One of the best ways to get ahead in life is simply volunteering your time. This is a time-tested lesson; providing personal time to assist others opens up new opportunities, builds new bridges and forges new relationships.

In the book “Rich Dad Poor Dad”, the author learns an important lesson about money in the first chapter – to learn to make money, you must learn to work without expecting it. This is a lesson in entrepreneurship, but it also demonstrates the value of volunteering your time to gain experience and learn new things.

I also recall a story I was told in college of a 14 year old math prodigy who knew a physics professor who lived down the street. He wanted to learn from him. This professor was very busy, a little difficult to talk to – but also very intelligent and had great connections in the Physics world. He noticed the lawn was unkept, so he knocks on the Professors door and presents him an offer: I’ll do your lawn work if we could spend 1 hour a week for a little Q&A about math and physics.

Seriously, what professor does not like to talk about their work? After several chats, this professor realizes the potential of this young man and soon enough, he’s shaking hands with the innovators in the Physics community, introduced as a protege to this well known and influential professor. These opportunities have tremendous potential for the rest of his life – and it all came from a simple willingness to volunteer the time to do a little work and listen.

So let’s bring this idea to the Web. Businesses can volunteer – in fact, many of them do quite often. And when it comes to building new, relevant links… there are great opportunities to help others while building links and forging your own relationships with the offline and online communities your business serves.

Volunteering can also help you better understand how your business is/is not connected to the needs of others. That’s right – news flash folks – understanding how your target audience thinks and feels is good market research. Some of the best market research money won’t buy.

Who do you Volunteer For?

Think of those who would use/wear/interact with your products and the concerns they have. Are there Support Groups, Clubs, churches, charities, or other organizations that you share a common goal with?

If you can’t think of anything where your business has a direct influence, think of a cause you personally support. If you’re a local business, thinking local is a good first step, so seek out the local organizations you can meet, greet, and promote with.

How do you Volunteer?

1) Offer Free Hosting – In my experience, any Web Junkie has reliable Web Hosting. Most small support groups are niche, small organizations with less than a hundred members. Many of them are funded by donations only, so “Free” is always preferred. Hosting is relatively cheap for us industry folks who have done the research, and free hosting is a HUGE technical aid for non-technical folks.

2) Build/Enhance a Website with something free – It’s easy to forget when you’ve got Web skills, but the majority of the people on the Web either know very little about building and maintaining a Website, or they simply do not have the time to do it. And if you’re a savvy developer/designer/site manager, you could very easily provide the time and efforts to help these folks get their data online in exchange for a backlink as a “Sponsor”, “Designer”, or “Web Host”. Trust me, if you’re an efficient worker, it’s well worth your time.

One useful way I’ve used this tactic in the past couple years is to offer to re-theme a blog, offer to “socialize” a business with connections to Twitter and Facebook. This helps them expand their presence using tools they otherwise didn’t know about or wouldn’t learn to use. This seems to be very appealing these days since most people do not realize or understand the free plug-ins, promotional & metric tools available to them.

3) Recognize the Online Achievements of Others with Awards, Reviews, and Posts – People like physical help, but recognition is another form of help for many organizations and support groups. It raises awareness and attention towards their cause and helps grow members. Or, your organization can provide physical help and blog about it. Encourage them to blog about it, too.

4) Cross-Promote and Include Them – Many support groups create their own fundraisers and events. Participate and help them promote! Offer a discount or a donation of sales to the organization for the event/fundraiser. Help promote events in your business and online as a sponsor. Experiment with mobile apps like FourSquare to offer these types of promotions and encourage these groups to use these Mobile tools. This’ll usually get you a link or two in the process, help raise money, and increase awareness for both the business and the group you’re supporting.

My approach is strictly from an online marketing POV for ways to build links. Do you have more ideas of how you can volunteer to others, or more clever ways to build links? Please comment!