my favorite cover letter tips, and why you should volunteer if you’re unemployed

Two miscellaneous things:

1. In this article in Self, I do a round-up of my favorite tips for writing good cover letters.

2. And a reader sent me this interesting news release from the Corporation for National & Community Service, which mentions research showing that unemployed people who volunteer over the next year have 27% higher odds of being employed at the end of the year than non-volunteers. Among rural volunteers and volunteers without a high school diploma, the likelihood increases by about double that.

That makes sense, because volunteering — in addition to doing good — can keep your skills up-to-date, give you work to put on your resume where you’d otherwise have a period of no activity, expose you to new fields, expand your network, give you a sense of accomplishment that can boost your self-confidence in interviews, and turn you into a known quantity for the people you meet there (and being a known quantity can be huge when applying for a job).

Volunteering is not a magic bullet, of course, but if you can do it, I recommend it. Here are some past posts about volunteering:

can volunteering lead to a job offer?

how to find a great volunteer job

what kind of volunteering is most helpful?

{ 109 comments… read them below }

  1. Kristoffer*

    #2 is a recycling of a 2013 study, and the release is just lying with statistics. It pays t0 read the full study, and pay attention to the percentage points, not the percentage (big difference):

    In reality, volunteering at best boosts your odds of getting a job by only 12 percentage points, at worst by only 4. That bad news doesn’t sell nearly as well as “27%!”, as I’m sure you now realize.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’ve only skimmed the study and relied on the news release. But I just skimmed it again and can’t find what you’re citing — can you point me to it?

      Either way, I’m a big fan of people volunteering for all the reasons I talk about above (as well as, of course, doing good in the world).

      1. Hellanon*

        I’ve done a lot of volunteering, and I found that, for career purposes, volunteering with my professional association paid really direct benefits: it led to 2 jobs for me, including the one that’s turned into a highly-paid career change, and and jobs for several of the young women I mentored as part of that involvement. Volunteering with my writer’s group also led both directly & indirectly to work, and volunteering with my local neighborhood association has led to tremendous friendships and additional professional opportunities as well as being, you know, *fun*. I think you’ve got to go into it because it’s a good thing to do & because you can make a contribution, though: it’s even less fun dealing with folks who are hoping to use the system purely for their own good in a volunteer capacity than it is in a work capacity. And trust me, it’s not hard to tell the difference!

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Ah, I see where you’re looking — yes, when you state it in percentage points rather than percentage increase, itttdefinitely sounds less dramatic. I don’t think that’s lying with statistics though; they’re accurately reporting their results, just using the more impressive sounding but still still accurate figure.

          1. nofelix*

            I think if a lay person couldn’t easily tell the difference between two stats then the honest thing is to go with what their assumption of your meaning would be. In this case, my guess would be that most non-stats people reading would assume a 27% increase means if the original chance of success was 10% then after volunteering it would now be 37%. Since that’s not the finding of the study, it seems misleading to use 27%. A more accurate way of reporting the findings might be something like:

            “Volunteering increased the likelihood of landing a job by 4 to 12 percent, with those that had been out of work the longest seeing the most benefit” or whoever was getting best results.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              But it’s completely accurate the way it’s presented: it’s a 27% increase in your chances, not a 27 point increase. I think that’s a pretty common way to present things.

              1. Kristoffer*

                It’s accurate, but also misleading. That’s the definition of “lying with statistics”. 1% chance of getting a job + 27% improvement = 1.27% chance of getting a job. It’s an extreme example, but it illustrates my point.

                1. Ultraviolet*

                  There’s a difference between “misleading” and “easy to misunderstand.” This is closer to grammatical ambiguity (27 percent of what?) than to lying with statistics.

                2. Kristoffer*

                  When they publicize the percentage and not the percentage points, there’s no ambiguity about their intentions. Abusing “grammatical ambiguity” for the sake of attractive press is lying with statistics.

                3. Aster Z*

                  I’m always up for a nice session of impugning government bureaucracies for exaggerating the value of their little pork-barrel programs, but this strikes me as overkill. % change = (new – orig)/orig * 100 isn’t some bit of esoterica that only professional statisticians know. If people are reading too sloppily to distinguish between percent difference from the benchmark and raw percent points, how much of that is the writer’s fault?

