Volunteering Can Open Doors to a New Career

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by Sharon Reed Abboud

Are you considering a career change to a job in the non-profit sector? Consider volunteering for a non-profit organization as your first step. Volunteering enables the job-seeker to gain valuable professional experience and establish contacts in the new job field. It is an excellent way to make a difference while advancing your own career objectives.

“It is a win-win situation” said Lynn Berger a NYC-based career coach and author of The Savvy Part-Time Professional How to Land Create or Negotiate the Part-time Job of Your Dreams. “You feel good by volunteering and learn about yourself at the same time.”

Career changers recent college grads and stay-at-home parents transitioning back into a paid career may want to consider volunteering as a job search strategy. Volunteering enables you to test out job environments without making a long-term commitment.

“Volunteering is a fabulous strategy especially for someone who does not have experience in the field they want to go into” said Andrea Kay a Cincinnati-based career coach and author of Life’s a Bitch and Then You Change Careers: 9 Steps to Get Out of Your Funk and On to Your Future. “You gain experience in a non-threatening way. It also gets you into a business industry where other people see you in action.”

Berger agreed. “I always recommend to my clients that they have a tryout experience as a way to test the waters. Before you jump into grad school for social work for instance try volunteering to see if that type of career is for you.”

While volunteering you are more apt to hear about job openings in an organization and are positioned to hear the buzz about industry trends and job opportunities at affiliated organizations.

“When a job opens up you will be first in line to apply for it” Berger said.

Volunteers are welcome at numerous non-profit and some for-profit organizations. Many people began successful careers as volunteers. At WAMU-FM a National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate radio station at the American University Washington DC for example both Diane Rehm host of The Diane Rehm Show and Jonathan Smith one of the show’s producers began their careers as volunteers.

Diane Rehm host of The Diane Rehm Show began her career at WAMU-FM as a volunteer after raising her two children. Within six years she had her own national radio show.

Jonathan Smith joined The Diane Rehm Show as a volunteer and was named a producer of the program just over a year later. Smith was a career changer; he left a career in the legal and energy industries for a new start in public radio.

Other volunteers who have become paid employees at WAMU-FM include a nurse and a stay-at-home mother who both became volunteer coordinators a real-estate agent who was hired as a producer a lawyer who became a managing producer and a university administrator who was hired as a business manager.

WAMU a member-supported radio station depends on hundreds of volunteers during its fundraising campaigns as well as many volunteers who assist with its daytime station operations. According to Greg Fitzpatrick public information assistant at WAMU-FM at least seven volunteers have become paid employees at the station.

Anthony Washington volunteer services coordinator at WAMU-FM said that volunteering is the “best way” to make a career change to a non-profit organization.

“It is the same thing for the high school student college student or a person 40 years old” Washington said.

Laura Gassner Otting president of the Nonprofit Professional Advisory Group Newton MA and author of Change Your Career: Transitioning to the Nonprofit Sector agreed. “A career change is a perfect time to build a skills set through volunteering either enhancing what you already know or developing in a whole new direction.” Volunteering gives you a growing network to start your job search increased credibility and excellent resume-building blocks.

Finding Volunteer Opportunities

You can access numerous volunteer opportunities through Quint Careers’ Volunteering and Nonprofit Career Resources section. Prospective volunteers can find volunteer opportunities in nearly every industry and interest category that are available at locations throughout the nation and some locations overseas. Virtual volunteering opportunities are also available. These volunteer opportunities enable you to volunteer from your home on your computer — anywhere/anytime. Examples of virtual volunteer opportunities include grantwriting accounting and online tutoring.

Take Care to Find the Right Volunteering Opportunity

According to Gassner Otting it is important to volunteer your time “strategically” if you are hoping to use that experience as a stepping stone toward getting a job.

Whereas “all volunteering is important not all volunteering strategically positions you to get a full time job in the nonprofit sector” Gassner Otting explained. For example “Instead of planning one Saturday a year cleaning up your local park get involved in the planning committee that runs clean-up days citywide. Instead of organizing your child’s school’s monthly bake sale work with the administration to better track spend or invest the proceeds.”

“While providing direct service is fulfilling and heartwarming” Gassner Otting added “only an in-depth view of the operations will tell you if this sector is right for you.”

Laura George author of Excuse Me Your Job is Waiting: Attract the Work You Want said that volunteering is great as long as there is passion. “It’s a passion that sends out good vibrations. When somebody is passionate about what they are doing they are doing their best. The people around them see them at their best and want to work with them in a volunteer environment and the work environment hence they come to mind when a paying job is available.”

But George cautions job-seekers should know that “if you join just to get connected you may turn off the people who are passionate about the organization. Instead of being the first person that comes to mind you’d be the last. Therefore it’s important to choose an organization that fits well with your values and give it your best.”

No time No Problem!

While some volunteers can commit to working full-time most professionals devote one day a month or less — often moonlighting after work or on weekends. Others become virtual volunteers which boosts their resume but does not enable them to get to network with others in person.

Making the Most of Your Volunteer Opportunity

Career experts advise volunteers to treat their volunteer opportunity as they would a professional paying job. San Jose CA’s Marky Stein a career coach and author of Fearless Career Change: The Fast Track to Success in a New Field said that volunteers should make themselves “indispensable” to the organization so that they “have to hire you” to keep operating efficiently.

“Once you have the position be the best you can be” said Washington the WAMU-FM volunteer services coordinator. Volunteering gives you the chance to “build trust” with a prospective employer. Washington advises job-seekers to do whatever is asked whether its routine envelope stuffing or more substantial tasks. “If you really want to work somewhere you will do anything” he said. “It is all about showing them you are capable. It is about the quality of your work — not just who you know.”

Washington commented that his organization considers excellent volunteers first when a job opens up since they have already proved themselves reliable. “Some people always outshine others. If something opens up we want to keep them.”

And even if you do not get a job where you volunteer you have the opportunity to get an excellent letter of recommendation Stein said.

“It is a tryout and it is a valuable learning experience whether it works out or not” Berger added.

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college career and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.

Sharon Reed Abboud is a Northern Virginia-based freelance writer specializing in career and education issues.

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