can volunteering lead to a job offer?

A reader writes:

I’ve just starting reading your blog (obsessively) and completely love it. I’m about to graduate, completely terrified, and the advice you provide has made me feel infinitely more confident that I might not end up living in a cardboard box clutching my Bachelor’s Degrees and sobbing into my UMass sweatshirt.

My question is this: There’s a non-profit company in Boston that I really would love to work for. Their mission is in line with my own passions, I think that working for them would make my work feel truly valuable, and there are a lot of things that I could do there that I think I would enjoy. As a new grad however, I don’t know that I have the experience to get hired for them, but I do have the option of volunteering. They have a lot of positions for volunteering, including some office positions to help with things like mailings and filing. I feel as though that might be an excellent way to get a foot in the door; I could meet people at the company and prove my enthusiasm and work ethic first hand. However, I worry that this is pointless either because volunteers are never really considered for paying positions, or because it might even be seen as underhanded because essentially I would be volunteering my time with an ulterior motive.

What do you think? Should I forget it entirely? Give it a chance but be upfront about hoping to land a job? Just go be the best volunteer they’ve ever had until they’re begging to hire me? I should note that I completely understand that volunteering would in no way entitle me to a job, and I would be happy to give my time to a great company even if it didn’t work out as I hoped.

Thank you so much for doing what you do! It really makes a difference. Reading your blog makes me feel that I might have a shot at getting to show someone what I am capable of. It’s so frustrating to know that on paper you are someone that will just be tossed in the trash, and your advice gives me hope that I might be able to get someone to take a second look. Thank you.

I normally edit out compliments out of some weird sense of … propriety? But what the hell — these are so nice that I left them in. I enjoy lavish praise.

Absolutely you should volunteer! And you should tell them that you’re hoping to be considered for a paying job at some point. People do this all the time; it’s completely normal and you will not look underhanded in the least. To the contrary, they’ll welcome this evidence of your engagement in their work.

If you want to work for a particular nonprofit, volunteering is a great, great way to get a foot in the door. You get to meet inside players and form relationships, get early leads on upcoming openings, and you get to demonstrate that you are reliable, talented, organized, efficient, skilled, and all the other things people look for in new hires.

Here’s the most important part: By volunteering, you become a known quantity. If I have a candidate who’s qualified for a job and she’s a known quantity — meaning that I know from direct experience with her that she’s reliable, competent, sane, etc. — I will almost always go with the known quantity over a marginally more qualified candidate who is a stranger to me. The reason for this is that you simply can never get to know someone as well in interviews as you can by actually working with them. The candidate who seems great in interviews can end up being flaky, disorganized, difficult to work with, all sorts of problematic things that someone can manage to hide during the hiring process. But someone you’ve actually worked with? You know what you’re getting. And volunteering lets you become that known quantity.

(Of course, you have to be a good known quantity. That means you should treat your volunteer work as seriously as you would a paying job.)

By the way, I got one of my first jobs by volunteering. I’d been volunteering in a nonprofit’s office for a few months when someone suddenly quit. They knew me and my work, and they plugged me right into the position without ever advertising it. In fact, that job led me on the path that put me in the job that I’m in today.

Go for it. Worst case scenario is that you don’t end up being offered a paying job there but you’ve spent time helping a charity you feel good about, you’ve made new contacts, and you have additional work to put on your resume (because yes, volunteer work should absolutely go on your resume). Good luck!

{ 4 comments… read them below }

  1. majigail*

    We’ve had several volunteers express that they were interested in working here. That’s cool, we’ve hired one of our volunteers and one of our volunteer’s spouses on to work for us. You’ll want to be careful that when you do get around to applying for a job there, that you apply for one that you’re qualified for and not just anything that’s open. Doing that puts me in a weird position. Also, be on your total best behavior. The known quantity thing is great, but if I know you’re perpetually late, sloppy, crazy, whatever, that presents a problem.
    And by all means, don’t be 45 minutes late for your volunteer interview and then ask about paid positions, you probably won’t be getting one.

