3 Leadership Lessons from Volunteering Abroad

Four years ago, I took a break from the corporate rat race to volunteer abroad. I spent a few months working with communities in war torn villages across northeast Sri Lanka and in the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. I partnered with local nonprofits, launched online fundraising campaigns and built clean drinking water solutions for over 4,000 people living in poverty.

As I look back, I realize I learnt more about leadership from my brief volunteer experience than I have from my corporate career. Here are my three biggest lessons on leadership from my volunteer experience in Sri Lanka and Kenya.


I started as a volunteer coach for war widows in Northeast Sri Lanka to help them start home based businesses. I spent my first few weeks visiting them in their mud huts, drinking sweet tea with them and asking them about their challenges in starting a business. However, something very interesting happened during these home visits. At the end of these coaching sessions, almost all of them insisted on showing me their source of drinking water.

They were drinking from hand dug wells that were infested with insects and littered with debris. I quickly realized these women didn’t care about starting a business. They were too busy worrying about something much more basic; clean drinking water. The first leadership lesson I learnt while volunteering was to listen. It sounds easy but it’s one of the most difficult to apply.

Too often when we lead, we make assumptions and drive our agenda without listening for feedback.

Inspire Action

The more I learnt about the water crisis, the more I was driven to address it. People were getting sick and children below five were dying from diarrhea. Something needed to be done so I launched a fundraising campaign to raise money for water wells.

Creating a fundraising website was easy. Getting people to donate was difficult. To convince people to support my campaign, I took videos from the field and posted them on Facebook. The video quality was terrible but the content was great. I shared videos of the dirty water source, the community members who needed help and explained the impact dirty water had on their lives. People started donating and we hit out target in no time.

My campaign culminated in a live music event I had organized for my donors. At the event, donors repeatedly told me that they supported me because I inspired them. They felt emotionally moved by my videos. Here’s where I learnt the second lesson; leaders inspire action.

People didn’t donate and support my campaign because it was logical or because I told them to. They donated because they felt inspired.

Find the Why?

Despite the urgent need for action, the community and the local nonprofit partners moved at a frustratingly slow pace. I wanted to do so much but was crippled by the language and cultural barrier. I was struggling with the solitude as well. I was alone, in a motel where I was often the only guest. There were just two decent restaurants and they served the same food day in and day out. Though it was exciting at the start, volunteering quickly became difficult and uncomfortable. I wanted to go home and for all means and purposes I could. I wasn’t accountable to anyone except myself.

Getting through the boredom and solitude was tough but what kept me going was a deep sense of purpose.

I really wanted to bring clean water to the communities. I wanted it more than I wanted to go home.

This was lesson number three; find the Why and make sure it’s compelling.

I have found this to be true at work as much as it was in the field. Employees feel highly engaged when they find a deep sense of meaning at work. It’s the responsibility of the leader to identify and articulate the why that’ll get them through tough times.


The Value of Volunteering

These lessons are by no means new. Listen, inspire and articulate purpose are common leadership traits that have been put forward by numerous thought leaders. However, the challenge most of us face is in practicing what we know.

Employers try and close the gap between knowing and doing through experiential leadership programs but they’re finding leadership workshops often don’t live up to their promise of creating sustainable behavioral change.

I found volunteering to be the perfect experience to help me develop my leadership lessons through real life practice. It provided me with an environment to go beyond an intellectual understanding of these concepts, to immerse myself in the challenge. It helped me reflect on my strengths and weaknesses and led me to discover my unique style of leadership.

Discovering the effectiveness of volunteering in developing leadership skills inspired me to design LX, a leadership program for middle managers in corporate organizations. LX incorporates a volunteer trip to rural Cambodia and an online fundraising campaign to create an environment that facilitates real leadership development. It is the perfect bridge between knowing and doing and I’m excited to share it with you.

Visit www.talenpac.com/lx for more information on the program.