Helping skills-based volunteers overcome imposter syndrome  

This article was written by Cecile Ney, Impact Manager, and Susy Cheston, Chief Growth Officer, at Business Council for Peace (Bpeace). Bpeace places skilled volunteers in projects that help strengthen small and medium-sized businesses in Central America. It also strengthens diverse-owned businesses in the U.S. (Image courtesy Jopwell.)

How does imposter syndrome impact volunteers?

David Sturrock, an accomplished industrial engineer and process improvement specialist, says he “felt pure terror” every time he started a new volunteer project with Bpeace, “always wondering what [he] has to offer.” 

And he is not alone. New research from NerdWallet found that 78% of business leaders experience workplace imposter syndrome, causing 59% to consider leaving their role. Among the 500 U.K. business leaders surveyed, only 22% said that they hadn’t experienced the syndrome at all. A KPMG study found that 75% of female executives across industries have experienced imposter syndrome in their careers. 

This feeling of inadequacy and self-doubt that makes many of us continuously question if we are qualified enough for the job was originally conceptualized as Imposter Phenomenon by Pauline Clance in 1978, who described it as “the suspicion that she’d somehow tricked everyone else into thinking she belonged.” 

The syndrome can occur across any age group, gender, profession or racial demographic, even among senior business executives.  

Imposter syndrome means some qualified employees may not sign up for volunteer programs 

Team activities, such as volunteering for a food bank, can be intimidating for some employees, but skills-based volunteer (SBV) opportunities can be especially daunting.   

Emily Scott, Director of Programs at the Cherie Blair Foundation, comments, “I’ve also had moments with imposter syndrome, especially at the beginning of the relationship, as mentoring someone felt like a massive responsibility that I worried I might not have been qualified for.” 

In 2022, Bpeace surveyed its pool of 600+ SBVs to better understand their motivations and increase their engagement. Among the top 3 reasons for declining volunteer opportunities were SBVs’ lack of confidence in their ability to make an impact and doubts about whether their profile was the right fit. In total, 29% of respondents mentioned reasons related to imposter syndrome.  

Bpeace offers some volunteer opportunities that require lower levels of expertise and that have lower levels of impact, such as carrying out selection interviews with the entrepreneurs who apply to our programs or creating a diagnostic dossier on a participating business.  

However, the heart of the program is a Growth Project, which involves providing business advisory to a small-business owner over several months to address a growth opportunity. SBVs find it to be the most rewarding volunteer activity, both personally and professionally—yet there is a risk that the SBV’s advice could harm a business if it’s not on target.   

Volunteers may underestimate the value of just showing up 

Business owners often tell us they know their own business model and their sector of activity. What they value when joining a business acceleration program is 1) a sounding board to push them to lay out all their ideas and organize them, and 2) help seeing their challenges and opportunities from a different perspective. That’s why they need another pair of eyes on their ideas. They appreciate it when their SBV asks questions and provides examples and points of comparison to other projects they have seen or advised before.  

Alejandro Leal, General Director of small business Grupo ITD in Guatemala says, “Sometimes you just need someone to come in and help you see that there are other ways of doing things.”  

Tools, structure and clear expectations can help volunteers thrive 

To help SBVs overcome the imposter syndrome hurdle and experience these rewarding engagements, a few protocols help. Recommendations include: 

  • Start with a careful match of the volunteer’s skills and experience with a specific volunteer opportunity.  
  • Provide adequate orientation to equip the volunteer with the information and tools they need to feel at ease, and to ensure each volunteer understands their role. 
  • Designate a staff member to coordinate logistics, help interpret different cultural and business contexts, and provide moral support. 
  • Provide a clear Scope of Project at the start of each engagement. 
  • When needed, pair volunteers who complement each other’s experiences. 
  • Create a sense of belonging by facilitating a community of support to help new volunteers exchange with their peers. 
  • Put feedback mechanisms in place during and after the project, to course-correct and help volunteers engage again. 

Volunteering can also help employees overcome imposter syndrome in the workplace 

Corporations are motivated to engage their employees in volunteering as part of their ESG, CSR and other mission-related goals. They also know the benefits in terms of retaining and adding to the satisfaction of employees. Even beyond those benefits, volunteering—especially skills-based volunteering—can help employees overcome imposter syndrome in their professional position by strengthening their self-esteem, keeping their skills sharp and growing their professional network. 

Even seasoned professionals find they grow through volunteering, by learning new skills and applying their skills to new contexts. In our 2022 survey, expanding their network of professional contacts was rated as the top reason to volunteer, and gaining new skills or knowledge was rated reason No. 4. 

As Bpeace volunteer Anna Lambertson puts it, “I’m speaking each week with brilliant, committed professional women leaders. They are savvy, dedicated and I learn so much from them.” 

The rewards are greater than the risks 

Remember David Sturrock? The Guatemalan business he volunteered with, Uniko Designs, grew its revenues by 168% and created 13 new jobs after working with him. Claudia López Urizar, the small-business owner, says, “We were at the point when you start thinking: Will we be able to continue? Our Bpeace mentor, David Sturrock, was amazing. He brought so much light to our problems. We had bottlenecks that we couldn’t identify where they started. David taught us how to use software to plan ahead for our production processes and to detect those bottlenecks on time and not when it had already become a huge problem that you cannot solve. The action plan David helped us create is like our North Star for every decision.” 

From Claudia’s perspective, it was a very good thing that David overcame his initial doubts and signed up to volunteer. 

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