Volunteering with Work in Mind
Volunteering thoughtfully is the way to break free from the “no work experience” trap. In high school, students do community service hours and they learn that volunteering is something we have to do selflessly to help contribute to the community we call home.
While I think it is important to give back to your community, there are many ways to give back outside of the strict volunteer setting – some ways you don’t even intend as giving but your actions simply benefit others as a by-product (look up Adam Smith’s concept of “invisible hand” if this interests you). Formal volunteering, then, you should frame as an exchange. Your time and skills are valuable – try to match them to a job where you will be appreciated and where you can truly give a lot. In other words, chose a volunteering position that works with your schedule and lines up with your skills. Remember, it’s an exchange.
When choosing a volunteer position, consider how you will grow, learn and gain experience in each position, not just how the company or organization will benefit. This is not selfish and it doesn’t contradict the meaning of volunteering. Think of the actions you want to take in your life and your career: most likely you want to do something that will benefit others and you. Anything else is not sustaining; you would burn out from a lack of fulfilment or a lack of caring for yourself. So, volunteering is giving back to your community and planet in a regenerative way for both you and the receiver.
Here are some often overlooked ways that volunteering can benefit you: First, think about this position and its impact on potential job interviews. A surprising piece of information is that most job interviews now are example-based. In an interview, you can say that you are “reliable and punctual” but this will mean little to your interviewer until you pull out an example of your previous volunteer position in which you arrived at the fair-trade shop at 7am every Sunday morning to assist your supervisor in opening the shop.
Next, get a letter of recommendation from your volunteering supervisor. One or two of these and all of a sudden you’re not the only one rooting for your great work habits and abilities in an interview. Letters of recommendation make an employer much more likely to believe all the positive things you say about yourself, because they have a second or third opinion. If you are volunteering for a set duration, ask for a letter near the end of the term. Give your supervisor at least a week’s notice before you need the letter, and she or he will likely be glad to write it for you. If you’ve already completed a volunteering term you can certainly still contact your supervisor now and ask for a letter of recommendation.
Finally, don’t feel obliged to stay in one volunteer position if it isn’t working for you. The main asset of volunteering is that you get to explore many different career routes without the commitment and stress of a paid job. If your position isn’t giving you anything back – joy or experience or knowledge — give a fair week’s notice of your departure and leave politely, thanking them very much for the opportunity.
Volunteering is practice for your career, so go out and get the best combination of helping others and benefiting you that is possible!