            2. Ultraviolet*

              I agree with Alison. I also think that the writer of the news release was actually trying to reduce the likelihood of being misinterpreted when they chose the words “27% higher odds.” Odds are not typically expressed as percentages, so improving the odds by 27% should be hard to confuse with increasing the probability by 27 percentage points. They could certainly have done more to prevent confusion, especially since they don’t seem to have been working to a very restrictive word count limit, but I really can’t agree that their wording is dishonest.

              1. Kristoffer*

                If you honestly believe they were trying reduce the likelihood of being misunderstood, then War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength. They chose the 27% figure for a reason: it was far better press than saying that volunteering doesn’t do much to improve your odds of getting a job.

                1. Ultraviolet*

                  A relative increase of 27% is actually a big improvement, no matter what the absolute probability ends up being as a result. But I’m done here–off to Two Minutes Hate.

    2. MK*

      Frankly, I don’t see that it makes all that difference. It’s not as if anyone (reasonable) is going to see 27% and think volunteeri when unemployed ng is guaranteed to lead to a job. Just that it might maybe, possibly help in some way.

      1. Hlyssande*

        And it’s something to do to get out of the house while un- or underemployed. When you’ve got nothing to do, the first week or two is awesome, but after that I go absolutely stir crazy and NEED some kind of thing to get me out of the house regularly or I descend into even worse depression and hermitage than usual.

        That’s one reason a lot of retired people take part time jobs later on, I think. My uncle retired from the meat company and drives school buses now.

      2. nofelix*

        It makes a big difference if it’s being compared to other ways of improving employment chances. This type of thing crops up in non-profit work all the time: people secure huge grants based on the amazing benefits their proposals are meant to produce, only for some later analysis to show the supporting research has been misrepresented by journalists and a thorough reading of the original papers would have shown the benefits to be minimal. But by then all the funding has been spent.

    3. Michele*

      I’ve been a Stay at Home Mom now for almost 10 years. I took every opportunity to parent volunteer in the class room and on field trips. I’m now wanting to get back into the workforce going down a different career path but I do have indirect work experience from many many years ago. How do I incorporate my volunteer work into my cover letter and my resume of a stay at home mom venturing a new career? Are there power words? Are there samples? Help… spinning my wheels.

  2. The Bimmer Guy*

    “Resist the urge to say you’ll follow up to schedule an interview”

    I don’t understand why that’s an urge for some people. Maybe it’s because I’ve only been in the professional workforce for a small period of time–and have been reading AAM for the majority of it–but I’ve never felt compelled to do that. It’d be like if someone messaged me on Plenty of Fish and told me they’d take it upon themselves to schedule a first date. Yeah…definitely don’t do that. Wait for them to call you. Or better yet, don’t wait, get on with your career search…and then be pleasantly surprised if and when they do call back, especially if you’re in a highly competitive field (as I am).

    1. Charityb*

      I don’t think it’s a natural urge for most people, but it sounds like one of those awkward, salesy job tips that you get from websites and articles (other than AAM, of course). The idea is that you make yourself seem confident, motivated, and interested.

      Perhaps 1 in every 10,000 hiring managers responds to this kind of thing which validates in the eyes of job article writers across the world.

        1. Chriama*

          I heard that advice, and the only reason I didn’t follow up was because I never had the contact info to be able to schedule an interview! So I always said something like “you can reach me by phone or email (which were in the header of my resume and cover letter so I didn’t restate it) and I look forward to talking to you at your earliest opportunity”. (that wording taken from a summer I spent as a legal assistant sending letters to people) Probably still pushy, and I’ve switched to saying “I’d love to talk to you more at your earliest convenience” which I think is a little less aggressive. Thoughts?

        2. MsChandandlerBong*

          Exactly. The HR director at my college taught one of my classes (Business Communications, I think), and she told us several times, in a very roundabout way, that we should never listen to the director of the career center when it came to writing resumes or cover letters. At the time, the “career lady” advised us to print our resumes on marbled blue bond paper and make sure we said we’d be in touch to schedule an interview.

          1. Pennalynn Lott*

            I feel really fortunate to have the career center that I do at my university. So far, everything they’ve told me has matched AAM’s advice perfectly. Not one single thing was cringe-worthy.

