why you should volunteer

If you’re searching for a job, here’s one strategy you may have overlooked: Volunteer.

Volunteering for a nonprofit organization in your community isn’t just a way of doing good – although it’s certainly that. It’s also a way to keep your skills up-to-date, expand your network, and possibly even get a paying job. And there are all sorts of nonprofits to choose from, whether you’re drawn to community service groups, political organizations, or religious institutions.

But how exactly can volunteering help you in your job search? Here’s how.

* First, you’ll have work to put on your resume instead of a period of no activity. When a prospective employer asks how you’ve been spending the time since leaving your last job, you’ll be able to talk about the work you’ve been doing pro bono for a worthwhile cause.

* You’ll learn new skills. Volunteering doesn’t have to mean stuffing envelopes or answering phones. You could design a website, organize an event, write fundraising letters, edit publicity materials, organize the bookkeeping – the list is virtually endless.

* Volunteering can expose you to a new field. If you want to switch careers, volunteering is a great way to test the waters to see if it’s really for you. You might get confirmation that you want to make the switch, or you might learn that it’s not what you thought it would be.

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

*  By volunteering, you’ll become a known quantity to an entirely new pool of people. You’ll now have a whole new group in your network who know from direct experience with you that you are (hopefully) reliable, competent, and sane. These traits are not to be underestimated on the job market!  These people will then be able to vouch for you to others in their own networks.

And that’s crucial, because employers will almost always go with the known quantity over a marginally more qualified candidate who is a stranger. They know from experience that the candidate who seems great in interviews can end up being flaky, disorganized, or difficult to work with. But someone they’ve worked with or who someone they trust has worked with? In that case, they know what they’re getting. And volunteering lets you become that known quantity.

* You’ll probably increase your self-confidence. It’s easy to start questioning your value when you’re out of work, especially if you’re not getting many interviews. Volunteering can give you a sense of accomplishment that can turn your attitude around – and that often comes through to employers.

So consider volunteering. The worst case scenario is that it doesn’t lead to paying work 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. And that’s not a bad worst case.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 71 comments… read them below }

  1. Britta*

    Reminds me of Michael Scott:

    “Would I rather be feared or loved?……I want my employees to fear how much they love me.”

      1. Anonymous*

        A further iteration (which I’ve usually seen attributed to Tiberius) is “Let them fear, so long as they obey.”

  2. Charles*

    on the volunteering issue – it might be good to also point out that some (or is it now most?) states no longer consider that to be a disqualification for collecting unemployment benenfits.

    The only problem that I have had with volunteer work is that the organization doesn’t want to get “burnt” by having someone quit if/when they get a fulltime job. It takes some convincing that, “Yes, I will work part-time on weekends if needed to finish the work.” Still, some places have turned down my offer to volunteer! Now, THAT’s really dispressing when one cannot even get “hired” for a volunteer job!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Wow, I didn’t know that volunteering could ever make you ineligible for unemployment — that is messed up.

      On turning down volunteers — I’ve actually done this. Sometimes the thing the person wants to do isn’t a high priority for the organization and would draw resources away from what they’re more focused on. Don’t take it personally!

      1. Piper*

        I didn’t know this either! That’s kind of crappy. How on earth would volunteering disqualify you from collecting unemployment? Most people don’t volunteer full-time, so it by no means would inhibit the ability to work full-time if a position comes up.

        When I was laid off, I started volunteering a few hours a week at a cause I really believe in, in a field I really love. Even though I got a full-time job, I still continue to volunteer there! I would have hated for my volunteer experience to have disqualified me for unemployment benefits.

      2. Joey*

        Some states define you as a full or part time worker for unemployment purposes. If youre full time and they deem that you are unavailable to work full time that can disqualify you. Same if you’re a part time worker unavailable to work the required number of part time hours.

        Messed up I know.

        1. Charles*

          Yep; it used to be in my state (This was years ago; not this time) that doing volunteer work “took away from your fulltime job search.” Or, at least that is what the unemployment office said.

          They also now allow one to attend school part-time for adult & continuing ed classes such as an Excel course. So, at least there are some bureaucrates not acting at all like the stereotype.

