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Michele Rapp

How volunteering can boost your career

Volunteering is meaningful in its own right, but volunteer work can also play an important role in helping you achieve your career goals. It offers many opportunities for exploring new work, skill building, networking, enhancing your resume and more. Below are a few tips on how to be strategic in your choice of volunteering, and the ways it can enhance your career.

Find volunteer opportunities that complement your career

Be strategic about volunteering if you’re in a job search. Assess whether the volunteer experience is likely to build the needed skills, offer learning experience, or allow you to network with others. Also consider the size of the organization and their experience with volunteers. Always have a clear agreement about what you’ll be doing, the number of hours and the length of the assignment.

Use the opportunity to test the waters

Volunteering is a helpful way to test the waters of a field you’re considering as a career. For example, if you’re think you’d like to be a therapist, try volunteering for a crisis hotline or a program for children with emotional difficulties. It’s likely that you’ll get some training that will also expand your skills. Sometimes the process works in reverse, where trying something new can help you realize you want to pursue it as a career. For example, volunteering as a tour guide could make you realize that you want to be a teacher or corporate trainer.

Build Skills for a Future Career Change

Career changers often find they are at a disadvantage because they are applying for jobs that require skills they have never used in previous positions. For example, someone who completes a certificate in graphic design or web design may have created a portfolio for school, but has not used that skill for their employer. One option is to find nonprofits who need a volunteer to build a new website or produce their newsletter as an opportunity to gain experience and references, and build a portfolio.

Leverage Professional Associations

Volunteering with a professional association builds new contacts, skills, and experience. For those seeking to demonstrate leadership, these organizations often need volunteers to lead committees, plan conferences, raise funds, manage events, train volunteers, seek sponsors, and more. You can easily increase your professional brand and visibility by offering your services to a professional association’s local or national chapter. Workplace committees, such as employee resource groups or event planning committees, are also another way to use new skills and network.

Another benefit of working with such associations is that they allow you take on new tasks without scrutinizing your qualifications. These projects are an opportunity to clarify what skills you enjoy using, without the pressure of a performance review. Volunteer work can also lead to a job, as nonprofits often hire volunteers who have proven themselves in that work environment.

Enhance Your Resume and Interviews

Be sure to add a “Volunteer Experience” section to your resume. As you would for employers, include the organization’s name, your role, dates, and details. Be intentional in what you want to emphasize about the skills used and your accomplishments. If you volunteered during a career break or unemployment, add those experiences to your resume to show experience gained during that time.

The volunteer section of a resume can also create conversations and connections around shared interests. An interviewer may share your passion for volunteering at the local museum, or you could have volunteered for the same organization. Recruiters and hiring managers may remember candidates for their activities outside of work or for participation in corporate volunteer programs. During interviews, share examples of volunteer projects as well as the skills used when volunteering. Add details about your accomplishments, such as dollars raised, or the events you planned. 

A word of caution – weigh the pros and cons of including certain volunteer experiences, depending on your personal values and the industry you’re trying to enter. For example, political or religious volunteer work may have a positive or negative perception with the reader. Be selective in what you include in your resume in order to put your best foot forward for the organization you’re applying to.  

Where to Start

Organizations that have varied volunteer positions include: nonprofits, professional associations, alumni associations, parent-teacher organizations, town government positions and committees, fundraising events, and religious organizations. There are many organizations that offer “volunteer vacations” and international volunteering as well. You can also find volunteer opportunities on sites such as Idealist, VolunteerMatch, and The United Way.

Have Fun!

Many people find that volunteering lets them use skills or pursue a passions that are not career-related. Remember to enjoy volunteer activities in their own right, for the satisfaction of giving back, being involved with a cause you care about, or expressing parts of yourself that complement your day job.  

Michele Rapp is the Associate Director of Alumni Career Strategy in Northeastern’s Office of Alumni Relations.