            The only person who has made me cringe was my Professional Development professor who told us that if we use Pinterest, Twitter, or Facebook, we should put those apps in the “Technology Skills” section of our resumes. >.<

            1. Persephone*

              I do include social media sites on my resume, but in a very carefully structured way and only because my job involves corporate social media work!

      1. Girasol*

        I must have had unusual luck volunteering when I was laid off a few years back. Of course, I was already a volunteer for a group that establishes new cover plants after prairie fires, so work with them was a given. But I also volunteered at the local PBS station where, I found out, the companies that send their people for an hour of telephone work don’t let them stay long enough to be camera crew. Since I had the time they had me gave me a headset and let me run the big TV camera. Ready camera two…that was me! Not only did I feel useful and meet neat people but I had a ball. I can’t say much for whether it improved my job prospects, since I got an offer from somewhere completely unrelated. But maybe my most cheerful and least desperate interview so far had something to do with getting hired, and maybe the attitude came from the opportunity to brighten my outlook.

        1. Hellanon*

          I also think that volunteering during periods of unemployment can give you a real psychological lift – it’s terrifically hard to feel like a competent grownup when you’re not working (at least it was for me) and volunteering can give you that validation, that, “Hey, at least I’m good at this” sense and a to-do list.

    2. Mimmy*

      There’s an urge because many career centers have strongly encouraged this as a way to show you are *truly* interested in the job. It never felt right to me, but I included it anyways because I thought it was what you did to get hired. So glad to know it’s frowned upon after all.

      1. Anonymous Poster*

        When I was in college in the mid 90s we had to prepare mock cover letters and were required to include the “I will follow up” line. We were told it’s the way job hunting works. It can become ingrained and hence, some of us need to reminded to resist the urge.

  3. Adam*

    I am interested in learning more about volunteering as a means of helping my career in addition to doing good service. My scope is pretty narrow as when I think about volunteering I think about clean-up crews or something like that. I volunteered in animal shelter for two years, stopping only recently because I wanted more time and new experiences etc. I definitely include it on my resume but at best it will give anyone looking at it a positive view of my character as skill-wise it doesn’t really add anything of note.

    1. MinB*

      There are plenty more volunteer opportunities than cleaning. Lots of nonprofits need help with administrative work – data entry, answering phones, preparing mailings, researching, etc. – and if you have special technical skills, many nonprofits would love the help. If you know web development, you can offer to maintain or update their website. Fundraising events need assistance with setting up for the event, calling to ask for auction donations, etc. Nonprofits with youth programs can be a good way to get youth teaching experience on your resume. Museums might have volunteer docent programs where you can be a tour guide. If you’re good at graphic design, offer to make flyers. Lawyers might offer legal consultations… etc.

      Larger nonprofits are likely paying people for many of these skills but if you check out small, local nonprofits there’s a chance one of them is a good match for your skills and interests.

    2. bentley*

      Volunteers do more than clean-up. If you look in something like VolunteerMatch, there are organizations looking for board members, part-time administrators, thrift store managers, help with computers and spreadsheets, public relations, etc.

    3. Kat M*

      I started writing press releases and grant applications as a volunteer before anyone would have paid me to do those things. Once I had the track record, it was easy to find the work. When I worked as a massage therapist, I was told I got my job in a clinic specifically because I had talked about my volunteer experience with an AIDS organization in my cover letter, since many of their patients were HIV+.

      I know many teachers who got their jobs through volunteer tutoring or mentoring, lab techs who found employment after volunteering at a hospital, and photographers who built their portfolio taking pictures of animals up for adoption at local shelters. I think you just need to find something that relates directly to the work you want to do. Picking up litter is nice (and fun! I do it regularly!), but it’s not going to be hugely helpful unless you’re looking for work with the local park service.

    4. Chinook*

      If you become part of a community organization, you can also volunteer to be part of the executive or chair a committee. In the group I lead, which granted is a church ladies group, there are opportunities to organize and promote a bazaar and a rummage sale, organize our membership drive (and all the incoming forms and money that goes with it), take minutes that follow Richard’s (Rob’s, Roger’s?? I can never remember) Rules of Order, write up resolutions that could be debated at a national level and even be presented to our Prime Minister (Justin I mean, not the head of my organization) or be treasurer and take care of incoming funds and charitable donations. Those are just the ones off the top of my head that we never have enough people to volunteer for and use skills that would be great in office environment. On top of that, our women come various backgrounds and there is no better way to network with people who work in different industries who may know someone who is looking for someone just like you.

