From Volunteer to Meeting Professional

From Volunteer to Meeting Professional

I’ve been in the meetings and hospitality industry for more than 50 years—and if you count my very early volunteer experience, more than 66 years, 38 of those with my own company.

I would not be who I am or have the skills I’ve developed had I not been a volunteer beginning early in my life.

Prior to working formally in the industry, I was a volunteer for an art museum in my native Ohio, where I helped create and manage citywide events in the museum and on its grounds; organized U.S.-wide conferences for an organization for which I was a spokesperson; and volunteered for public television, coordinating on-air auctions.

In fact, as I thought about the subject of volunteerism, I realized how so much volunteer experience prepared me for the work I do now and added to the skills I have used throughout my career.

My Volunteer-to-Meeting-Professional Path

Long before I was honored for my work and giving back by volunteering in the industry by induction into the EIC Hall of Leaders, recognized by PCMA’s Foundation with a lifetime achievement honor as an educator; by IACC, HSMAI and NSA (speakers not spies!) for contributions to education; by MPI as International Planner; and often being included as one of the 25 most influential by an industry publication, recently as an influencer “legend,” I volunteered.

I began volunteering around age 6, campaigning to teachers for a U.S. presidential candidate on my grade school playground using the information my parents discussed and I learned from watching the news.

Around the same time, I created street fairs to raise money for polio research, a result of my next-door neighbor and friend, Alan, contracting polio. (We were among the test cases for the new vaccine. Alan, unlike I, received the placebo and contracted polio. He did live, overcame the illness, and was a star-wrestler in high school.)

These weren’t fancy street fairs—we had marble-shooting games, bobbing for apples and other simple games and prizes—and it meant creating, marketing and running events from which I gained experience.

In grade school, I also served as student council president. In high school, I was an active Y-Teen volunteer, which allowed me to attend statewide gatherings at which I gained leadership skills. I was also part of a city-wide teen human rights council and a high school service club.

During each of these opportunities, I gained skills and connections in areas that were then and are still my passions: social  justice and education.

Though I attended college for just one year, that year was a banner one. I was elected as our dorm’s freshman representative to the inter-dorm council where again my leadership skills were enhanced.

Unable to afford more-formal education, and having learned I was not good at learning in structured settings that were unlike my the experiential high school learning I’d enjoyed, I returned to Ohio where, in addition to working a variety of jobs, I sought new volunteer opportunities including working at the local art museum, while also working at a paid, full-time job.

At the art museum, I helped coordinate volunteers for the gift shop and for exhibition openings. My proudest achievement was helping create and then coordinate citywide events where there were visual and performing arts in each gallery, changing every hour, open to the public, over weekends. Public television seemed a natural, too: I helped with fundraising events including on-air auctions.

I joined a new national organization and found myself not only a spokesperson on national and local radio and television programs, I also helped plan national conventions. Laughing as I write, I don’t know how I did it—finding the hotels, booking speakers, and helping create logistics guidelines—I had no idea it was a profession.

Then What?

Before deciding to move to Washington, D.C., from Ohio, I interviewed for a job as a volunteer coordinator for a D.C.-based national association. The D.C. job I so thought I wanted was to coordinate the association’s volunteers throughout the U.S. I flew back and forth numerous times to interview. Alas, I wasn’t hired.

Not being hired for that position was a good thing! To deal with the disappointment, I moved to D.C. without a job, stayed with a friend for a few weeks until I found an apartment, and volunteered for the organization that didn’t hire me, and for another one, while I interviewed for jobs. Through all the volunteering, I gained valuable contacts and experience.

This was in the summer of 1978. MPI was new and PCMA was unknown to me.

While volunteering (I stuffed envelopes—ah the glamour!), the executive director of the association that didn’t initially hire me referred to my past experience—much of which had been volunteer aside from working in an elementary school, selling poultry and books (not in the same store!), and writing ad copy at a newspaper—and said they wanted to hire me to be their first meeting planner to plan their 10th anniversary meeting and events. (In my head, I thought “Call me anything—just hire me!”)

