Why Is Volunteering Important? Advice for Job Hunters
The search for work continues. Besides rubbing more polish on your resume, what can a work-hungry American do to get a job? If you know which career interests you, you could consider volunteering in your chosen field. From networking and skill building to resume improvement, the benefits of volunteering seem endless.
Volunteerism Is Up
The BLS reports that, over a 12 month period that ended September of 2009, the number of Americans volunteering was up over the previous year. In total, 63.4 million people, or 26.8 percent of the U.S. population, volunteered during one of the toughest economic eras in our history. It was only a four-tenths of a percent rise over the previous year, but considering the tight household budgets that marked the time, the level of giving seems significant.
A story from the Fort Wayne, In. News Sentinel, “More Americans Volunteering” highlights how the majority of the increase in volunteerism came from people who were working part time. Part-time work was a common in the tough job market and gave people extra time to fill. Is it possible that those partly-employed folks volunteered strategically, to both help others and accelerate their job search? It’s certainly possible. See the stories below of two people who did just that.
The Benefits of Volunteering
Meet Nathan and Lily – two young people who volunteered their free time to get closer to full time. Both of them can tell you exactly how volunteering helped ensure their job success.
Nathan’s Story and Tips
Nathan is looking for elementary school teacher jobs in the public school system. He has been volunteering in public schools for the past two years and recently applied to grad school in education.
Inspiration: I would like to get a job as an elementary school teacher in the public school system. From there, I would like to further my education and get into a principle role in a public school and, from there, with more experience and more education, get into administration and policy-shaping roles in education.
Now better than ever, I see education, especially the public school system, as the perfect intersection of class issues, race issues, scientific theory, and, in practice, all kinds of things that I am interested in personally and academically. I want to be involved in those issues.
Better Perspective: In preparing for this career, volunteerism has given me many important things. It has given me perspective for a career that is very involved and complicated. It’s important to get a real perspective on what you’re getting into. The issues in the field, who are your co-workers will be, and what the culture is that you’re going into. You can ask yourself, “Can I, as a person and a professional, see myself working in this culture?”
Letters of Recommendation: Networking. This is an important one. It’s so true. Through my years of volunteering in the public schools I was able to get letter of recommendation written for me about my work with children, about my work with parents and the administration. People got a really great perspective on my capabilities and my interests going forward.
Networking: As a volunteer, you get to know who the important people are in the field you’re going into. I’ve been able to meet key stakeholders, notice the important principals, PTA leaders and others.
Basic Skill Building: Going into my grad school program where I will be student teaching, I am coming into it with two more years of experience than I would have otherwise. I have been doing the work already. I’ve had relationships with multiple mentors, have seen how they are good at their jobs and have been able to practice my skills and learn from them.
Smarter Decisions: I have applied to grad school and should hear back in a month. However, because of volunteering, I knew the program I wanted to go two years ago. I went to the program administrators then and said, “Who is your ideal candidate?” They told me and I used my volunteer time to make myself the perfect candidate. Volunteerism can be used to really specifically shape your experiences and make them concrete enough to show on a resumes.
I started around three years ago getting a bachelor’s double degree in English Literature, that’s for my personal interest, and Liberal Studies, because that was the degree they said they most wanted for an elementary school teacher. It’s not required but, if you have it, you have what they want.
Job Opportunities: From volunteering I have had several job offers. The school I volunteer at said, “When you get your degree, let us know.” Volunteering is a way to show off your skills to future employers. If they see how much effort you put out even when you’re not being paid they understand the enthusiasm you’ll put towards your work.
Credibility: Whatever situation you put yourself in, an interview for a job or a grad school program, having a back log of diverse volunteer experience shows credibility. You can draw examples from the experience. You’ll get exposure to situations requiring leadership and teamwork that you can refer to in your application or interview.
Advancement: So many opportunities open up. I just left a conference about opportunity gaps in society and education. The school actually paid for me to go to this conference because they knew I was interested in the topic. There were all kinds of important people there. CEOs from various companies, directors of non-profits, community leaders – they were my colleagues at this workshop. All of this came to me because of volunteering. Volunteering plugs you into a network of professionals you never would have known existed otherwise. Once you get plugged in you start meeting people, get exposed to new opportunities and expand your horizons.
Lily’s Story and Tips
Lily recently landed a job with a major employer in her town as a Web producer. She volunteered previously at an arts magazine and is now doing PR work for the MS Society in her hometown.
Clarity: I was in school part-time the last few years. I was interested in the arts and was doing all of that exploration people do in their undergraduate. I was always a smart kid but I needed more life experience to know what my strengths were. From school, you don’t know what your skills are in the market. Also, I got to discover what I would like to do for a job. “What doesn’t drive me crazy to do over and over, 40 hours a week?” I was able to find where my strengths lie, outside of school.
New Skills: What I think volunteering with the MS Society will bring me is broader skills. It allows me to try something that I have underlying skills in but I couldn’t get a job in it, yet. I get to take a stab at something for a cause that I believe in. It’s professional but there’s not the pressure of someone hiring you, like maybe there would be in an internship. You’re volunteering your time and they can use what you produce if it works for them.
New Challenges: I’m working with the MS Society on the MS 150 bike ride. Their other major fundraising event, the MS Walk, is a well-established source of funds. It’s about community and supporting families. The bike ride has potential for earning more money than the walk. The challenge is to try to figure out how to market it, pull in corporate teams and leverage the earning power that it has. The people interested in participating in the bike ride are more interesting in the competition. It’s a very different audience.
I’m working on the PR aspect of the bike ride. I’m helping to develop the materials to communicate to the right venues in the right language. There’s a plan already established for developing those communications. I’m able to work with the person who would normally be doing this work but doesn’t have the time to do it. This nonprofit has great plans but the team there doesn’t have time to follow things through in the right way. They’ve done the studies, gathered the info. With me working on it, it’s no pressure on them. If I do it well, it’s good. And, I’ll get the recognition and metrics to show that I changed something for the better.
Broader Range of Experience: My work at a print arts magazine, as opposed to Web media, helped me get my new job. It gave me additional skills and an additional blurb on my resume. I now have copyediting experience for a print publication that is internationally distributed. It’s an art magazine so I also have experience writing for an art magazine, not just writing about health, like I did in my previous job. If an arts organization was looking to hire me, I’d be someone they’d be more likely to hire. I put in time with an arts magazine so I’ve seen some of the functions of that. They might say, “She’s one of us.”
When I interviewed for my recent job, the employer liked it that my work at an arts magazine had more of an entertainment bent than my work at a healthcare website. It was a less dry topic and better suited to the work I was hired to do.
Getting What You Want: You’ve got to basically go to an organization and say exactly what you want to do. You have to say, “I want to do this specific thing. Do you have a project that fills these criteria?” They can take it or leave it. I’m going to take a minimal amount of their time. They don’t have to direct me. They put in very little and they could get a lot. But, you can’t approach them without direction and just ask, “What do you need?” You have to show them the skills that you want to use at that organization.
Get Started Today
With all of that fabulous advice in mind, consider volunteering your way to a new career. All kinds of opportunities are available. Interested in studying dinosaurs for a living? Who knows, maybe there is a paleontology volunteer position out there for you. Start looking for volunteer jobs right now.
Below is a list of some Web resources for finding volunteer gigs. Also, you can follow Lily’s advice and go straight to the organization you prefer and tell them what you’d like to do.
Best wishes, everyone.