am I being exploited as a volunteer?

A reader writes:

I moved to a new city back in August to be with my fiance. I knew I was taking a chance moving to a new city with few contacts in a down economy; however, I am a very resourceful and driven person and cannot abide sitting around and doing nothing.

In September, after conducting several informational interviews, I began volunteering/interning for a non-profit organization while still looking for full-time employment. My thinking behind this was that I would gain additional skills, have something to put on my resume to help establish myself here, cover employment gaps, give me a sense of purpose, and keep me from falling into potential unemployment depression.

Fast forward to early November, the Executive Director is lobbying the Chairman to hire me because they desperately need my skill set at the organization. So, on November 5 I met with the Chairman regarding working for the organization. He instructed me not to accept other offers and that he would need to speak with the rest of the board, but that he would like me to work for the organization in a development type role (which I want).

Two weeks go by and no news, so the ED and I meet with the Chairman again on November 18 about working here and that I will not be able to provide my services for free much longer. Again, I was told not accept other offers and that I had a job at the organization, but that he had to check with one source about how much they could offer me.

Another two weeks go by (one week was Thanksgiving week) and nothing. I have not accepted any other offers (unfortunately, there haven’t been any either) and my financial situation is rapidly deteriorating. Now I have no idea what to do. I can’t continue to work for free not knowing whether or not I have an official offer. Should I email the Chairman and let him know that I have appreciated my time here and that I will see the projects I am currently working on to fruition, but my financial situation is such that after December 17 I will need to devote 100% of my time to finding a paid position and will no longer be able to offer my services to the organization? I’m so confused and frustrated right now, and I am beginning to think I am being exploited by the Chairman.

I’m writing this when I’m really tired so it may be less coherent than usual, but: I think you’re giving the chairman too much power. I also think you’re letting your frustration with the timeline blur your thinking.

On the first point: Just because the chairman told you not to accept other offers doesn’t mean you need to obey that request. To the contrary, it would be silly not to accept an offer you wanted just because someone told you that he might hire you but hasn’t come through.  (Plus, “don’t accept other offers” generally means something closer to “if you get another offer, come talk to me so that I have a final chance to make you an offer myself.”)

And on the second point:  It’s hard for me to see this as them exploiting you, since you willingly entered into the volunteer work, and it doesn’t sound like you did so in the belief that it would lead to paid work there.  Keep in mind, this is what you said about why you started volunteering there: “I would gain additional skills, have something to put on my resume to help establish myself here, cover employment gaps, give me a sense of purpose, and keep me from falling into potential unemployment depression.”

If that’s no longer true, or if it it no longer makes financial sense for you to volunteer there — or if you just don’t want to anymore — then you should stop volunteering, absolutely. But you did sign up as a volunteer, so I don’t think it’s fair to now see them as exploiting you.

So, how to move forward?  It sounds a bit like you’re considering ending your volunteer work as a pressure tactic. I would rather see you make your decision about whether or not to continue volunteering there based on whether you yourself still want to volunteer, not on an attempt to generate pressure.

If you don’t want to keep volunteering, then of course you should stop. But if it’s more about your frustration with how long it’s taking so long to get an official offer, you’re better off just telling the chairman that you need to pursue other opportunities aggressively, that you intend to do so, and that if an official offer from them materializes at some point you’d be glad to consider it, but that you’re moving your job search into high gear.

Then, assume their offer isn’t going to happen so that the prospect of it doesn’t get in the way of you conducting a full-fledged job search. If it does end up materializing, great. But meanwhile, you need to act as if it doesn’t exist, because so far, it doesn’t.

And for nonprofits that work with volunteers, there’s an important reminder here about how they can lose volunteers when these situations are mishandled. In this case, you were happy to work for free — until the prospect of being hired was floated in the way that it was. When they did that, it changed your expectations and lessened your pleasure in volunteering. So now, if they don’t come through with the offer, they’re likely to lose you as a volunteer and even leave you with a bad feeling about the organization itself. It’s a good illustration of why groups that utilize volunteers need to be really thoughtful about how they manage this stuff and not approach it cavalierly.

{ 9 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    The "don't accept other offers" line … don't fall for that. Keep looking, when you do find paid employment elsewhere, then inform them "I have a paid position, I am going to have to accept that, but…"

    And then gauge the reaction. You may get an offer and you may not. But if they're dragging you out for weeks on a salaried position, it's likely not going to happen.

  2. Anonymous*

    Agree with AAM. This started as a volunteer opportunity for the right reasons. If it turns into a paying job, fantastic, but until that happens stay true to your goals and timeline. If 3 months, (Sept to Dec) is your drop dead date on 'must find a paycheck' that's your date to meet, not theirs.

    ime places that need volunteers don't have a big budget or way to offer a paycheck easily regardless of how much they want them on board. And for the manager telling you not to accept another offer.. that's flattering, but not paying the bills. Tell them I wish I could, and leave it at that.

  3. andreaunplugged*

    My advice is similar to AAM's advice…continue seeking paid work, but don't quit your volunteer position (unless that is what you really want to do). If you have a good relationship with your director just tell him/her that you are continuing to look for a paid position since you haven't received an offer, and you won't accept any positions without letting the him/her and the chairman know first. If necessary, tell them you'll need to reduce your hours to facilitate your search.
    It's difficult not to let our emotions get the best of us in situations like this. Sometimes it just takes a long time to get a position approved and for an offer to come, but unfortunately I don't know if putting the pressure on will help in this situation, and you could just end up looking bad.
    Good Luck.

  4. Meredith*

    If you are focusing all your effort and energy on volunteering and not on job seeking, I can see where you may be frustrated. Unfortunately, this is not the best strategy to secure a job as you are seeing first hand. At this point, I don�t think there is much you can do to guarantee that they will be able to offer you a position. Therefore, I would start right away to focus the majority of my time and energy on job seeking and then use my extra time to volunteer (if you are still interested that is). That means cutting back on your hours and gearing up to write and revise your resume and cover letter multiple times. Good luck on your search!

  5. B*

    Echoing the same view here, and also seeing that if you are spending so much of your time volunteering, it's probably taking a lot of your focus off what you ultimately want – a paid job. It's unfair that the org are dangling a job in front of you, and I can see why you think you may be exploited, i.e they are trying to keep you hanging on for free as long as they need you…but you are in control, and don't let vague promises get you down…

    Also, you say you haven't had any job offers yet…well, stick with the volunteering, it's not doing you any harm as far as experience goes, but remember your focus is to get a paid job, so make the volunteering second priority, and job searching your first. Good Luck!

  6. Anonymous*

    Hi All,

    Thanks for all of the wonderful advice! I agree that over the past few months I focused more on volunteering than I did on job hunting for several reasons. However, good news, the organization offered me a paid position which begins immediately! So, I guess in this instance it worked out, but I will keep in mind your advice in case I ever find myself in a similar situation again.

    No Longer Frustrated!

  7. Richard*

    I'm glad this worked out for you. I've heard of a few 'charitable' organisations taking advantage of volunteers; with a massive creep in a volunteer's scope of responsibility and requests.

    One example I can think of is oddjob volunteer > occasional IT guy > can you network our computers? > Can you buy all of the network equipment yourself out of your own pocket (in the realm of hundreds to thousands of dollars, in some cases)? We can't seem to get it for free.

    That said, I've not had much experience with volunteering, so here's hoping that these companies are in the minority!

    Best of luck in the future!

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