“We reduced it to 200 words,” says my colleague. I’m still worried. This program description is uniquely complicated; We must clearly communicate certain requirements, deadlines, and legal caveats so that the user understands what we are asking them to do. The original copy was closer to 300 words, but that’s too much text for a single component on the home page.
I’m concerned about a lesson I’ve learned the hard way — it doesn’t matter how elegant or clear your writing is, the majority of people forget more than a sentence or two of messages. However, I did not learn this from my previous experience as a product manager. I learned this through volunteering at the american red cross.
When the pandemic hit, I had some unexpected free time and really wanted to help in any way I could, so I said yes to every volunteer opportunity that came my way. I didn’t expect to be volunteering four to eight hours a week anytime soon, or that I would reach 500 hours of volunteering by May 2022. That was me Yes, really surprised to find that my volunteering influenced the way I approach my work as a product manager.
How 500 Hours of Volunteering Made Me a Better Product Manager
As a student at Babson College, Art was a big part of my life. When the pandemic shut down college campuses, I knew that BabsonARTS would be hit hard. I reached out to the department to see if I could help ensure arts programs and resources continue to reach students remotely. Her director told me she was considering establishing a scholarship program for students to apply for funding at home for their artistic pursuits. My product manager brain started spinning with ideas, and I told her I would have a draft program policy proposal in a week.
Well, I don’t know anything about creating or administering an arts grant. But I know how to tackle a big problem and find actionable solutions. We wanted to make sure we created a program that would provide remote students with support and resources (beyond money) to help them complete their projects successfully. I also saw a great opportunity to build practical project management skills in these future leaders. We’ve created a short application form that asks a few standard questions, but each has a clear purpose. Here are my notes from that time:
This application helped the students structure their ideas into a clean proposal for review by the selection committee. The response was overwhelming – we received all sorts of creative proposals for theatre, music performance and visual arts projects. No two proposals were alike, and we agreed to as many as we could.
The BabsonARTS scholarship program is still ongoing today, although the school is back on campus. I’m still on the selection committee and I’m amazed by the extremely cool, creative and ambitious proposals I read. For me personally, this experience allowed me to give back to a community I care deeply about, while also helping me to develop my real-world problem-solving skills through a product management lens.
The American Red Cross
The first wave of lockdown has shown me the importance of volunteering locally and providing essential services. I’ve searched the page for the areas of greatest need american red cross website and realized they needed blood donation ambassadors to work at the blood donation desk. This role is critical in managing donor check-in and completing other administrative tasks so medical staff can focus on the actual blood donations. After my first twenty blood tests, I registered as a BDA trainer. It sounded easy enough. I trained and onboarded about three new volunteers each week in a 15 minute video call.
I’ve had training sessions with all sorts of people: teenagers, college students, former nurses and doctors, remote technicians, retirees, immigrants and ESL speakers, even the employees of an entire Dartmouth, Massachusetts credit union! I quickly learned that while the content of the training was easy to convey, the real reflections on face-to-face conversations with people is far more demanding. To train everyone effectively, I had to adjust my approach in real-time based on the visual cues and feedback I received. For example, while most people could schedule their training session with me via email, some people were more responsive when I called them. Likewise, I had to examine my own prejudices when I realized that the opening a video call link is not an easy task for everyone. I learned to speak slowly and clearly, and to end each session with a much more detailed welcome email.
As a user-centric product manager, this experience was invaluable as it showed me the importance of knowing who your target audience is and who they are Communicate with them in the way that is best for them. Now when I write or review user-centric messages, I consider tone, length, and channel more carefully than before.
Boston Product Management Association
I came to BPMA during the pandemic to connect with local product managers and learn about product management best practices. When they asked for a volunteer to take over their social media, I offered to help. Even though I studied marketing and work with marketing players In every product role I’ve held, I’ve never done that Social Media Marketing Before. I was drawn to the opportunity because I wanted to see if I could help them further the organization while learning a new skill.
As I began building the strategy, the first question I asked was, “What does success look like?” In other words, what is the purpose of our social media accounts? Is it about bringing the organization to a wider audience or deepening our involvement in our existing community? The answer is a bit of both, so I had to come up with two different strategies: one focused on acquisitionthe other on engagement. The first decision I made was to delete our almost-abandoned Facebook and Twitter accounts and focus solely on LinkedIn (we’re a professional organization, after all). I researched LinkedIn best practices and created a release schedule for a mix of content that would both attract new visitors and keep our existing members interested. Since my acquisition in 2021, we have seen a 61% increase in followers on our LinkedIn page. I don’t think more followers is the measure of success (we track engagement in other ways too), but it’s a good quantitative measure to know that my efforts are helping.
I don’t see a future career in social media marketing for me, but this experience has taught me how to be analytical when creating a strategy. I also feel a little more confident in my own marketing skills, which is a good additional skill for a user-centric PM.
How to choose your volunteer placement
I encourage anyone who has more time to find a cause that matters to them and look for ways to help. Not only is it a great way to give back to communities in need, but it can also develop your professional skills and expand your social network. If you don’t know where to start, consider organizations you already have a relationship with. For example, many universities are looking for alumni volunteers in all kinds of roles. Your employer may have a committed relationship with a local organization that is easy for you to get started with. If you live in a big city, check out aggregator volunteer sites like Boston cares, New York worries, Chicago caresor Pittsburgh worries. You can look into big national organizations like that american red cross. Finally, you can ask your friends and co-workers where they volunteer and see if you can join them! The most important thing is to be open to new experiences – you never know what you will learn or how it could change your life.
I believe product management is essentially about serving your users by giving them the digital experiences they need. Volunteering for causes I care about helps me become a better product manager because it opens my eyes to new skills, different types of problems, and allows me to serve others in a meaningful way outside of work.