    5. Melissa*

      I spent years volunteering for an open source website by training and coordinating other volunteers. The experiences there translated well into job skills I could talk about in the hiring process–especially soft skills that complemented my technical/specialized degree. I’m 100% sure that the experience and the recommendation that came from it got me my current job.

    6. Al Lo*

      When I think of volunteering, things like clean-up crews are almost the last things I think of! I work in the non-profit arts world, so depending on the organization, the volunteers I intersect with almost daily do things like:

      Act/perform in, direct, run tech for, design, build sets for (etc) theatrical/music shows
      Sit on the board of directors for every non-profit organization that exists
      Work on fund development committees
      Run executive councils for choirs, etc.
      Usher shows
      Build and tear down sets
      Teach or assist classes
      Play instruments in bands/choirs/shows/etc
      Help to plan and execute elements of fundraising events/galas/etc
      Help with marketing campaigns and strategies for small arts non-profits
      Photograph/film shows and events…

      In addition to all of the administrative jobs listed. These kinds of jobs were actually my very first exposure to volunteering, and things that I did as a kid (and my parents did while I was growing up).

      Now, there’s a whole set of arguments about under which circumstances these roles should be paid, and those vary widely depending on the organization and the scope of activities, but all of these are totally valid volunteer opportunities that are available in many organizations, and require varying levels of education, experience, and training in specific disciplines.

      (And often, if you usher or help strike or set up a show, you get free tickets! It’s a great way to see live arts for free and still support the organizations.)

    7. manybellsdown*

      I volunteer as a docent for a museum. I give talks, I work events, etc. My background is in education so this is a great fit for me. And there’s room for upward movement even as a volunteer; twice now I’ve been asked to lead off something new that they haven’t had a volunteer do before.

    8. Adam*

      Thank you everyone for the ideas! I live in a city that really values volunteer work, but whenever I think of it for some reason I always think “grunt work”. Nothing wrong with that of course, but cool to consider other possibilities.

  4. Cupcake*

    When I was unemployed last year, I wanted to volunteer, but all the volunteer opportunities I was interested in required a cover letter, resume and interview. Which I was already doing trying to find an actual paying job. It broke my spirit.

    1. Anon the Great and Powerful*

      Yeah, finding a volunteer job can be harder than finding a real job. All the volunteer jobs in my city require background checks and drug tests as well, which I’ve never had to do for a paying job. I gave up on looking for volunteer work.

        1. Faith*

          One issue is that you’re competing with people on government assistance. My sister was on some type of welfare for awhile and was supposed to volunteer x number of hours per month for the duration.

          This has increased the number of applicants for volunteer opportunities, but has made it difficult for some places as well. They don’t want people who are only there to fulfill hours. Luckily, my sister gained FT (if low paying) employment before they cracked down on her.

      1. Chinook*

        “All the volunteer jobs in my city require background checks and drug tests as ”

        In Canada, it is common practice to get a background check when dealing with vulnerable people (either children or seniors) or dealing with money and it is usually not much of a problem once you locate your local detachment. You fill in a form, drop it off in person with photo id and then pick up the letter 2 weeks later. Volunteer groups often get to the fees waived. Is it more difficult than this is the U.S.?

        Luckily, the drug tests aren’t required except in very specific circumstances (and I can’t think of any right now).

        1. MinB*

          My state has an instant online check that’s free for nonprofits. It’s a limited check – we don’t get traffic crimes or drug crimes or any lower-level stuff, but it will tell us if a person has a history of violence against vulnerable populations within our state. Not sure about nation-wide checks or more thorough checks and the process for those.

      2. Tammy*

        Depending on the nonprofit, this may be an artifact of the organizations that fund them. Some years ago, I wanted to provide some volunteer services (IT-related) to a local nonprofit whose mission I supported. I gave up on the idea when they informed me that the agency providing most of their grant funding required ~50 hours of training for anybody who wanted to volunteer, regardless of in what capacity. The training made sense for someone volunteering to work directly with clients; it made much less sense for someone just trying to provide a few hours of IT services.

