Volunteering to Make a Leap

Every day, I talk with people who are doing volunteer work to fill their extra time while they look for new jobs.  It’s a great way to keep a routine, feel good, and give something back.  But most of them are overlooking another possibility – a leap to a new career.

I’m not talking about going to work for a non-profit, although some have done that, too.  I’m talking using volunteer experience to build skills for private industry or to test-drive a new career.

Case in Point: from Financial Services to Event Planning

A former colleague of mine got a job as an event planner for a major lobbying organization in D.C.  His career had – up until then – been spent in HR for financial services firms.  As you probably know, event planning does not fall along the traditional career path for HR reps.  Regardless, it’s what he wanted to pursue.

After researching what it takes to get a decent job as an event planner – lots of experience doing it – he decided he needed to find a way to get that, without giving up his income for an entry-level position at starvation wages. His solution? Volunteer as an event planner for non-profit organizations in his spare time.

Volunteer work as a training ground

Many like him are discovering that non-profits and volunteer-run groups provide a tremendous training ground for paying jobs. Volunteer organizations are starved for dedicated, motivated workers to take on roles as far-flung as project management, logistics coordination, event planning, tech support, fundraising, and plain old supervision of other volunteers. Thus, they are often willing to allow those with little experience to roll up their sleeves and dive in.

This provides an opportunity for people, like my former colleague, who want to try out a new career and earn their stripes.  It’s also an opening to network with other volunteers and donors – plus plug some holes in your resume, if you’re between jobs.

If you already volunteer, I challenge you to look at your experiences in a new light. What skills are you developing that will help with your career? Is this something you can highlight on your resume? Suddenly, planning that fundraiser, coaching the little league team, or cleaning up the beach can take on new dimensions.

Plus, you’ll muster great references and networking contacts, if you treat it as a paying job. Here’s a word of caution, though: make sure you follow through.

Don’t overcommit, and don’t offer to take on a responsibility that you can’t execute. If you’d like to try your hand at something that’s completely new to you, ask if you can assist someone with more experience for a while. And if you find yourself in trouble, time-wise or skill-wise, ask for help. Leaving them high and dry when they’re counting on you will cause your efforts to backfire.

Leveraging Volunteer Work on your Resume

So, now you’re plugging along, developing new skills and wowing your fellow volunteers with your dedication and skill. How will this help your resume?

First, consider it a “real” job. Lift your volunteer work out of the obscurity of the “personal” section of your resume and integrate it with your paying jobs. Then, just like any other job, consider your accomplishments and build them into your resume.

For example, if you coordinated the planning of an annual fundraising event, ask yourself some key questions.

  • How many volunteers did you supervise?
  • How did you market the event?
  • Did you solicit corporate sponsors?
  • What about venue or vendor contracts?
  • Ultimately, what was the result?
  • How much money did you raise?
  • How many people attended?
  • How did this compare to previous years’ results?

Be honest, just as you would with any job. It’s fairly transparent to prospective employers when people overstate their efforts.

Every volunteer organization and experience is different. Look for those that feed both your passion and your career needs, and you’ll find a win-win situation. And you’ll do some good along the way.

A form of this post was previously published in the Times Beacon Record Newspapers, August 30, 2007, with the title “Volunteering as a Career Development Strategy.”

2 responses to “Volunteering to Make a Leap

  1. Great post! I am a regular volunteer with the Taproot Foundation and have found that working on pro bono projects for nonprofits has helped me to develop skills in new areas. I have also known many fellow volunteers who were able to leverage their pro bono experience on their resumes.

    • Pamela,

      Thanks! Considering the number of people who have used their “transition time” to give back to their communities, I suspect there are a lot of folks out there who could be building this into their resumes. The key, as you know, is to be thoughtful about your role with the nonprofit – both in planning for it and in leveraging it later.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s