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Ask Alexis | Should I Include Potentially Controversial Volunteer Experience On My Resume?

Alexis Perrotta

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Dear Ask Alexis,

Over the last few years, I’ve been doing quite a bit of volunteering. I’m concerned, however, that some of my stints may be just a little controversial depending on the organization I’m applying to work for now that I'm job searching.

Do you recommend leaving certain experience off of a resume? Or the more the better?

Thank you!

E.H.  


Hi E.H.,

Thanks for your question, and I’m happy to hear that you’ve found an interest in volunteering over these last few years! I hope Idealist has been a useful tool in helping you find in-person and remote volunteer opportunities that are a fit for your interests.

Okay … on to your question (it's a great one)!

I often get questions from job seekers about whether to include job or volunteer experience, and in fact, this question has come up in my own career as well. 

Of course, there are a variety of reasons why a person may consider leaving experience off of a resume. Perhaps it was a short-lived job, an organization that you didn’t part with on the best of terms, or work that you’re concerned may be viewed as controversial or divisive. If you find yourself in either of the first two scenarios, I highly recommend you check out our resources that speak specifically to those particular situations. In this post, I’ll focus on what happens when you fall into that third category.

Ask yourself why you chose that experience in the first place

If we’re talking about a volunteer position, chances are you ended up there because you had a personal connection to the issue area and perhaps even to the specific organization. If your time spent volunteering really resonated with you, I suggest including it on your resume––and maybe lean into it. If it’s an issue area that’s meaningful to you and you enjoyed the work, you can likely find related jobs, internships, and volunteer opportunities on idealist.org.

Is there a way to soften the experience?

If you’re concerned that your experience won’t align with the overall philosophy of the organization you’re applying to, consider if there is a way to soften your experience and present it in more of an impartial way. 

Perhaps you canvassed for a particular political official, but you know that the hiring organization follows a policy of political nonpartisanship (as is the rule for all registered 501c3 organizations). This is a situation in which I’d suggest focusing on the responsibilities of the role as opposed to the details around issue-area or political affiliation. 

Instead of this:

  • Engaged with voters to convince them of the merits of [ISSUE 1, ISSUE 2] and [ISSUE 3].
  • Helped to organize and manage [NAME OF POLITICAL EVENT]. 

Consider something like this:

  • Demonstrated comprehensive knowledge of candidate’s platform.
  • Coordinated and volunteered for a [NUMBER] person event. 
  • Consistently met daily and weekly quotas for voter signature acquisition.

Pro Tip: Of course, if you have numbers to add to those bullets, even better!

You’ll also want to remember that even if the organization you’re interviewing with is nonpartisan, hiring managers are real people with real biases, both conscious and unconscious. If you think the specific details around your volunteer experience could potentially alienate a hiring manager, this is another situation where “softening” the experience and focusing on the responsibilities rather than the issues may be a smart way to go. 

Is this new organization really a fit?

Now here’s a question I strongly encourage you to consider as you’re cleaning up your resume and considering submitting application materials. If you’re that concerned that a hiring organization would be turned off by your past experience, is this job really a fit for you?

Choosing to leave out some of the more partisan details of your canvassing stint is one thing, but if you feel that the entire mission of the organization where you volunteered could potentially land your resume in the “no” pile of a future employer, ask yourself if this really a place where you can see yourself not only working, but thriving and growing as a social-impact professional. 

***

Send your questions and comments to me at AskAlexis@idealist.org, and if we plan to publish your question, I’ll be sure to give you a heads up (and I’ll also be sure to keep your info anonymous, of course).

Looking forward to reading your stories and answering your questions!

Alexis Perrotta

As the Associate Director of Editorial and Career Content at Idealist and a lifelong nonprofit professional, Alexis offers job seekers, game changers, and do gooders actionable tips, career resources, and social-impact advice.

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