    2. blackcat*

      I think this really depends on the job, but it can be worth it. I sent an informal cover letter/email, attaching a resume to a volunteer gig way back when. They did call me in for an interview, but it was all less formal than applying for a job. And I didn’t get the sense that there was much competition–it was more that they wanted to make sure I was competent to do the job (volunteer ESL teacher, in an area where the schools were hiring any licensed, breathing ESL teacher. I was not yet licensed but had some experienced/training).

    3. Looby*

      I noticed this as well.
      Additionally last year, while unemployed I discovered that I cannot receive unemployment benefits and volunteer during working hours (Monday-Friday, 9-5) as this would mean I was “unavailable to work”, requirement of my benefits. It was incredibly frustrating that at the time I had most time to volunteer I was most hindered.
      I was also not able to study during work hours, I took an online course and had to confirm to the benefits department that I would do it only in evenings and weekends.

      1. louise*

        I’m a bizarre level of dishonest-averse (like, I have to force myself to smile when someone says “Oh, do you know so-and-so?” if it is a person I can’t stand. I feel dishonest that I can’t say “Yes, but I don’t like them.”), but this would have me lying. I mean, if you get the flu should you not get unemployment benefits? Under this rule, you couldn’t have gone to work, so nope! Or multiple doctor’s appointments/errands? It seems silly with those examples, so unless they have the name/contact info for the volunteer gig to confirm when you’re there, then they don’t know what your hours really are. Same with studying–unless they can check the timestamp of your assignments, they’ll never know. And you are still available for work then because if a job or interview comes up, you’ll just *not* interview or study then. Bizarre rule.

        1. misspiggy*

          This is the UK. You have to prove you spent almost a full working week applying for jobs in order to get unemployment. People have had their benefits cut off for several months for attending a job interview when it conflicted with a regular welfare advisor appointment.

          1. Rater Z*

            I went thru that in 1988 when I was living in Wisconsin and my company went out of business. I was 1200 miles away for a job interview when they dropped a class on job-hunting on us with less than two days notice. When I got back home and found out what happened, it was just a quick trip to the office to clear it up and get the money flowing again. 600 people lost their jobs in a three month period (three or four different companies closing down or closing shifts) in a town of 16,000 in the middle of nowhere (50 miles south of Wausau). I floated resumes from Trenton, NJ to Los Angeles and from North Dakota to Florida. I wound up in Milwaukee.

        2. Looby*

          It is bizarre! Sickness is ok, you are able to do things during working hours just not any “organized” things, for want of a better term.
          The person I spoke to actually have an example “you can play golf all week, but you cannot take a week long golf class”
          I believe the idea is that if you got called to a job you would leave your golf game but might be too committed to your golf lessons to accept said job?
          Completely ridiculous, as I have never had job interviews within 3 days of contact never mind actually called to start working.
          You do have to demonstrate job seeking activities and applications as mentioned by someone below.
          I’m in Canada fwiw.

    4. MaryMary*

      Some organizations do have a pretty involved application process. My mom is retired but wanted to volunteer at the local children’s hospital. She had to complete an eight page application, provide three references, and do an interview. I think they did a background check too. But now she gets to cuddle newborn babies once a week!

      When I was unemployed and wanted to volunteer, I ran into problems with the time to took to get through an application process and find an opportunity. There were a couple organizations I never heard back from. I only ended up volunteering twice for one of the other organizations, based on their needs. I had envisioned being put to work right away, so I was surprised at the elapsed time it took to become a volunteer.

      1. the gold digger*

        For someone who is going to have access to brand new babies, I can see that level of background check!

        I used to shelve books at my library. They just wanted to make sure I knew the alphabet.

    5. Ultraviolet*

      The volunteer opportunities I’ve looked at also ask you to commit to a certain amount of time per week for the next year. I totally understand why they would want that commitment, but how could someone hoping to find a full-time job agree to it? (Part of the problem might be that the positions I’ve looked at are ones that would be difficult to do offsite and/or outside normal business hours, at least until you’ve built up a lot of trust at the organization.)

      1. Cupcake*

        Yep, that was a problem I ran into as well. It seemed a lot of places wanted unpaid part-time employees.

