Volunteering as a Job Search Strategy: The Competitive Edge

By Shelley Jensen-Decker, Minnesota Job Partners Career Counselor

Volunteering is an extraordinarily important activity that benefits the volunteer, the organization, and the community at large. In fact, most mission driven organizations would not be able to deliver on their values and beliefs without volunteers. I know this from experience. As the manager of the Career and Employment Program at WomenVenture, I worked with 54 volunteers that delivered the lion’s share of our consulting and training services. Without their assistance, we could not have served as many clients as we did. Volunteering becomes even more critical for people negatively impacted during very stressful times, such as the current pandemic.

The impact of COVID-19 on volunteering is far-reaching. The pandemic hasn’t negatively affected the rate of volunteering, which may have actually increased. However, COVID-19 has led to museum and theater closures and the cancellation of educational programs and community outreach for many non-profits. Conversely, there has been a surge in demand for some services such as meal delivery and financial assistance due to increased unemployment. Many organizations pivoted to a virtual mode and conduct online client check-ins. Those organizations who need to have volunteers onsite have instituted precautions such as increased cleaning, wearing gloves and masks, fewer shifts and volunteers per shift, and social distancing.

There is an enormous amount of information on the widespread benefits of volunteering to the individual. Research shows that it benefits your physical and mental health, and increases your happiness, self-confidence and sense of purpose. This is important during any job search, but particularly one conducted during COVID-19. Also, consider these statistics on the benefits of volunteering for your job search.

  • Those who volunteer regularly are 27 percent more likely to land a job, with the relationship holding stable across gender, race, ethnicity, age, location, and unemployment rate (Source: Corporation for National and Community Service).The reason is that volunteering indicates that you are well-rounded and compassionate, you have even more skills than the ones used in your daily job, and you’re going to build the company’s reputation in your community.

  • Sixty percent of hiring managers consider volunteerism an asset when making recruitment decisions (Source: CareerBuilder).

  • A 2016 study by Deloitte found that 61 percent of millennials who rarely or never volunteer still consider a company’s commitment to the community when deciding on a potential job.

  • According to this same study, eight out of 10 "hiring influencers" say they believe active volunteers move into leadership roles more easily than non-volunteers. Nearly nine out of 10 say job seekers who volunteer are more competitive candidates.

There is no question that volunteering is indeed important. Interestingly, only 30 percent of volunteers include it on their résumé and/or LinkedIn profile. Specific reasons that volunteering is a competitive advantage in the job search are outlined below.

1. Develop marketable skills: Volunteering is an excellent way to develop or enhance critical skills. For instance, WomenVenture utilized recent graduates with limited work experience in unpaid internships. Additionally, many of the volunteer coaches and trainers were in master’s programs and wanted to gain real work, practical experience. I volunteered to make a career transition from marketing to career development and, after proving myself, they hired me for a full-time job!

2. Expand your network: We all know that networking is the absolute best method for finding a job, hands down. Volunteering helps facilitate this process by bringing together like-minded individuals to engage in a project that is important to all of them. What better way to meet new people? Individuals from a variety of professions, companies, and industries volunteer, providing an opportunity to expand your connections. You may meet a connection from a target company or find one within the nonprofit who wants to hire you!

3. Bridge a gap: Employers want to know that you have been creative and productive during your job search. Taking classes, working part time, consulting, and volunteering are things that demonstrate you have stayed active and involved in your professional life. Most employers look at this when hiring new employees. Remember, you can legitimately list volunteering as a job during your job search.

4. Explore other careers: If you are unsure of your career direction, engaging with the staff and volunteers at a nonprofit will expose you to different industries and jobs. If someone is in a role that piques your interests, you can arrange to meet with them for an informational interview.

5. Demonstrate your values: Many organizations are emphasizing social responsibility for their employees. Including your volunteer work in all your marketing materials shows them that you are a culture fit. List your volunteer work on your résumé and LinkedIn profile that way you would for any job, by describing skills acquired and accomplishments. Don’t neglect doing this, as only 1 in 3 volunteers list their experience, giving you the competitive advantage.

6. Build your spirits and confidence: Developing or enhancing a skill is always a confidence builder, as is being actively engaged with other people in something in which you believe. It also makes you happy! A recent five-year study from the Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame examined 2,000 Americans and found that those who described themselves as “very happy” volunteered at least 5.8 hours per month. Feeling needed and productive, particularly these days, is so important.

Tips and Tools to Get Started:

Find the right opportunity: Think about the causes and organizations you are most passionate about – this is your starting point. Then consider the skills you would like to hone or develop. Are there volunteer opportunities at your targeted organizations that will help you do this? Check out the website and reach out to the volunteer director to get more information. Let them know what types of work you are interested in doing. Most organizations will have a formal or informal orientation and training program.

Be direct: Do not be shy about stating that you would like to work for the organization if that is the case. I had several volunteers over the years express interest in jobs, and I hired a few.

Treat a volunteer role as you would any job: Organizations really rely on their volunteers to complete the work. It can be tempting to think there are other staff or volunteers who can easily step in for you. Please don’t fall into this trap! Every single volunteer is needed to achieve the mission. Treat it as you would any job – show up on time, work hard and produce high quality work. As well, volunteer for additional tasks as you hear about them and they make sense for your overall goals.

Learn the culture: An important consideration for hiring managers is whether someone will fit in with the team and overall culture. They will be assessing this if you volunteer for them. You too should be assessing if the culture is a fit for you. Understanding and fitting in with the culture will give you a definite advantage in the interview process.

Employers want candidates who demonstrate they that are motivated, committed, and principled. Volunteering does that. If you think about it, volunteering can be an extended interview. If all goes well, it should be a win-win for all involved.

Resources for finding volunteer opportunities:

https://www.volunteermatch.org/

https://www.volunteermatch.org/

https://www.pointsoflight.org/all-for-good/

https://www.handsonconnect.org/

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