According to several recent studies, volunteerism continues to decline in popularity. The decline is being felt in all sectors–churches, boy scouts, business organizations and social clubs, to name a few. This is really sad because so much of our culture in the past has been enriched by the work of volunteers who have devoted time, energy and resources for the common good. There are no doubt many causes for this, but that is not the subject of this column. Rather, my purpose is to focus on the missed opportunities this trend has created. I continue to believe that there is real serendipity when one accepts a voluntary job, in that personal growth almost always follows.

I was reminded of this at a recent meeting of the Phoenix NAIFA (formerly NALU). The speaker at the meeting was a long-time friend and retired CEO of a New York-based life insurance company. The speaker related his experiences as he rose from a local group insurance representative to CEO of the company. He attributed the start of that growth experience to the occasion when he joined the local life underwriters association.

A member of our local membership team had called on him several times about joining the association and at first he was not sure this was an organization he needed to belong to. However, our membership committee member was persistent and he finally agreed to join. But he did more than join–he became heavily involved. He became chairman of the legislative committee for health insurance. Along with other members of the committee he worked hard for a bill the industry then sponsored. In doing so he became more articulate and developed an understanding of how the legislative process worked and how best to represent your case. Working with other members of our local, he developed a clearer picture of our own business as well, and in particular, the factors that motivated agents whose business he sought.

In time his company recognized the growth he was experiencing and promoted him to the home office with larger responsibilities. From there he was promoted to the position of CEO of their New York company. His tenure in New York was very successful and he led the company to new heights. He continued his involvement in industry affairs and was elected chairman of LICONY, the company organization for New York State. Again, his organizational experiences gained at our local association stood him in good stead. I was once seated next to Peter Flanagan, CEO of LICONY, at an industry function and he told me that our speaker was one of the best elected heads of the organization that he had ever worked with.

Our speaker, even though retired, is still active in other associations requiring extensive work with Congress. He acknowledged that his effectiveness today in that work can be traced to his early days working with the Arizona legislature in behalf of NALU issues.

In the end, he described his joining the local life underwriters association as “a life-changing event” and thanked long-time membership committee member Marshall Roberts for making it happen.

Over the years I have observed similar types of growth in others as they have advanced through the chairs of their local, state and national associations. Very few emerge from that kind of experience the same person they were when first elected. Sometimes managers discourage such activity for fear that it will be a distraction and take their people out of production. My experience tells me that this is short-sighted and denies many people the growth opportunity to reach their full potential.

Fortunately, my first manager, Ed McGwire, was not that kind of person. From my first months in the business he encouraged me to become involved, learn from others and grow with the experience. Thanks to his guidance and example, I was able to serve in numerous voluntary roles in our great business and I sincerely believe it was the single greatest factor in my own growth and development.

About 31 years ago when I went back to Washington to become CEO of NALU (now NAIFA), I did so with some trepidation. I had limited experience in management–the staff that my partner and I had was very small and we operated on a comparatively small budget. However, after I had settled into the job, I realized that I had been training for it all my adult life. The experience that I had gained in volunteer organizations now helped me in this new endeavor. Going through the chairs of our local, state and national associations broadened my view of our business. Being legislative chairman of both state and national associations made me appreciate the art of supporting and defending against legislation. It is always helpful to know the nature of the “beast.”

Serving as president of our local Better Business Bureau taught me the value of business as well as the ways of scoundrels who would corrupt it. As president of our school board, I grew a greater sense of appreciation for the people who shaped the lives of our children. And, in like manner, serving as congregational president in our church, impressed upon me the value of morality in our culture. Every chance to serve as a volunteer, and that includes my military service in World War II, has been a growth opportunity for which I am forever grateful.

And so, like or speaker last month who paid tribute to the person who set him on the path of volunteerism, I also acknowledge with appreciation my manager who did the same thing for me.