        1. Ultraviolet*

          Well, I don’t really think that all the organizations I saw with this policy were intending to treat volunteers the same way as employees–in fact I know some of them didn’t. And it’s totally reasonable to ask for a commitment of many months so that volunteers aren’t leaving just as they’ve been trained and are starting to really contribute. But there seems to be a tricky trade-off where the kind of volunteer work that will really increase your employability (employableness? neither of these are words?) is hard to get when you have or intend to have a full-time job.

      2. Anxa*

        Great point! I ran into this with almost all of the opportunities that were more skill-building and interesting.

  5. Not Karen*

    #2: I wonder if there is confounding here and it’s not that volunteering leads to a better chance of landing a job, but maybe that more motivated/ambitious/what have you people tend to both volunteer and more rigorously job search.

    1. Adam*

      For a lot of people it’s probably at least better for their mindset. When I’ve had periods of seriously no job one of the things that drove me the battiest was sitting at home alone all day. You can only peruse job boards for so long before your spirit starts to crack. Having somewhere to go and do something useful, even if only once a week for a couple hours, can give you a boost in feeling like a productive human being again.

      1. manybellsdown*

        This is SO true. It gets me out of the house and talking to people, which … well, the hours can get away from you when you’re home by yourself and the internet is working.

    2. Sharon*

      I think you’re right. In my case, because I volunteered with very small nonprofits I was able to jump into leadership positions with them (treasurer and board seat in both cases). I made lots of social connections but no professional connections. However, I think the experience improved my confidence and effectiveness as a professional in general ways. In the nonprofit roles I got to be responsible for a large variety of things simply because nobody else was there to do them. They worked like stretch goals in a relatively low-risk environment. My paid jobs have never, ever allowed me to do stretch goals like that because management is always too risk-averse. So that’s one advantage for volunteering!

      BTW, speaking of the risk of allowing people to stretch, maybe I was lucky or just amazingly talented (I doubt that), but I never made any mistakes huge enough to cause problems for the nonprofits, even in a money-handling, top responsibility role. It makes me wonder why my corporate jobs are so afraid of allowing people to stretch!

    3. Eve*

      Yeah, seems like a classic correlation does not equal causation example. That said, I agree that it can’t hurt!

    1. Lynda*

      I don’t find that hard to believe in the UK market. I’ve volunteered for a few organisations over the years and now leave it off my CV because all potential employers seemed to see it as was a) proof that I’d work for free and b) proof that what I’d built really wasn’t valuable.

  6. BioPharma*

    Are cover letters required for referrals? When I’m referring an acquaintance or former colleague (not a good friend wiht a great fit who I might praise and spend extra time promoting) and they send a cover letter, I’ll forward both the letter and their resume along. If they don’t include a cover letter, I don’t go back to them asking about a cover letter. Am I doing them a disservice?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If the hiring manager is one who normally values cover letters (or if you don’t know either way), yes, I’d write back to them and tell them that they should include one.

      The exception to this is if it’s a hard-to-fill position and the hiring manager specifically is trying to lower the barrier for entry for really great candidates.

      1. BioPharma*

        Thanks! From all the great advice I’ve gotten from you, I definitely struggle between “OMG this resume looks terrible, how about doing this and that to improve it (sometimes asking for a Word version and doing it in track changes)” and “this isn’t my job–I’ll forward what they send me” Sometimes when BOTH the cover letter and resume are bad, I help them with one of them! (this is common because I refer many academic scientists trying to get industry jobs)

  7. Carrie in Scotland*

    When my other comments are released from moderation, I’ll be spamming the comments a bit but I’ve volunteered with an international charity in a book & music shop (not a general clothes/homewares one) however it seems to be a mixture of the people (younger people, older people, the odd – like myself – full time worker who does a shift on the weekend) and the whole atmosphere of the place. I’ve tried volunteering in a shop based where I am just now and it just wasn’t the same. I’ve volunteered during times I’ve been employed and without. It’s kept me sane from being unemployed and employed!!

    1. Violetta*

      I volunteered for what I think must be that same organization (they have food shops in some of mainland Europe) and I do think it helped me – This was in college, though, so it helped pad out my resume a bit when there wasn’t much else on it.

