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Advice: How volunteering can advance your career

Women volunteering to teach nutrition

Looking to advance your career or pivot to a new field or role? Taking on a volunteer role or serving on a board of directors can serve as a great way to expand your professional network, enhance your skills and help you prepare for your next role.

As we gear up for our May 26 UC Alumni Career Network webinar, Advancing your career through volunteerism or board leadership, we connected with UC Santa Barbara alumna, Shelley Iocona ’98, to gain her insights on how volunteer or board leadership roles can support career growth and exploration. Shelley is the Founder of ON ITS AXIS, an award-winning innovation consulting firm connecting experts, evolving industries, and delivering results through an outcome-driven product and people® framework. She also serves as an advisor to startups in healthtech, proptech, fintech, HR tech and social impact tech, and mentors product professionals and students seeking guidance in the STEAM professions. Shelley is a board member to GuideStar Platinum Start Giving Local, a community nonprofit that’s mission-driven to make wellness inclusive.

Shelley Iocona (’98, UC Santa Barbara), Founder of ON ITS AXIS

How did you first get involved as a board member?

As is often the case for board members, my relationship started in a volunteer capacity. For close to 10 years now, I’ve participated in charity endurance events that often require fundraising. As a donor and organization advocate, I began providing the organization with technical and product advice in a volunteer capacity. After developing my relationship, I was recruited by the nonprofit leadership team to join the board.

How did you go about identifying volunteer or board member opportunities?

In my case, I was recruited for the role based on my involvement in the organization, which began because of my personal passion for community wellness and my love of endurance cycling.

Where should we look for volunteer opportunities?

I encourage colleagues to explore opportunities that align with their personal interests and values. VolunteerMatch, a Software as a Service platform that helps connect volunteers with local and remote opportunities, is a great place to start the search. The nonprofit organizations listed on the site have been verified by the organization.

What types of skills or qualifications must one have to enter into a board leadership position?

There are a wide range of board opportunities available to volunteers. Common skills nonprofits seek include human resources, legal, financial, technical, fundraising, event planning, digital marketing and public relations expertise. A growing number of nonprofits are starting junior boards to help cultivate future board leaders; these junior boards can be a great step for developing desirable board skills.

Can you describe board members’ responsibilities and fiduciary obligations?

The board is responsible for helping the nonprofit run as a professional organization. This is done by setting policies that establish internal controls based on regional best practices. Board members are responsible for three key fiduciary duties: duty of care, duty of obedience and duty of loyalty. These essentially mean that board members are responsible for organizational sustainability and commitment to nonprofit representations. Serving as a board member is a professional responsibility similar to serving as a member of an executive team in a for-profit corporation. Most nonprofit organizations will offer board insurance that helps offset the personal liability of the board’s legal responsibility.

How does serving on a board foster professional and community growth?

Serving on a board is an opportunity to do more for a cause or organization you are passionate about. This role can be instrumental in helping connect you with other community members with shared interests and values. It can also help expand your knowledge of the community’s needs and provide you with diverse perspectives on how to approach the problems you are passionate about solving.  

How do you balance your personal commitments, volunteer commitments, and professional role?

I have been very intentional about work and life alignment. I have spent a lot of time reflecting on my personal strengths, interests and values, and I have worked hard to design my commitments, so they complement one another and help me thrive personally and professionally. This requires me to acknowledge that I have limited energy and time, and challenges me to say no to activities that don’t serve my priority goals.

What’s one thing that most people do not know, but should, before taking on a board leadership or volunteer role?

Not all board roles are the same. There are a number of variables that will impact the expectations for board members, including organizational maturity, nonprofit reach, operating budget, board size and committee structure. Some boards have explicit time, fundraising and committee commitments, while others operate with independent judgment. It is important to understand the unique responsibilities of the board role you are considering.

Overall, I have personally found serving as a board member to be a rewarding experience and I highly recommend it!

Want to learn more? The UC Alumni Career Network will explore this topic on Wednesday, May 26, as part of our monthly webinar series. Join us at noon (PT) to hear directly from UC alumni who have leveraged their volunteer or board leadership roles to grow their careers. Visit to learn more about the series and to sign up for this exciting conversation.

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