      3. KellyK*

        Maybe it stems from the “job-hunting is a full-time job” idea. Someone probably figured that if a person has time to volunteer, they’re not looking hard enough for a job and therefore don’t deserve unemployment.

      4. Anonymous*

        I’ve done some volunteer management, and while I sympathize with the pain of rejection, the perception that non-profits should take all comers with minimal or no screening is false. Sometimes our needs are different than the skills or interests of the applicant. As Alison says, don’t take it personally. Additionally, a lot of non-profits deal with vulnerable sectors. Imagine how dangerous it would be to never turn people away from contact with children or the disabled!

    2. Suzanne*

      Charles, you are not alone! I went to a volunteer meeting for an organization a few months ago, filled out all the paperwork, said I was willing to do just about anything, and then waited, and waited, and waited. I finally emailed the co-ordinator who seemed to have forgotten all about me. I went in for one small project and left saying how much I enjoyed my time there and that I would love to help again. I waited, and waited, and waited, and again contacted the volunteer co-ordinator. She seemed to once again have forgotten about me.

      So, yeah. It really IS depressing when you try to volunteer and have trouble getting that gig!

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        That’s a nonprofit that’s disorganized and badly managed, so don’t take it personally. There are other reasons why an organization might turn down your free services that also wouldn’t reflect on you (see my reply to Charles above), but a well-run organization would explain that to you, not leave you hanging. Move on and find somewhere else that is equipped to work with volunteers!

      2. Charles*

        Yes, it is messed up. In my case, as a trainer, I am volunteering (per their request for volunteers!) that I can train on software (something that I do for pay elsewhere). But, I understand when they are afraid that someone will leave before the training is finished. I totally get that. Even my offering to continue on evenings and weekends to not enough for them. Okay, then the schedule would not work out – not a problem, I get that too.

        However, the last place that I offered my time to was my local library. They are doing renovations and needed volunteers to help with moving the stacks (i.e., books). I offered to help and was turned down! It was not like this was something of “low priority,” as the books needed to be moved no matter what. It also wasn’t a case of having someone start the project and trying to get someone else to pick up in the middle would be difficult; such as a training project. This was simply moving books! Not exactly rocket science now is it. As I do use the library quite often I will still offer my time if I am available when the time comes to help move the books back. One dumb-ass manager does NOT represent the whole organization.

  3. Janet*

    I’ll never forget one truly horrible boss decided to send out assessments that we’d fill out on his work. This happened only one year. The next year someone asked if we’d have an opportunity to fill out manager reviews and he said “No, those were pointless, it was all negativity and complaining. No one had anything nice to say.”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Early in my career, I worked somewhere that did an annual staff survey. It was well-known that you should not be honest on it. One year I was, and I ended up sitting in HR for an hour being lectured. I took another job soon after that.

  4. Piper*

    I would love to send the first article to a few past managers who could desperately use this advice (particularly the one who threw furniture across the room in fits of rage).

  5. Joey*

    I don’t think its enough to give sincere and positive feedback. I just hate when managers only say things like”great job”, “thanks for all you do” or “keep up the good work”. While those things are appreciated and may be sincere they really dont tell an employee much. To really help an employee you’ve got to be specific about what you’re praising. That’s the only way theyll know exactly what they need to keep doing.

    1. fposte*

      That’s a good point; it also demonstrates that you actually noticed the character of their contribution and aren’t just incredibly easy to please.

    2. Revanche*

      Definitely. When asked for feedback, if I don’t have criticism, I tell my staff precisely why I don’t.

      Something along the lines of:
      “You’re doing very well so I don’t have anything for you to ‘fix right now. For example, you’re highly responsive, you bring cases to conclusion in a timely manner, I can trust that you will check back in with me for feedback or make sure that I’m looped in as appropriate for my information without my having to ask for the important stuff. These are important to me because they demonstrate good judgement and dedication to your job, and I can trust you.”

      It tells them where and how they’re doing things I like, I think.

