Reality check: Volunteering your way to a job

Will Volunteer for WorkIf you’re a job seeker, chances are you’ve heard this piece of advice: “You should volunteer! It’s a great way to get a job!”

Help the world while also helping yourself get your next paying gig? It sounds pretty great to a do-gooding nonprofit professional. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as many advice-givers make it out to be. Yes, volunteering can help lead you to employment opportunities, but it’s often a long and indirect process. The chances of finding a job through the sheer act of volunteering are slim.

Here’s why:

Many people volunteer with an organization in hopes of gaining employment there. It’s a fine idea, in theory. But let’s be realistic. In order for you to be hired, a position has to open up. And not just any position—a job in your area and at your level of expertise. Add to that the fact you’ll need to volunteer for enough time to establish yourself as a valuable contributor to the organization…and you begin to see timing is everything.

So what’s a job-seeker to do? Ditch volunteering entirely? Absolutely not! But you have to understand the path from volunteering to a job can often be quite curvy. Volunteering helps you build your skills and network, which may lead to employment opportunities in the nonprofit sector. But you’ll need to work at it. And you’ll need to approach your volunteer work with the right attitude.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Focus on mission.

Yes, you want to get a job. But don’t let it be your sole motivator. Pursue volunteer opportunities at organizations where you believe in the mission. You have a better chance of enjoying your experience if the work is meaningful to you. And you may just find a volunteer opportunity you’ll want to stick with long-term.

2. Be honest about your time commitment.

While you might be able to volunteer 20 hours a week while you’re job hunting, you probably can’t keep that up when you’re employed. Volunteer managers know this and are leery of investing in volunteers who may disappear in a few weeks. Being honest will help both you and the organization figure out how you can get—and give—the most while volunteering.  There may be a short-term committee or an opportunity that offers flexible hours.

3. Be strategic.

Although it’s tempting to apply for the first volunteer opportunity that sounds fun, this may not lead to success in your job search. Think about what you want to get out of volunteering and pursue opportunities that will allow for this. Want to expand your network? Choose an opportunity where you’ll get to interact with community members, other volunteers, and staff. Want to expand on a certain skill? An office job may be just the right fit.

4. Be exceptional.

Being an unreliable, half-committed volunteer won’t do anything for your job prospects. In fact, it will probably hurt them. Treat your volunteer work like an extended job interview, and give it all you’ve got. Other people will want to help you in your job hunt if they think you’ll be a real asset to your future organization. And a glowing recommendation from a staff member can go a long way toward building your reputation throughout the nonprofit sector.

5. Don’t take—or expect—shortcuts.

If you are fortunate enough to have the perfect job open up at the organization where you’re volunteering, don’t assume your work gives you special standing. Apply for the job. Be professional in your interview. Write thank-you notes. Don’t cut corners just because you know the staff members or the organization.

6. Continue your other job-seeking efforts.

You never know where your next job opportunity may come from. Perhaps it will be a contact you meet through volunteering. It may come from another direction altogether. Continue pursuing networking and skill-building opportunities outside of your volunteer role. This will both help your job search and allow you to fully appreciate your volunteer work.

Volunteering can help you find a new job, but you need to go about it the right way. If you understand the hard work and time commitment involved in becoming a great volunteer, you’ll set yourself up to be successful with the hard work and time commitment involved in becoming a great employee.

Have you ever found employment through a volunteer position, either directly or indirectly? What worked or didn’t work?

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