The importance of cutting your teeth in the not-for-profit sector as a volunteer can’t be underestimated.
By giving your time to an organisation you are passionate about, you not only give back to the community but you learn new skills and make new connections that could – directly or indirectly – land yourself your dream job.
While turning your volunteer role into a paying role is not guaranteed, there are some things that you can do to make the most out of your time as a volunteer and increase your chances of landing a great ethical job in the future.
This guest post is by Kimberley Maul from US website Idealist Careers.
Volunteering is a big part of how many people give back. But once you have your foot in the door and are volunteering for an organisation you love, what can you do to turn that experience into a job?
In 2005, I started volunteering at God’s Love We Deliver, an organisation 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 hours ladling soup and packing up meals to be delivered later that day. Over the years, I noticed that several kitchen volunteers had traded in their hairnets for full-time jobs at the organisation.
I spoke to two employees at GLWD—Kate Suhr, manager of volunteer operations, and Em Findley, communications coordinator—who both started off as volunteers at the organisation before getting jobs there.
“We have volunteers in every office department, in addition to the kitchen and delivery volunteers,” Kate said, explaining that this has led to several people joining the company full-time. “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.”
Both Em and Kate heard about their job openings through word-of-mouth, applied normally, and made sure to tell their connections at GLWD that they applied. Kate had a more informal interview with her future boss, while Em had a couple interviews before being hired.
So what advice do these two have about turning a volunteer gig into a job?
This may seem like the bare minimum, but Kate and Em, who started with a job in the volunteer department before becoming communications coordinator, said that the organisation recognises consistency, notices if a volunteer is often a no-show, and appreciates when volunteers communicate that they won’t be able to make it.
“If you’re going to volunteer somewhere because you want to work there, show up,” Em explained. “Show up when they ask you. The dedication that people show never ceases to amaze us.”
As a volunteer, you can meet many different employees at an organisation. Naturally, you will interact with volunteer coordinators and others who assist in whatever activity you are doing, but you also have an “in” with the rest of the team. 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 organisation. 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 also the people you are working for,” Em said. “Relationships run deep. It’s more than LinkedIn; it’s people and personal networking.” Then, when a job opens up, you are already 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.”
Even if you stop volunteering, you can still keep up the relationships. Kate had been volunteering for years at GLWD before getting a job there, but Em had only spent a week volunteering at the organisation during an alternative spring break trip, and wanted to keep communication going
“I sent God’s Love Christmas cards and told them how I was doing and wanted to know about them,” Em said. “I was touching base with these people and building relationships, saying how much I really appreciated my time here.”
Learn about the organisation
One way that volunteering can improve your job application is simply because you already know a lot about the organisation. Depending on your position, you can learn about how things operate, the organisational structure, and the nonprofit’s goals and missions. You can also get a sense of the culture of the organisation 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 non-profit’s cause and mission.
“Em 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 a part of the hiring team for that position several years ago. “Susan, our boss at the time, sent me an email while Em was still in the room saying, ‘that’s the person who should have this job.’”
“It really is helpful to be able to demonstrate your dedication to an organisation before your begin as an employee,” Em added. “To show that the mission runs deep, and you are willing to work hard.”
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? Think about how you can demonstrate more intangible skills.
“Being a volunteer shows your commitment and your work ethic,” Em said. “It can show people’s strength and shows that 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.
“Especially for a position like in a volunteer department, a lot of that is about personality,” Kate added. “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.
Do you have your own tips for making the most of a volunteer role? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.