Can working a job without a paycheck set you up for big bucks? Job seekers who took this route tell all.
By Debra Donston-Miller
Volunteering is good for your soul, and it can also be good for your resume.
Many in the ranks of the unemployed have sought out volunteer work to pass the time and remain active in the absence of a 9-to-5 daily assignment. And some of those volunteers have found, by design or serendipity, that donating time and skills to a charity can be a ticket to employment.
Making such a transition takes planning. Job seekers who have leveraged charity work into full-time work, executives who run nonprofit organizations and job-search experts told TheLadders that making the connection is not as simple as signing up to serve meals at the senior center.
To turn volunteer work into employment requires a strategic decision about what organizations are most likely to help your career and what roles you can serve that will put you in a position to connect your volunteer service to full-time work, these experts said.
But don’t discount your passion for a particular cause or group, they cautioned. Combining a strategic appraisal of your options and your heart’s desire can lead to a job that nourishes your income and your soul.
Do what you know
Here’s just one example: After she was laid off in April of this year, Jane, a marketing professional in Massachusetts, thought long and hard about what she really wanted to do next.
During college, she had done a work study and volunteered for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. This summer Jane, who asked that her last name and other specifics not be used for this story, decided that animal welfare was her calling and went back to her MSPCA roots.
The difference this time: Jane saw volunteering at the agency as an opportunity to gain the experience and contacts she would need to secure paying nonprofit jobs.
Jane approached the MSPCA about doing some pro bono marketing work. This move put her directly in front of the directors of marketing at the MSPCA agency she hoped might connect her to full-time work there or help her network to find another job. She never had the chance to test that tactic. She found her next job at a Web site focused on animal welfare through an online posting.
"While I was volunteering, I actually found the job… online," said Jane. "One of the people who I was volunteering with had worked at the company previously. I said, 'Hey, do you know anyone whom I can show my resume to?' She said, 'I'll send it,' and the rest is history."
Jane volunteered at the MSPCA because she believed in the work it does, but she volunteered in a role that she could leverage in her job search, she said. It’s why she volunteered for marketing jobs in the marketing department and not as, say, a kennel cleaner or dog walker.
Choosing the right role for your charity work is key to connecting volunteer work to full-time work, said Rahul D. Yodh, an executive recruiter with Link Legal Search Group in Dallas. "If you volunteer in a situation where you can utilize your day-to-day business skills, then I think it's a great idea and a great way to further your career because you're essentially doing a job, not just sitting around.
“At the same time, you're building some contacts, and you never know where that will lead,” Yodh said. “If you can get a high-enough level volunteering position, then that's probably the best route to take."
Leverage your network
Volunteering is the route Nate Towne traveled to a public-relations job in Wisconsin after relocating from Maine.
Three years ago, Towne moved from Portland, Maine, to Madison, Wis. He found himself without a job or any business contacts in that part of the country. He decided to build his network by joining a local chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.
Not long afterward, Towne realized that the organization was in dire need of volunteers to help judge entries for a regional PR awards program. The chair of the judging committee was also the PR director of Madison's largest advertising firm, Hiebing, and Towne figured volunteering was a way to demonstrate his skills to a prominent figure in his profession.
"I realized, ‘What better chance will I have to demonstrate my skills in a PR setting than to actually work with people who are already employed at some big agencies and at big hiring companies here in Madison and around Madison?’ " Towne said. "’I can show them a.) that I'm willing to roll up my sleeves and work for no pay and b.) that I'm a smart person who gets things done and has some opinions about how things should be done.’ "
As luck would have it, Hiebing was hiring. "I was the first one called because they had already worked with me," Towne said. He was hired as public-relations counselor at Hiebing.
Choose your charity carefully
Both Jane and Nate were strategic about choosing the organizations they volunteered for and the services they provided to those organizations. But that's not to say that you will easily have your pick of nonprofits, especially when you are offering up a specific set of business skills.
Jane researched many nonprofit organizations, within and outside the animal-welfare area, and found that about half were interested in her marketing skills while half didn't really know what they could do with them.
Organizations such as Volunteer Match.org and Idealist.org can help you find a good fit. The goal of VolunteerMatch, based in San Francisco, is "to help nonprofits reach their mission through effective volunteering," said Robert J. Rosenthal, VolunteerMatch's director of communications.
"The range of volunteer activities that are posted at VolunteerMatch really represents the spectrum of national and community service activities in this country, and that includes unskilled and skilled labor," he said. "As a result, a huge percentage of people who do volunteer work as a strategy for career development and promotion are finding their opportunities in places like VolunteerMatch.”
It is hard to say how many people are volunteering as part of their job-search strategy; the recession and unemployment have resulted in a rise in volunteers and volunteer hours, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Sixty-one million Americans volunteered in 2008, one million more than the previous year, according to the BLS. The increase is even more profound among the unemployed. More than 2.1 million unemployed workers volunteered last year, up from 1.7 million in 2007, a 23.5 percent increase. Statistics for 2009 won’t be available until January 2010, the BLS said.
Rosenthal said that, year over year, VolunteerMatch has seen a big jump in usage.
"We know that for the first six months of 2009, our numbers were substantially higher than the numbers for the first six months of 2008, both in terms of unique visitors and in terms of people actually finding something they were looking for and clicking on the button that says, 'I want to help.' "
Nate Towne wanted to help even after he had found a paying job in Madison. Towne is currently volunteering for HospiceCare, both because he believes strongly in the work the organization does and because it gives him a chance to network and gain experience.
"I think volunteering is something important to do, and it helps round out my resume in the nonprofit sector," he said. "I volunteer time in the gardens. I'm doing non-business things, but I'm doing it with a lot of business leaders here in Madison."
In the end, any volunteer experience — no matter what your motivation going in — can be a valuable boost to your resume and can help you stand out from a growing crowd.
"Get as much as you can out of the volunteering experience," said Theo Stripling, program associate with Literacy Volunteers of Illinois. "You never know when you're going to be presented with an opportunity. You may pick up another skill set along the way that makes you more marketable, and that's something that's very hard to do these days."
Debra Donston-Miller covers work-life issues and difficult job-search situations for TheLadders.