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Volunteer to Advance Your Career | 6 Tips to Make it Happen

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Volunteering is a big part of how many Idealists give back (even when they work in the nonprofit sector), but how many of us take advantage of the myriad career benefits that volunteer experiences can provide?

Beyond learning the ins and outs of an organization's mission, these opportunities allow you to learn job-specific skills, form a deeper connection with the community you’re serving, and network with other like-hearted professionals—some of whom are poised to help you advance your career!

On Idealist Career Advice, we've shared the story of a job seeker who landed a job through volunteering, as well as plenty of tips on finding the right volunteer opportunity. But once you have your foot in the door and are volunteering for an organization you love, what can you do to turn that experience into a job?

Be committed

In 2005, I started volunteering at God’s Love We Deliver, an organization in New York that makes and delivers meals for people who are homebound with illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. Now, every Monday morning, I spend a couple of hours ladling soup and packing up meals to be delivered later that day. Over the years, I’ve noticed that several kitchen volunteers had traded in their hair nets for full-time jobs at the organization.

"We have volunteers in every office department, in addition to the kitchen and delivery volunteers," Kate Suhr, former volunteer and current manager of volunteer operations at God’s Love We Deliver, said. "We had one woman who worked in finance, but volunteered in the kitchen. When we needed extra financial support, she helped, and then she got a job here. We've hired drivers who used to be volunteer van assistants as well."

Kate heard about her current job opening through word-of-mouth, applied normally, and made sure to tell her connections at GLWD that she applied. Kate had a more informal interview with her future boss, whom she had already met while volunteering

Nonprofit organizations recognize consistency and will notice if a volunteer is too often a no-show. To make sure your dedication to the cause comes across loud and clear, show up to shifts on time and ask questions about the organization’s work, as well as how you can be more involved.

Build relationships

As a volunteer, you can meet many different employees at an organization. Naturally, you will interact with volunteer coordinators and others who assist in whatever activity you are doing, but you will also have an "in" with the rest of the team, too.

If you are interested in fundraising, ask to take the development officer to coffee to learn more. Or, if you have an orientation period, try to meet or connect with others throughout the organization. Even if you don't work with them directly, many people will be willing to meet you simply because you are a volunteer.

"Don't underestimate the relationships you're establishing with your fellow volunteers and the people you are working for," Kate said. "Relationships run deep. It's more than LinkedIn; it's people and personal networking." Then, when a job opens up, you will be top-of-mind.

"Having that face-to-face puts you light years ahead of everyone else, just because they know you," Kate added. "They are going to put your resume on top."

Stay connected

Even if you stop volunteering at a particular organization, you can still keep up the relationships. If you see a future within a particular department or issue area, stay in touch.

"I sent the God's Love team Christmas cards and told them how I was doing in my current roles," Kate said. "I kept touching base with the team to strengthen our relationships and let them know how much I appreciated my time volunteering."

Learn about the organization

Volunteering can advance your career simply because you get to know an organization deeply, such as by paying attention to how things operate, the organizational structure, and the nonprofit's goals and missions. You can also get a sense of the culture of the organization and can be more prepared when coming in for a job interview.

Additionally, be sure to notice how things could change if you came on full-time. Volunteers may come for a two-hour shift, but how late does the staff stick around? Sure, you can handle the slightly micro-managing team leader for your monthly gig, but what if you had to work together every day? If you are dealing with a sensitive issue or cause, how would that take a toll on you emotionally?

“There's definitely a shift when you work somewhere versus volunteering, and I was worried that I would become disenchanted,” Kate said. “But honestly, I was even more impressed with the agency and the people who work here.” That’s a good sign!

Be passionate about the cause

Hopefully, if you are volunteering your time, you are already passionate about the nonprofit's cause and mission.

"One volunteer-turned-applicant had just gotten back [from a year living in France] and bounded into the office with all this passion and energy," said Kate, who was part of the hiring team for the open position. "Susan, our boss at the time, sent me an email while they were still in the room to say this is the person who should have this job.'"

Think about the skills you can show

At God's Love We Deliver, there are volunteers who work in the office, but many start out and work in the kitchen: chopping vegetables and packaging up meals. How can you make non-related volunteer work translate to a full-time, office job?

"Being a volunteer shows your commitment and your work ethic," Kate said. "It can show people's commitment because they are willing to jump in and do whatever."

Think about how your volunteering demonstrates attention to detail, the ability to work independently or on a team, leadership skills, and even listening. In addition, consider your unique skills and ideal career path—how can you showcase those skills the next time this organization is hiring? 

"Especially for a position like in a volunteer department, a lot of that is about personality," Kate said. "For that particular position, you are interacting with so many people, and they need someone who has a certain amount of energy, somebody who is comfortable talking to people." All these skills can definitely be demonstrated while serving as a volunteer.


Ready to find a volunteer opportunity that can advance your social-impact career? Search for open volunteer positions on Idealist!

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