  6. Bonnie*

    I was once a hated manager. I worked at a place were all the other managers hated confrontation so they only gave good feedback. This allowed the difficult employees to continue to be difficult. I gave honest feedback so the difficult employees hated me because I the only one telling them that thier behavior needed to change. Since I wasn’t being backed up by other management, I looked like the difficult one.

    1. Joey*

      Bonnie ,
      This is all too common and is a reason why some managers throw in the towel and don’t bother with constructive feedback. But it’s sort of like the teacher that everyone loved in school just because their class was so easy. Are those the teachers that really made an impact? Probably not. The demanding ones who could push you to do better and were still likeable are the ones who probably made the biggest difference.

      The key is you’ve got to find a balance between giving constructive criticism and how you’re percieved. And there are plenty of things you can do to change the way people perceive you without lowering your expectations.

      1. Bonnie*

        I just waited out the “good” managers until they left because they couldn’t deal with the difficult people the refused to fire or help. I got better co-managers and we now have better employees.

      2. YALM*

        I’ve had three types of employees over the years: employees who love me, employees who generally like me, and employees who hate me. The employees who like me or love me trust me. They do good to great work. They are praised and acknowledged and rewarded for their work. They are invited to contribute to the team. They are pushed to stretch and grow. They don’t get dumped on if they make a mistake, as long as it’s not an oft-repeated mistake. They are treated like the professionals they are.

        The ones who hate me think I’m an inflexible hard ass with unrealistic expectations (showing up for work, completing assignments on time). They think I’m mean. Boo hoo. They also tend not to stick around too long. I’m now the axe manager in my organization. If you are a problem and are moved to my team, the clock is ticking. Fortunately, though, I have the support of my boss and my boss’s boss. I don’t care about the popularity contest aspects, but it’s much easier to do my job when I know management has my back.

        1. Jamie*

          I could have written this. I guarantee there are people here who hate me – and invariably they are the ones with the weakest record of completing things on time and accurately.

          We’re going through a particularly intense period coming to the end of a year long project which has been very work intensive and required above and beyond from a lot of people…when they were more than busy enough already. In my last presentation I acknowledged this and tongue in cheek thanked everyone for not cutting my brakes…believe me when I tell you I could see the ones who knew I was just doing my job and the ones who would be out there snipping the brake lines if it wouldn’t come with a long prison sentence.

          If someone whose work ethic and professionalism I respected had a problem with me, it would bother me enough to do some self-examination to see if the issues had merit. If the slackers have a problem with me, I think it means I’m doing my job.

    2. Miriam*

      There’s a difference between being honest and being a jerk. As long as the manager is giving constructive criticisms and is not screaming at the employees and making personal attacks, I think most people can tell the difference and will respect the first type. Of course there are people who are thin-skinned and get offended at anything other than praises.

  7. Sara*

    My current manager had us fill out a form before our annual reviews listing what we thought we did well, what we thought we could improve on, etc. One of the questions asked us to come up with some things that would help us do our jobs more effectively. He then lectured me on why I shouldn’t need any of the things I suggested.

    1. Bonnie*

      That makes me sad. Self review and asking employees for what they need can be the most powerful and beneficial thing for an employer to do. To see it misused like this is a real tragedy.

  8. Kelly O*

    Okay, see here I thought you got employees to love you by firing people who do their jobs but don’t always tell you what you want to hear, and ignoring anyone who works in a cubicle until you need to yell at someone for a problem they have no control over.

    Dang. No wonder I’m not a manager.

  9. YALM*

    A couple of other ways to con your staff into loving you:

    Protect them. Protect them from inane corporate rules you don’t have the power to change but do have the power to blunt. Protect them from bad coworkers by being a manager and dealing with problem employees. Protect them from drama in the office.

    Don’t panic in a crisis. Stay calm, understand the ramifications of workplace changes, and manage them. Be honest with your people, but don’t inflame their fears. Keep yourself and your team focused on the important things.

    Still, free food and comp time go a long way…

    1. Anonymous*

      A friend of mine said that, on his first day, his new manager said “My job is to ensure that upper management don’t prevent you from doing yours.” :-)

      1. Jamie*

        Hopefully s/he meant that s/he makes sure that directives from upper management are being communicated clearly to every affected employee…and not that he tosses some BS at upper management while ignoring procedure.

