A lot of parents, especially those who stay at home, feel like that’s an accurate description of the volunteer work they’re asked to do at their children’s schools or other local organizations. Eager to help and offer their free time, these parents often say yes to requests for volunteers, without considering whether the tasks make sense in terms of their skill sets or interests. Ultimately, many parents end up feeling overtaxed and unsatisfied from volunteering experiences. On top of that, their hours of “work” don’t provide any career benefit if the projects are unrelated to their professional aspirations. However, if you match your volunteer efforts with your career goals, a volunteer position can not only be satisfying, it can also be a valuable asset for your career. That’s what I call “smart volunteering.”
One of my current clients is a perfect example of the benefits of smart volunteering. Jane is a sales and marketing professional who’s been out of the paying workforce raising her daughter for ten years. During her hiatus, she’s regularly done volunteer marketing, development, and programming work for children’s organizations. Jane has been consistent about focusing her energies on work that fits her career path. Now that her daughter is in college and she’s ready to reenter the workforce, Jane has a two-page resume that reflects the experience and accomplishments she gained during this period. Recently, a contact she made through her volunteer work told her about a job opening at a youth leadership organization. Jane submitted her resume and was immediately asked in for an interview. Although she’s been unemployed for a decade, her recent references can attest to the quality of her work, and when she met with a potential employer she was able to discuss recent projects. Jane is well-poised to get a job in her field because she used her volunteer time strategically.
Smart volunteering has an extremely high career payoff because it satisfies 5 major building blocks of any job search: Competence, Connections, CV, Confidence, and Contracts.
Competence: If you’re taking a career break, volunteering is a great way to continue using the skills you developed in your career. It can also keep you up-to-date on the latest trends and practices in your industry, putting you in a better position for when you want to return to work. Volunteering can also help you segue into a new career by exposing you to different skills and information. Many of my clients who are career-changers use volunteering to test out a field of interest and learn the ropes. They appreciate being able to explore new options without a high risk of failure.
Connections: Volunteer work is an invaluable resource for networking since you can interact with other professionals in your profession. You can even try to establish a relationship with a mentor who may help you develop and grow your career. As was the case with my client Jane, these connections are invaluable when you begin to look for a job.
CV: Strategic volunteer work can help build your Curriculum Vitae (CV), otherwise known as a resume. By listing her volunteer work in the “Experience” section of her resume, Jane increased her marketability and provide valuable connective tissue to bridge an employment gap. Many job seekers use skills-based resumes that focus on skill sets and accomplishments rather than chronological employment history. These resumes help showcase volunteer work in as favorable a light as possible.
Confidence: Studies have shown that volunteering is an effective confidence booster. Volunteers gain firsthand experience, knowledge of current trends, and meet people in their field. A volunteer can gain immeasurable confidence through experience while working alongside professionals in a chosen field, and that self-assurance comes through in networking and job interviews.
Contracts: In some instances, volunteering can lead to a paying job in the organization. I have clients whose volunteer positions led to permanent positions in museums, admissions offices, development offices, nonprofits, and the like.
So how do you find the right position? Many online resources identify skills-based volunteering opportunities. For instance, Idealist (idealist.org), New York Cares (nycares.org), and Volunteer Match (volunteermatch.org) are clearinghouses for volunteer positions in the New York area. The advanced search features on these sites allow you to narrow your inquiry based on your skills, the nature of the organization, the location, and even the amount of time you want to commit.
If those sites don’t lead to your dream position, a little more research can help identify other opportunities. Trust me, there’s something for everyone. If you’re interested in fashion, get involved with Dress for Success (dressforsuccess.org) or Operation Prom (operationprom.org). If you’re a writer, 826NYC (826nyc.org) needs volunteers to run writing workshops for students. Lawyers can help nonprofit organizations through Pro Bono Partnership (probonopartnership.org), Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (vlany.org), or Lawyers Alliance for New York (lany.org).
You can also create your own volunteer opportunity. Instead of waiting for an organization to ask you, you can offer to provide them with a service. If you are interested in movies, offer to curate a film series at your children’s school. If you are a writer, offer to publish a newsletter. If you are a social media marketer, volunteer to establish and maintain an organization’s social media presence. The goal is for you to first define what you want to be doing with your time and then find a worthy recipient of your services.
Have you been able to find smart volunteering opportunities? I would love to hear about them; please send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barri Waltcher is a New York City-based career advisor who helps women navigate the transition from parenting back to a satisfying career. She is the co-founder of Mind Your Own Business Moms (MYOBmoms.com) and a frequent speaker on career topics.