With the economy still recovering from recession and unemployment levels still high, many Americans are looking at less traditional ways to further their careers, including volunteering. It's certainly not a get-rich-quick tactic, but career advisers and recruiters are recommending volunteering to help you get back on your feet and land a full-time job.
This doesn't mean, however, that working to save the whales will help you in your quest for a position in sports marketing. For the unemployed or underemployed, volunteering must be done strategically to help advance your career.
By volunteering with a goal in mind and choosing opportunities that align with career goals, you show prospective employers you are serious about your professional development even while you didn’t have a job -- or one that wasn’t quite up to par.
Allison O’Kelly, founder and CEO of the professional staffing firm Mom Corps.
Find the Right Fit
It is important to volunteer for an organization that's relevant to your field. Even better, find one that fits your career needs.
“The key is to find opportunities that support the story you’re trying to tell recruiters about your strengths, passions and long-term career goals,” said Amanda Augustine, job-search expert for The Ladders, an online job matching service. “Target volunteer opportunities that align with your job goals, reside in your targeted industry or allow you to build specific skill sets that are considered critical to your chosen career.”
Sites such as VolunteerMatch, Idealist and SmartVolunteer are good places to start, Augustine says. It also helps to look into industry associations, professional societies and alumni networks in your line of work.
In this economy, many nonprofits depend heavily on volunteers to perform major functions, as they do not have the resources to hire the necessary full-time staff, says Holly Koenig, vice president of the Kellen Co., a marketing and public relations firm.
This creates an opportunity for experienced professionals with valuable skill sets such as development, sales and marketing, to get involved in fundraising or other aspects of those organizations where they could truly shine. In these cases, volunteers have the opportunity to do high-level work, rather than simply stuff envelopes, and can document their achievements on their resume.
For people who have been laid off, every month that goes by without a job can make them feel like they’re undoing years of hard work, as well as falling behind on advances and best practices in their field.
“When employees are absent for any length of time, they risk looking irrelevant or dated to hiring managers,” said Allison O’Kelly, founder and CEO of the professional staffing firm Mom Corps.
But employers recognize that many capable workers are getting laid off through no fault of their own. You can still demonstrate your work ethic between jobs and set yourself apart from other applicants with a volunteering gig on your resume.
"By volunteering with a goal in mind and choosing opportunities that align with career goals, you show prospective employers you are serious about your professional development even while you didn’t have a job -- or one that wasn’t quite up to par," O'Kelly says.
Another key component to strategic volunteering is networking. By working at a professional society or trade group in your field, you can expand your network of contacts, likely increasing your chances of being referred to a job.
“So many jobs today are not just from LinkedIn or answering ads,” said Koenig. “They’re from the relationships that you’ve built through your personal and professional contacts.”
She suggests volunteering for your professional society’s membership committee, possibly contacting members and potential members about services.
“It’s the best committee to build your network,” she said, because it puts you in direct communication with established professionals and contacts in your field you might not otherwise meet.
Networking is especially important for young people who have not yet established a large network of professional contacts.
“Young people today believe that networking equals social media strategies,” said Koenig. “They will learn in their 30s and 40s that face-to-face networking is where it’s at.”
Promote Yourself to Future Employers
Once you've landed the volunteer gig and impressed the people at the organization, it's important to leverage that properly to score a paying job.
Highlight your volunteering successes on job applications and in interviews. "Include measurables in your resume and bring a portfolio of your work to interviews,” said O'Kelly. In the interview, talk about what you did in your volunteering role and the impact it had on the company. Use numbers and concrete examples where you can.
If your future employer asks for references, don't be afraid to ask colleagues at your volunteering job to provide them. It's especially useful to get your supervisor or another high-level employee at the volunteer organization to give it.