        Not that middle management is ever obstructionist…

        Seriously though, I’d love Alison’s take on that – how to get things done when there is a culture of middle management “protecting” their workers from the company wide policies and procedures. I’ve read everything, but I’m going to hit the archives now to see if there’s something on this…

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          It’s probably a post in itself, but my basic take is that in that situation, someone sufficiently high up needs to take a look at why it’s happening: Is it because the policies and procedures are bad, or is it a lack of understanding about why they matter, or is it something else? Figure out the root cause and address it from there, essentially, but don’t just let it continue.

          1. Revanche*

            I consider myself an advocate for my team to upper management because they’re always going to have a bird’s eye view to what contributions are being offered by my team, what their needs are and how they should be met.

            In fairly and accurately representing those needs, and making sure the team is adequately resourced, and that the team then makes the best use of those resources, I “protect” my team.

            I also translate directives from upper management to my team if they don’t seem to make sense since I know what the intent is, and if they really don’t make sense at the root, I take the message back to upper management and see what I can do about clarifying or pushing for change.

    2. fposte*

      Actually, this points toward a situation I struggle with. What’s the difference between protecting them and failing to be transparent? I’ve kept people informed in the face of upper-level changes that turned out to be upper-level flailings that they didn’t need to know about. How do you judge when it’s something that they don’t need to know, or at least don’t need to know until a conclusion has been reached?

      1. The Other Dawn*

        It’s definitely tough to figure out sometimes. Most of the time I wait until I, or the company, reaches a final decision on something. Why get the employees worked up for something that might not come to fruition?

        1. The Other Dawn*

          I should clarify. What I’m referring to are the really big things, like merging with another company. But there definitely are other times where you have to decide on a case-by-case basis. Some employees might start gossiping, which can lead to lots of headaches and misinformation.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        This is tough, and I think you have to decide it on a case-by-case basis, but if I had to lay out general principles, I’d say to think about what problems might be caused by them not knowing now. For instance, if someone is putting a ton of work into Project X and there are talks about canceling it or scaling it back, how will it impact the employee to have a heads-up or not before a decision is made? And it’s not always straightforward — one employee might want the heads-up, while another wouldn’t want to deal with the uncertainty.

      3. YALM*

        That line between informing and distracting is not always easy to find. I’ve missed it one more than one occasion.

        For me, it’s knowing the actors (and history) that helps me decided. If a situation looks like yet another round of blah blah blah with so-and-so, then I stay quiet and let it play out. If I know that it’s affecting any or all of the people on my team, I’ll address it as honestly as I can, but I will preach caution and patience–it’s probably just a fire drill, and if it turns out not to be, we’ll deal with it. In the meantime, I’ll work on contingency plans…just in case.

      4. Joey*

        I think you generally should err on the side of being transparent if theres a reasonable chance it can or could affect them. But it’s so important to put it in context.

    3. Kelly O*

      My very favorite boss told me he’d always let me know when something was going to directly affect me, but he buffered between me and some ridiculous things going on in the office in general (he also backed me up when I had to do difficult things.)

      There was no panicky knee-jerk reaction to things. We talked about problems and solutions and worked through things together. It was really nice, and one of those things I wish could have lasted a lot longer than it did. I’d work for him again in a second.

  10. Cruella Da Boss*

    Most of my employees hate me. That’s okay. My company didn’t hire me to be their friend.

    1. Anonymous*

      I don’t care if I’m friends with the boss or not, but I want to be treated in a nice, polite, and professional manner. I have encountered being yelled at, belittled, and being around things that take flight.

      1. Cruella Da Boss*

        How unfortunate! I’ve been the victim of the great “flying stapler” once myself.

        After reading “The Servant Leader,” I treat my employees with far more respect than they show me.

        Doesn’t stop them from calling me “Cruella.”

        1. Anonymous*

          It wasn’t a stapler, thank God, and it wasn’t thrown exactly at me. It was a small plastic bottle. My boss threw it in front of me (we were standing side-by-side) and he was angry at the whole day. It bounced on the counter in front of me. Thank God, too, it wasn’t made out of glass!