I began work almost immediately, and through a contact from the U.S.-wide conferences I’d help organize, found the Potomac Chapter of MPI. At my first PMPI meeting, the wonderful, now late, Bill Myles, saw me, the Introvert, standing against a wall. He introduced himself and upon learning I was new, asked me to be on the membership committee. Like now, I was not good at saying “no.”

That lead to so many opportunities: serving on committees, on the PMPI Board and as chapter president two years in a row. Through all of this, I learned meeting and program skills that I’d employ in my job and later as a consultant in the meetings industry.

One of my first experiences as a professional planner taught me about contingency planning.

For this 10th anniversary celebration took place in the winter in D.C., the keyunote speaker, was who was to travel from New York to DC by train fell and broke her leg on the way to the train in New York. We had to find a like-stature speaker, and we did.

We planned a live auction to raise funds. For that, I used my public television fundraising experiences to solicit items for donation.

The association couldn’t keep me on full time, so during the months I wasn’t working for them, I found contract work that lead to more experiences and contacts.

I commuted to and from New York to work and learned much more about how to negotiate hotel contracts.

One interesting learning experience was when I dealt with a member of the U.S. Senate who was to be honored and speak at a meeting in Texas and who, at the last minute, had to stay in D.C. for a critical vote.

This was all before Skype and other electronic means of presentations—even before FedEx! By working with others, we made it happen to have a tape (Yeah, I know—long ago!) to play of the acceptance and of the senator’s speech.

I’ve often wondered where I’d be were it not for all my volunteer experiences, through which I gained skills and contacts that all lead to other opportunities.

Skills Gained as a Volunteer

In each volunteer position, I gained skills that I used to enhance other volunteer and paid-work experiences. Examples include:

  • People management
  • Logistics
  • Budgeting and financial management
  • Persuasion
  • Creativity
  • Risk and contingency management and planning
  • Education design

Through volunteering with our MPI chapter, I was able to hone my ability to create educational programming that was not the usual “sage on the stage” program. The people I met became friends who helped me learn with them.

Since then, my energies as a volunteer have been directed to community, educational and environmental organizations, in politics, and for our industry. In our industry, I’ve served on and chaired chapter and international boards and committees. 

Of all these, those from which I gained the most notable experience were:

  • serving on PMPI’s (then) Program Committee allowing me to create and deliver different education models;
  • as a member and then chair of  ASAE’s Ethics Committee where my understanding of ethics lead to a greater passion for how our industry and business can operate ethically and still enhance the bottom line; 
  • and as MPI’s representative to the (then) Convention Liaison Council (now the EIC) Board, and to the industry-wide Unity Team that researched best practices in diversity and inclusion. During all of these experiences I learned more that I could bring to my work and thus enhance what clients experienced.  

As you’ll read here, I did use my volunteer experiences on my resume to show what I’d done. The experiences were all relevant and have led me, as it has others interviewed, to what they do today and how they give back.

Please, in the comments, add the experiences you’ve gained as a volunteer and how you have put them to work in our industry to provide other examples from which we can all learn.

Finally: With this blog, I honor chef José Andrés and World Central Kitchen (WCK). If ever someone in our industry deserves to be honored for giving back, it is chef Andrés and those who volunteer with WCK. We all would do well to emulate, as best we can, the generosity of chef Andrés, and many other chefs, restaurant owners, cooks and others in disaster areas who have given so much to help those who have suffered.

Related content from the November 2019 edition of Friday With Joan:

[Read more content in the 11.01.19 Friday With Joan newsletter]

And a personal note: My long-time, amazing editor, Eric Andersen, has moved on. I miss him lots. He “got” me! If we have a few glitches along the way as we adjust to new systems and people, forgive us. We’ll get back to the Friday With Joan from which we hope you learn.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed by contributing bloggers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Meetings Today or its parent company.

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