to offer. If you have not tried making sales before, it is one of the most humbling experiences. A critical skill that every entrepreneur must have in their repertoire.
People you approached often say — “We don’t need this at the moment. Thank you.”
Persuading a stranger to use your product/services requires a positive attitude. Do not be surprised if only 1 out of 10 people will listen to your pitch.
You need to be ‘bulletproof’ towards rejections.
It helps that you are selling to support a social cause, but you will still need to convince people of your product/services’ value.
But these experiences in pitching and selling will provide insights into product development, market demands, competition, or what sponsors/stakeholders are expecting.
Managing cash flow
When money is tight, every decision matters. Tracking of cash flow becomes essential. If you are lucky, you get to decide on how money should be spent. You learn to source and negotiate for purchases and spend on what is essential.
You learn basic accounting and cash flow management skills to run projects. Another essential knowledge business owners must have to run a business.
One of the most important lessons I learned in this journey is the ability to be helpful. By being useful, I become relevant and able to help others. This journey brought me insights into who I am and my purpose.
Whether it is a social enterprise or not, starting a business will suck the life out of you initially. It takes serious conviction and self-belief to pull through some of the most challenging days. Remember, there is always help around; it just a matter of reaching out.
Thank you for reading.
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