Nonprofit organizations and volunteering go hand in hand. Organizations rely on volunteers to support their programming, spread awareness of their mission, and help keep them attuned to what’s going on in the world. While there is plenty of information about the monetary valuation of volunteer work, thinking in terms of dollars and cents is not the only way to leverage your value as a volunteer.
What are your personal and career development goals? What is it about you that stands out to others or makes people believe in you? The answers to these questions are the real information you need to make the most of your volunteer experience, for yourself and for others.
These excerpts from conversations with Jennifer Tan, founder of Shine Foundation, and Joseph Hall, Deputy Director at BAAD!, exemplify how you can use your role as a volunteer to not only support an organization you love, but also support your own job search, networking, and professional development needs.
Volunteering can be a low-stakes way to practice the skills you need for a successful job search and application process. The application process for a well-supported volunteer program will resemble a typical job application process, except that the organization is more likely interested in taking on multiple candidates. They’ll want to know your skills, your interests, why you want to volunteer for this particular organization, and how reliable you are. If cover letters, resumes, and interviews are an area you feel less confident about, then applying for volunteer positions you are truly interested in allows you to gain valuable experience in creating your resume and in the search process itself.
Jennifer Tan’s organization, Shine Foundation, is dedicated to empowering homeless abuse survivors in NYC and Baltimore by addressing their financial health concerns and creating customized programs with local shelters. She describes Shine Foundation’s volunteer recruitment process and what makes an individual an ideal volunteer in a similar way hiring managers would respond:
What ties our recruitment stages (online application and interview) together are the criteria we look for in candidates. Based on my experiences and those of other volunteers, we look for key criteria such as empathy. The individual really has to have a sensitivity and empathy for the client. Not everyone has the same situation as the client and you can’t go in and be judgmental. It sounds intuitive but you’d be surprised how often simple statements can sound judgmental or may stem from a place where you don’t even realize how you are coming across.
Then there’s flexibility. Just because you have a lesson plan doesn’t mean it is necessarily going to go that way. You need to think on your feet. You need to go with the flow! That’s where adaptability and resourcefulness come into play. You need to adapt to your situation and make the best of it. Then, of course, there is the creativity piece. Let’s face it, talking about budgeting or saving money at the end of the day is not the most exciting topic! So it helps to have a little creativity and be able to communicate something in a way that the audience would find interesting and necessary, or amusing even.
Being a part of a community helps you feel connected, creates opportunities to network authentically, and adds a sense of purpose to your work. Volunteering at a local organization can help you develop a supportive community. Smaller organizations tend to have a wide variety of roles to fill and you’ll find that a consistent commitment over time will lead to a level of trust that blurs the lines between volunteer, employee, and friend. In close-knit communities such as these, you can try new positions, work around your schedule, build or offer your own opportunities, and find yourself first in line when paid work becomes available.
BAAD! Is an arts organization in the Bronx that supports the development and production of cutting edge, challenging works in all creative disciplines that are empowering to women, Latinos and other people of color, and the LGBTQ community. Joseph Hall speaks about the value of volunteers for their hyperlocal organization and how they create their own opportunities for growth:
We could not be as good as we are without our volunteers. It’s invaluable when you only have three full-time employees but what you are producing as an organization goes beyond that. Our output doesn’t necessarily match what folks would think our capacity is. Every single event we do requires volunteers and we do a lot of events. Box office person, ushers, concession manager...they are at every event and they help us provide the type of welcoming space that we want for our community and audience. A lot of them are returning. It’s great!
We have one person in concessions who has been volunteering for five years. Yes, she’s a volunteer but I kind of forget that. She does all of the shopping for our concessions - we hand off the company card to her! These volunteers have been with us, are trusted, and help all of the events run smoothly. We also have some who come in and do some administrative tasks - that has been a tremendous help, whether it’s doing mass mailing, newsletters, surveys, filing system.
...A volunteer who became a part-time employee is someone who just knocked on our door and said “Hey, what is this?”! I spoke with him for two hours because he just wanted to talk, was looking for something to do and wanted to be involved. We had him volunteering for a while, then we had some special projects that we needed help with, and we hired him on a part-time basis.
As a volunteer, your work is vital to the success of the organization’s programming. Similar to an employee, how you communicate your needs and progress will greatly impact the ease with which your team is able to accomplish tasks. If you handle your responsibilities with the same effort and care you would in a paid position, then you can create opportunities to practice negotiating or bring up topics with your supervisor and peers that you may otherwise feel hesitant about.
Conversations about scheduling, workload, and preferred communication style are necessary for success in both situations. Let your coordinator know what your career goals are and discuss how your volunteer work can support your career development - this will create a frame of reference for your conversations, help your volunteer coordinator create fulfilling opportunities for you, and let’s them know to keep you in mind for any employment opportunities they may come across!
I used this strategy during my first experience volunteering as a summer youth program coordinator and was asked to return the next summer as a paid employee with more responsibilities. Volunteering can be a mutually beneficial experience if you speak up about your ideas and interests.
Jennifer Tan’s Shine Foundation is a volunteer-run organization. She describes how vital her volunteers are, and how important it is to invest in them and create a mutually beneficial environment that supports an open discussion of career goals:
Shine Foundation is able to coordinate work in two different cities (New York City and Baltimore) through absolutely amazing volunteers! I cannot emphasize that point enough. I have been very fortunate to have met, and been able to recruit, some really dedicated, passionate individuals who want to make a difference and believe that improving the financial health of homeless, abuse survivors is one key way of doing that. It’s very rare to find those kinds of individuals so when you do find them, it is just a blessing.
...I would say my leadership philosophy is that I work for my team. Not the other way around. I very much believe in investing in people. It’s something that I’ve benefitted from professionally and something I wish more managers and leaders would do. I’ve been in organizations where they were all about the tasks and not about investing in me as a person and the skills I wanted to grow. This is not what I want to happen in Shine. I want this to be a culture where we are all investing in each other and sharing in each other’s dreams and hopes.
Giving back to a cause or organization you care about is a common activity for those of us in the social impact sector. The more you leverage your value as a volunteer, the better able you are to give back. It’s a win-win situation!
By Jhia Jackson