  2. Hayli @ Transition Concierge*

    Absolutely! Just happened to my relative! She volunteered for about six mos. to a year with an organization she really believed in. She knew in the back of her mind that they would eventually offer her work if she made herself indispensable. She did so, even going so far as to orchestrate major restructuring within the organization to make it more cohesive and – well – organized. She got offered PT, then FT employment, and is now on tap to take the asst. director and, eventually, director roles when they become available.

  3. Kathy*

    I hate to be the Cassandra here, but it really is more of a caveat, based on my own experience as a volunteer for many organizations (experience I wouldn’t trade for the world, but has not necessarily led to great job opportunities), and those of some of my friends and colleagues.

    Volunteer first and foremost because you believe in the mission, and because you have something valuable to offer. Also, because you, too, will get something out of it (like building up your resume; it’s okay to be a little selfish). If you do a great job (and do treat it like a paying job, no matter what) and have a little luck, you might wind up getting a job, but you might not. Don’t count on it 100%.

    My friends and I have volunteered over the years for many organizations, even doing very substantive work like strategic planning and marketing. Unfortunately, a few of them looked us over when a position came open, because why hire us when they get the work from us for free? There are still people out there who do not value as much as they should, or take too much for granted, the work that volunteers do or even the volunteers themselves.

    Also, given the many factors that go into hiring a new employee (referrals, experience, specific skills required, good old-fashioned nepotism or favoritism to kin or friends, etc.), especially in this very tight job market, you might not necessarily be the one to get the job when all these factors are figured into the hiring process.

    I am certainly not saying don’t do it – if you do a great job, they definitely should consider you for a future paying position, so go for it! But as much as I absolutely love my volunteer work, I would strongly suggest that you don’t let that be your only tactic in your job search. Good luck, and enjoy the rewarding experience of volunteering for what it is!

    And yes, Ask A Manager totally rocks!

  4. paulxxxpaulxxx*

    I can completely relate to this, it actually sounds exactly like my story.

    I have been volunteering for a non-profit organisation, in their social research and policy team for just less than one year. I decided to do this, as I am reasonably qualified in qualifications and under qualified in experience. Hence, I was doing this in conjunction with doing a Masters degree. This company is my ideal company to work for formally. I find volunteering profoundly self-rewarding as well.

    I do very much enjoy my volunteer role within this organisation and I am hungry for a formal position in the organisation. I have shown professionalism, commitment, reliability and determinism, my manager in this organisation has regularly complimented me for these traits. I have been given projects of great responsibility; I have been conducting my own research projects and being involved in important inter-agency project work. My role in the organisation started as a volunteer research role. However, it has developed to include voluntary direct service providing to stakeholders as well. I want to show my flexibility and my array of skills.

    However, I do agree with Kathy. I am starting to feel as though I may never be offered a formal position in this organisation, as I am undertaking quite a lot of work on � which I am very happy to do -, but why pay me, when I am doing it for free.
    I formally graduate with my Masters degree in a few months and realistically I can only offer another six months of time on a volunteer basis. In this uncertain economy, formal positions in this organisation are scarce and I may have to draw a line and leave my volunteer role if I am not offered a formal position. But at least I will be leaving with a wealth of new experience, new contacts and good memories.

    The company are aware that I am passionate about obtaining a formal position in this organisation. However, I do not rant on about this obsessively; I do not want to portray as if this was my sole purpose for volunteering.

    I am also holding out for the right position in the organisation, as well. A formal position came up in the organisation a few months ago. However it was a senior management position, which I knew I was not qualified to do. Thus, I did not apply for it. I know I have to see if the right position arises.

    I would advise anyone to volunteer. It is self-rewarding and good for your C.V. However, please remember that your volunteer role may never develop into a formal role and you may have to realistically plan how long that you are prepared to work on a voluntary basis.

    Ask a manager is a great blog!

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