Back in 1985, Mary-Jo Iocavino started singing with the prestigious Oratorio Society of New York. The 200-member group, co-founded by Andrew Carnegie, whose wife also sang in the New York City chorus, doesn't take just anyone. So Iocavino, a financial consultant with AXA Advisors, was delighted to be accepted — despite the looming demands of weekly rehearsals and three performances a year, plus tours in the summer.

As it turns out, however, Iocavino's involvement has been more than a labor of love. It has also paid off professionally. At least 15 members have become clients, and she has received countless referrals. She also is talking to another chorus member about taking over the planning of his sizeable estate. “It's become a wonderful way to build a client base,” says Iocavino, who runs a 500-client practice.

This is not to suggest you should become a do-gooder primarily because it might be good for your business. But the dirty little secret of community involvement and volunteering is this: It is good for business. Call it Machiavelli meets the 1,000 points of light. You can turn community service into the ultimate networking machine — one that can mean the difference between a ho-hum business and a thriving success.

What types of activities work best? Of course, there are the usual suspects: a Rotary membership, serving on the board at a country club. But reps have found business benefits in all sorts of pursuits. For instance, Mary Anne Ehlert, a financial planner in Vernon Hills, Ill., helped found a nonprofit group that assists families in arranging lifelong care for children with disabilities. Fred Siegel, a financial advisor with The Siegel Group in New Orleans, hosts the local public TV station's annual fundraising drive. Iocavino, in addition to her chorus work, participates in a foundation that AXA set up to support community service work.

Good Intentions a Must

A word of caution, though: If you are joining an organization just to fish for business leads, you are unlikely to meet with success. “For people whose objective is first to get business, it won't work,” says Hoyte Brown, president of Creative Financial Planning Corp. in Hamden, Conn. “You can't fake it.”

Brown has deep experience in community involvement. He was mayor of his hometown and is very active in his church. He figures his activities have generated as many as 200 clients, but he stresses that business is not his motivation. In fact, Brown believes that serious commitment to a cause is essential. Sincere volunteers will quickly sniff out your ulterior motive, and you won't get the satisfaction out of contributing to the group or the side benefits to your business.

“You have to pick something that really floats your boat,” says Iocavino. “Then you can start to network.”

Comfort — especially with the members of whatever organization you join — is perhaps the most important factor in choosing a community activity. Shawn Parker, an advisor with American Express Financial Advisors in Schaumburg, Ill., has firsthand experience with how comfort turns into trust. As a member of her local Rotary club for 15 years, she works closely with the 90-member group, raising money for everything from college scholarships and food pantries to a senior ball. Parker also participates in regular lunches in which about 10 members discuss their work. These have helped her to form close relationships and establish herself as a credible, effective person. “Everyone feels very safe about working with the people in the group,” she says. “They know they have to face them every Friday at lunch.” Parker figures that about half the club's 90 members have become clients.

Rotary members have also become a great source of referrals. She regularly shares business leads with several accountants and attorneys in the group, and they do the same for her. She reckons as many as 100 of her clients have come to her through this lead-sharing network.

Still, don't expect to attract clients overnight. The experience of Gilbert Davis, a financial advisor and CPA with Financial Advisors in Pittsburgh, is probably typical. He found that it took three or four years before his work as a Little League coach, a member of his country club board, a fundraiser for the Juvenile Diabetes Association and a participant in YMCA youth programs began to have a positive effect on his business practice. “You have to plant the seeds,” Davis says.

But it does not hurt to be choosy about what you plant. “The people in my group are the movers and shakers of the community,” says Parker, the American Express advisor. Maintaining close relationships with these people places her in a good position to see when they might need financial advice.

It also helps to target your volunteering to activities that attract the interest of well-heeled participants. For the past five years, for example, Siegel has co-sponsored an investment club for high school students at local prep schools. He kicks off the meetings each year, then hands off ensuing gatherings to the care of his staff — except for parents' night, that is; Siegel generally speaks at that one. “These are private schools, so these are parents with money,” he says.

Separate from the Pack

Another benefit of volunteering is to simply raise your visibility in the community. Without spending a lot on marketing, you develop an effective public persona. “I'm branding myself,” says Siegel. “Clients don't necessarily put their money with a company, but with a person. So you want to make sure you're looked at in a certain way.”

To get the most out of his community involvement, Siegel acts as a master of ceremonies for a local public TV auction. He also appears as a commentator on local radio and TV shows.

Dan Brennan, of Brennan Financial Group in Highland Hills, Ohio, uses TV in a different way. For the past five years, during the football season in his football-crazy state, he runs a weekly commercial before the game's broadcast recognizing a different student-athlete. Then, at the end of the season, he gives 32 students the chance to compete for $2,000 in college scholarship money by participating in an essay writing contest. A panel of judges — educators in the community — pick the winners. He also posts pictures and information about the students on his Web site. Result: Traffic to the site has shot up by a factor of 10. “It's raised our stature in the community and awareness of the business,” says Brennan, while also benefiting the community.

Hard to argue with that.