          I’d be curious about that read. It wouldn’t be the first book I’d get from the library due to this blog!

          But you should give your employees a bonus if they can at least sing “Cruella” from “101 Dalmatians!”

      2. Piper*

        This. All of it. I have had some of the worst bosses imaginable (if I hadn’t lived through some of my experiences, I’d have a hard time believing they actually happened). I’ve had some okay bosses, too, but none that I would say are outstanding or anything like the type of manager Alison promotes on this blog. It’s sad. I’d really like to work for someone who was better than just okay, and certainly better than abusing me, belittling, and throwing things.

    2. Joey*

      Why is it okay? If most of your employees hate you there’s either a real problem or a perceived problem. Either of which are your responsibility to address. Sure there will always be a some employees that hate you no matter what you do, but generally your employees should have good feedback about you.

      1. Cruella Da Boss*

        I’m doing the job I was hired to do. My employer seems pleased with that and that is all the really matters. When they are no longer pleased, then they will tell me.

    3. The Other Dawn*

      Cruella, do you mean they hate you because you give tough love and enforce the rules? There’s a difference between being a boss that employees hate because she yells, treats them terribly, doesn’t follow through, etc., and a boss that problem employees hate because she has a high bar to meet.

      1. Anonymous*

        I understood her to mean that she believes in tough love and enforces the rules. It’ll be even more understandable if she replaced someone who was lenient. I’m a witness to that now where my boss has a new boss who micromanages to the hilt, and because of that, those immediately under him are all not hitting the friend button.

        1. Cruella Da Boss*

          I am definately an old school tough love rules enforcer.

          I believe rules are there for a reason and it takes less time and energy to follow them, than sit around scheming how to break them.

          I believe in giving credit where credit is due, working hard for what I earn but also earning what I’ve worked for, and giving my best, regardless of the circumstances. If they told me right now that at five o’clock I’d be fired, I’d give 100% right up to 5:01.

          But most of all, I believe in treating my people fairly, and giving them the benefit of the doubt, regardless of how they treat me or think of me.

          I’m not a favorite, but then again, I don’t have to be either.

  11. TaxManager*

    I don’t expect to be friends with my employees, but I want them to not mind working for me. If they are afraid to approach me with bad news, or just avoid me for whatever reason, then I’m not doing my job. I’m here for them just as much as they’re there for me. (Okay, they’re probably there for me even more.)

  12. qubehrm*

    Indeed it’s true that to get respect first we have to show respect to others. In the same way i also treat my employees kindly and they do same to me. And it helps me to grow my business, because we work with unity no place for haterdness.

  13. Nethwen*

    I had a manager that buffered us from upper management. Largely because of him, I have good memories of what would otherwise have been an unbearable job.

    As to volunteering, as a side benefit, if you volunteer in your industry you might get to attend meetings, conferences, or trainings for free because you put yourself to be in the right place at the right time. Then there are the industry journals that you might not be able to afford but can read at your volunteer place.

    I know among librarians, there is a debate on whether providing professional services for free devalues the profession and gives the impression that funding is not needed for libraries, thus leading to even more unemployed librarians. Do other industries have this debate?

    1. Laura L*

      I’m a librarian (by training-I work in one of those related “information professional” jobs), so I’ve heard this a ton and I pay attention to other fields that are having this problem.

      Off the top of my head: graphic designers, various types of artists, and child care workers all have this problem (although it shows up a bit differently in the child care field).

      Also, tech people and web developers deal with friends and family expecting computer services for free. However, this has not translated into society generally devaluing the profession.

      1. Jamie*

        “Also, tech people and web developers deal with friends and family expecting computer services for free. However, this has not translated into society generally devaluing the profession.”

        It’s devalued tech, in a way. There is a significant segment of people who think that because they have a computer, smart phone, and a Facebook page that there isn’t a whole lot of difference between that and being a network/system admin or web developer.

        My dad first got into computer programming in 1959 – back when few people even knew computers were real and no one, outside of the industry, had seen one. It was a mysterious occupation.

