My own volunteer job story: After working in the corporate world for almost 10 years, I was determined to switch to a job in the non-profit sector, and especially to issues related to homeless services. But no one was hiring me without direct experience in that field.
So while still trying to get my foot in a paid door, I also started working for free in a volunteer position for a not-for-profit organization that provided transitional housing services to homeless people.
And while I certainly did less-challenging things like answering phones and stuffing flyers into envelopes, I also became friendly with staff members and kept my eyes and ears open for more substantial things they were working on – not that the smaller jobs aren’t important to an organization.
Look for opportunities when you volunteer
I wasn’t shy about offering to use my business training to help them prepare a proposal they were making to the city for a new transitional housing location. I offered to do some demographic research on the neighborhood being considered. Not that I’d ever done one before, but I had analytic skills, so why not try?
I prepared an analysis for them that included potential roadblocks to their project based on what I found. I hadn’t been asked for that extra piece, but I gave it willingly in support of the project. It made me happy to feel I was actually contributing something important. And it made a big impression.
Now I bet you are thinking I am going to give you a neatly-wrapped package with a happy ending bow at this point. Like they offered me a job.
Well, no … they didn’t. I wound up taking a non-profit job in another field, just so that I could at least make the leap from private sector to non-profit – sometimes you have to take an additional step or two to get to where you really want to go.
So what did the volunteer job get me?
Two jobs down the road, I had a chance to interview with the City of New York for a position in their homeless services division, and I got the job. Might I have gotten the job anyway? Maybe. But I was able to make a much stronger case for myself by:
- Showing I was passionate enough about homelessness and related issues to volunteer for the transitional housing org
- Being able to speak more knowledgeably about homelessness policies issues from my first-hand experience, even as a volunteer
- Having that report with the demographic analysis I did to offer as evidence of my capabilities to my potential employer
Do all volunteer jobs lead to a job in the field? No, they don’t.
But if you take the time to make connections (ones that can last well beyond your present situation), do your absolute best even at the least exciting tasks, keep a great attitude, learn what you can, and, if possible produce concrete evidence of your own capabilities to use when you interview, you’ll have gained a lot. And best of all, you’ll gain a sense of self-worth and satisfaction that will do far more to help you in any job search than just sitting and waiting for the phone to ring!
Not all volunteer jobs are gems, but if you play it right, most can be polished to shine.
Feel free to share any of your own volunteer stories with us!