The professional benefits of volunteering

Landing a job that requires experience presents a real Catch-22 situation for anyone trying to break into a new field. How are you supposed to get professional experience if no one will give you a job to get that experience?

That was the situation I found myself in after I graduated with my BA in history. I wanted to work in the museum field and go on to graduate school. But every job, even entry-level ones, wanted experience working in a museum and/or a master’s degree.   It seemed like a vicious circle that I could never break. Luckily for me, there were a lot of museums in my area and they all needed volunteers.

Now, I know that many people don’t like the idea of working for free. I understand that. But there are only two ways to learn the skills needed for the workplace: you can either learn them on the job, or you can take a course.  Both take time, but you have to pay for the course. And volunteering has a bigger impact because it is hands-on.

Before you begin applying for volunteer positions, you need to determine your motivation for doing so.

  • Are you passionate about that particular cause or organisation?
  • Are you looking for experience in a particular field?
  • Do you need to work on a new skill?
  • Or, are you looking to make friends and build your network?

All of these are valid reasons for wanting to volunteer. The key is to be honest when applying for the position. (Yes, even unpaid positions require an application.) You also need to let the organisation know how long you would like to volunteer and how many hours per week/month you can work.

In my case, I was upfront with the curator of the local museum. During my interview, I explained that I was looking to get some experience to put on my CV, that I was looking to work until September (which gave me 6 months), and that I could work 20-25 hours per week.  It was a good fit. The museum gave me some great training, I assisted with the big projects, and even had several smaller projects of my own.  Most importantly, when a paid position opened at the museum, the team already knew me, my work ethic, my available hours, and my skills set – and I got the job!

In another instance, I joined a fabulous women’s organisation in my hometown strictly because I wanted to make some new friends and build my network. I really wasn’t worried what tasks I was given – I was there to have fun. And I did have fun. But I also became interested in specific areas of the projects we were running.  Before long I was managing budgets, developing a five-year strategic plan, and writing funding reports – skills that can transfer into just about any job you can think of.

Finding a volunteer position

In some countries/areas, there are online volunteer databases which can help you. Or you might know about an organisation – look on their website.  The key is finding one that has a mission you can help fulfil.

Let’s look at a couple of examples from the US.

Let’s say you are interested in working with the homeless. What do you want to do? Do you want to work behind the scenes?  Or are you more interested in direct action, like handing out blankets and food?

To see if the organisation would be a good fit, look at their vision and mission statements. The vision statement should tell you what they want to accomplish. For example, Open Arms Housing in Washington, DC states that their goal (the vision) is “to create safe, stable housing, with support tailored to meet individual needs…”. Their strategy (the mission statement) is to have the city “…offer ‘housing first’ options to homeless people, even to those who face the most serious challenges to obtaining and keeping housing.” A few clicks under the “Programmes” menu shows how they plan to do that.

If you want to volunteer, you can see that they are looking for people to help with social media campaigns, administration, holiday events, and unit set up. They are also looking for people who speak languages other than English. Lots of opportunities there.

But if you want a volunteer position that is involved with more direct action, maybe Open Arms isn’t for you. Instead, you might want to look at an organisation like SOME (So Others May Eat), which operates a dining room and food pantry.

These are just two examples. Do an internet search for organisations in your area. I’m sure you’ll find something just right for you.

If you want to practice your English, look for an international organisation or a local one that needs someone with English skills.

And if you find an organisation that looks interesting but you aren’t sure if they could use your help, email them and ask! (That’s what I did at the museum.)  You never know what might come of it.

Even if you don’t want to work for a non-profit professionally, volunteer experience can still help. Remember, non-profit organisations need the same types of people that for-profit companies do: event planners, accounting professionals, lawyers, marketing specialists, etc. If you are thinking about transitioning careers, this could be a great way to try out a job before you start applying for them. It’s also a great way to get hands-on experience if you’ve just graduated.

Most of all, volunteering is a great way to build your network. And this is vitally important for anyone looking for a job. According to Business Insider, up to 85% of jobs are not advertised. Instead, they are found through other types of contact.

Volunteering builds up everyone involved: the community, the organisation, as well as you. Trust me. It’s time well spent.

What are your biggest challenges in English? Contact me and let me know. I’d love to hear from you. And don’t forget to download my free guide: Top Tips for Conference Calls. Inside you will find tips to make your next conference call/video call easier and help you improve your listening skills in general.

That’s it for this week. Stay safe wherever you are.