        Flash forward to today and a lot of people think because they use computers every day that IT is no big deal. Fortunately not everyone, but enough that it’s diluted the value in the minds of some. Of course, these same people revert to thinking you’re a genius when they break their computer (at which they’re an expert) and need you to walk them through booting up in safe mode.

        1. Laura L*

          Interesting. Considering how high salaries are and how in-demand tech people seem to be (from my lay perspective), I would not think that it’s devalued tech.

          Although, I’m probably just one of those people who knows enough to know how much there is I don’t know. People who think they’re experts, but can’t use safe mode? WTF.

          (Also, I originally typed safe mood.)

        2. Natalie*

          Google and, by extension, the availability of basic trouble shooting and instructions is probably a factor.

          The less-technologically inclined people in my office think I am great with computers because I can a) put a computer together out of the box easily (the cables are color coded, FFS!) and b) use google to find answers to a lot of basic “how do I [task x] in Word 2007?” questions.

          I know that I couldn’t tell you thing 1 about coding or systems administration. I’m not even clear on what goes into systems administration on a day to day basis. My co-workers, on the other hand, may not even have a conception of these skills as something that exists.

      2. Rana*

        The situation with adjunct instructors on a lot of college and university campuses is a good warning example of what can happen if a profession doesn’t put its foot down. No benefits, no job security, annual incomes that are typically under $10,000… and yet college professors are believed to be “overpaid” and “not working enough.”

        Be glad you belong to a profession that still cares to give that sort of advice.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Writers/bloggers. Very much so. There’s a lot of pressure to work for free “for exposure,” and early on, it sometimes does pay off. But it’s a little silly to get that pitch after you’ve reached a certain degree of success.

    3. Joey*

      I think the concern about devalued librarians has more to do with the perception that questions the need for a librarian to have a masters.

      And really anyone who volunteers could argue that any volunteer work leads to higher unemployment. People question the need to fund libraries because so many cling to being old fashioned book repositories instead of adapting to the needs of todays patrons.

      1. Laura L*

        I think it’s more a supply and demand issue. The supply of librarians is much greater than the demand, so organizations can afford to only hire experienced librarians at low salaries. It essentially shuts out librarians who have just received their degrees and creates a situation in which the only way to gain experience is through volunteering or internships.

        Also, librarians don’t need master’s degrees. They just don’t. Most of the training can easily be done on the job.

        1. Rana*

          I’d say it depends on the librarian and the nature of his or her position. Subject librarians working in college and university libraries very much need master’s degrees; many such jobs even require a Ph.D.

        2. Liz in a Library*

          I think it depends heavily on what kind of librarian you are. I teach doctoral candidates at times; I do think familiarity with graduate-level coursework is necessary for that, even if you take the assumption that the actual course content isn’t. For academic librarians, I think that’s a false assumption anyway.

          I can’t speak to public or school librarianship, because I haven’t done it.

          1. Laura L*

            Yes, it depends if you are a subject librarian or not. But, I interned at an academic reference desk during library school and felt that much of the job was learned on the job, by asking the librarians what resources to use.

            1. Heather B*

              But theoretically, if you get the Master’s degree a reference course will teach you what resources to use…

              I believe the Master’s has value, but actually more as a way to provide us with a philosophical grounding than with practical knowledge. I agree that much of the day-to-day tasks can be learned on the fly or in one-off classes. But the Master’s curriculum, ideally, instills a common sense of values (intellectual freedom, e.g.) and purpose among library professionals.

              1. Liz in a Library*

                I completely agree. For an academic library, it also introduces you to what graduate level academic work looks like. Actually, I really like the second Master’s for this, too, because it exposes you to other fields. It’s important for librarians teaching academic skills and research skills to graduate-level students to have a full understanding of what graduate-level research looks like.

  14. Anonymous*

    The article on volunteering is very timely for me. I’m interested in finding a second volunteer position while I continue to look for work. There are several organizations with missions that are really important to me, but do not have the same broad support that, say, the Humane Society does.

    I’ve been unsure if it would be unwise to list this when applying to jobs outside of these organizations, since I don’t want to alienate the person reading my resume. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to handle this?

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