Guest Post of the Month for August 2003

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Reaping What You Sow
Austin G. Robertson, Jr., MBA, CPA/PFS, CVA, CFPTM

Over the course of my working life, I have witnessed many disturbing developments. I have seen American parents lose their sons and daughters in Vietnam. I saw one United States President resign his office and one United States President impeached. I have suffered through the effects of recessions and busts in the oil and real estate industries. I have seen 3,000 souls lost in a senseless act of murder on September 11, 2001. I have even watched in horror as more and more clients purchased TurboTax and similar products! Just like the generations that preceded mine, I have witnessed these and many other disturbing events and trends, but if you had asked me at the beginning of my working life what the most disturbing trend would be, I couldn’t have predicted what I now label as one of the most tragic trends of all – the loss of America’s Volunteer Spirit.

I suppose that one could name several reasons for the overall difficulty in finding qualified volunteers to serve on our nonprofit boards of directors and staff the many volunteer positions it takes to run successful outreach programs like the United Way, the American Red Cross and many others like them. The rise of two-earner families, a change in emphasis from work and community to family and a simple desire to spend one’s free time enjoying the company of friends on a golf course or backyard barbeque are just a few of the many reasons people give for shunning volunteer opportunities. It’s as if many of those entering the workforce today, and some who have been here for years, look upon volunteerism as a burden to be avoided rather than an opportunity to be embraced.

Not too long ago, the Society of Louisiana Certified Public Accountants named me the recipient of its Public Service Award for 2002-2003. In preparing information to send to the Society for media releases, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the results of over 40 years of public service. While I am the first to admit my public service commitments ate into my family time, the time spent away from family actually enhanced my ability to be a good husband, father and friend. In fact, I met many of my closest friends as a result of the organizations in which I have served.

Aside from a pretty plaque to put on a wall, what have I received from my many years of service? I have received the intangible benefits that only direct service to others can give a person.

I gained many friends. It is impossible to attend a fundraising event, or go to a Rotary or Jaycee meeting time after time and not become friends with the other members. Try planning and executing major fundraising events without working on a close personal level with other volunteer members. It simply can’t be done.

One of the reasons I want my employees to become involved in organizations that interest them is the opportunity to learn leadership skills that no business organization can offer. You know, I rarely have my employees tell me no when I give them an assignment. They may grumble and tell me that they’re overloaded or Joe in the Audit Department is much better suited than they are, but they never said no – at least if they wanted to keep their job. Try that with disinterested members of an all-volunteer organization. If you have a church where you go, ask the lay ministry coordinator if they are inclined to fire a volunteer. You just can’t fire unpaid volunteers, especially if the whole organization has become complacent. If you can learn how to motivate and inspire a complacent membership, you can take that experience and put it to great use in your work. Not only does that make you look good to the boss, but it also makes your life a little easier.

I have been blessed with many good business contacts as a result of my volunteer activities. I will admit it, I use the contacts I have gained through my volunteer work as business contacts too. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as business is not your only reason for serving an organization. This should be a secondary reason with your primary reason being to serve a cause in which you believe. If you serve just to get business contacts, nine times out of ten you won’t do your best for the organization and you won’t get as much business as you’re looking for and that makes for a very unhappy you.

It’s been said that it is more blessed to give than receive. Except for some very hard-hearted cases, that is true for most people. I have spent much of my volunteer efforts serving organizations that fight addictive diseases and ignorance. With the possible exception of seeing your children graduate from college and off the gravy train, I can think of no greater use of a person’s time than helping to put broken families back together. Serving as an officer of our local Literacy Volunteers of America, I have been given the privilege of seeing the joy in the eyes of an adult who was finally learning to read. Serving as a trustee for a local college has much the same reward; except here I am privileged to watch the future leaders of our community make their first steps toward that goal.

One reason I resolved to help whatever community organizations I could was a sincere belief that life is not all about taking from others. My community has given me the base upon which I draw my clients; it gave me an education; it keeps me relatively safe. In short, the community in which I live, gives me much and the least I can do is give a little back. What amazes me, though, is that every time I give a little, I gain so much more.

Looking back over my career to this point, I can honestly say that the community service I have performed has given me far more than the vocation I chose. My vocation has provided me a living. My avocation has given me a life.

That’s what I want to impart to you. If you are involved in some form of community service through one of the many fine organizations that are spread throughout this country or even church, thank you. I know that you will agree with my sentiments. If you aren’t involved in some community service, find a way to get involved. With all of the many challenges facing our country and our world, the only real solution is you. No governmental agency will be able to meet our collective needs. But if everyone with the ability to do so would give a small amount of their time, talent and treasure to a cause in which they believe, many of our current challenges would be distant memories and we will all reap a harvest of peace and prosperity from the seeds of goodwill we have planted.