  8. sjw*

    Volunteering probably doesn’t directly lead to employment, but I think it does wonders for one’s self-esteem and gratitude, which, in some intangible way, directly impact one’s mental energy for the hard work of job seeking. My husband was unemployed for 7 months a good many years ago. It was the first time he’d ever not been able to immediately find work, and after a few months, he became discouraged and depressed. I suggested volunteering just to give him a focal point each day. He started delivering meals for Meals On Wheels (provides hot meals to seniors and disabled individuals, delivered to their home). I noticed a dramatic change in his attitude, and, perhaps coincidentally, he soon had 3 hot leads and a great offer followed. Fact is, job searching activities can only fill so many hours in a day. Too much free time gets depressing!

    1. Hellanon*

      So true, plus “I’ve been volunteering for Meals on Wheels & find I particularly love doing x, y and z” makes for a much livelier job interview when you find land one…

    2. MinB*

      I wouldn’t say it leads directly to employment very often, but in my case I was unemployed for 2 years post-college, mid-recession. I started volunteering with a very understaffed org and turned out to be so valuable to the staff that when I finally got an interview somewhere else, the org created a paid position for me so I wouldn’t leave. Definitely rare, but if you network diligently and take the work seriously, volunteering can directly lead to a job.

    3. Anna*

      I think there’s a tipping point though. At a certain point volunteering becomes demoralizing. I had to scale back and do more labor related one off projects after seeing a ton of new hires come in that I ended up showing the ropes to. I felt so embarrassed that I wasn’t worth considering-especially with so many coworkers begged to come work full-time

  9. hayling*

    I was unemployed for a bit when I moved cities and industries. I worked on a pro bono consulting project with Taproot Foundation which was a great experience. It
    a) gave me something constructive to do, which was great for my self-esteem
    b) kept my skills fresh
    c) expanded my network
    d) gave me something to talk about in interviews

  10. Mena*

    A comment on cover letters … my company doesn’t forward them to hiring managers; that’s right, we never seem them.

    So someone may labor over creating the PERFECT cover letter but I’m not going to see it because HR disposes of them upon arrival. We only ever receive the resume.

    Are other companies like this? I read a lot of advice in this column about crafting an effective cover letter but if you’re applying to the company I work for (large, national software provider … you’ve heard the name), this is a waste of a candidate’s time.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s absolutely true that some companies and some individual hiring managers don’t read cover letters. But there are a ton who do. As an applicant, you generally don’t know who you’re dealing with, so it makes sense to write a good one, considering that there’s a good chance it will pay off.

    2. Ultraviolet*

      Writing a good cover letter for a specific job can also focus your thinking in a way that really helps at the interview.

    3. Melissa*

      The hiring manager at your company may not see them, but does HR make any decisions in your process? And if they do, do your HR people read them and factor them into those decisions? I know they do at some companies.

    4. hermit crab*

      This is the way it is where I work too. Hiring managers have to specifically request that cover letters get forwarded to them, which seems weird to me!

  11. P*

    I wanted to mention, because it wasn’t covered in the can volunteering lead to a job question – some not for profits only hire from their volunteer base.

    1. Ekaterin*

      This was true of the non-profit where I volunteered in high school! I was a regular volunteer there for about 18 months (about 6-8 hours per week, a little more in the summer) and also volunteered at some of their big fundraising events. They hired me on as paid staff (evening and weekend hours) shortly after I turned 16, and I continued working there part-time/seasonally until my sophomore year of college. All of the teenage and college-aged staff I ever worked with there started off as volunteers, and a few of those folks who decided to stay in that part of the field did eventually move into full-time positions and are still there over a decade later. I moved to a different part of the field and haven’t ever leveraged a volunteer gig into full-time work with the same employer, but I do think that my long-term volunteer experiences in college were really relevant in my post-college job search.

  12. Grace*

    I wanted to be a museum archivist so in college I volunteered at the city’s historical museum for a year in archives. When a paid internship opened up at my college, the head of the museum’s archives called and recommended me. I got the internship, which paid better than any job I’d had so far.
    I’ve switched career paths and am volunteering with a small organization I learned about while pursuing my second degree. Many professionals are involved allowing me to network and hopefully helping further my career while I volunteer.

    Tl;dr : volunteering was directly responsible for me getting a job.

  13. RKB*

    Sometimes it helps to volunteer for paid work, too. I’ve volunteered for the last three elections held in my area (municipal, provincial, and federal!)

    It’s way fun, you meet interesting people, and you get paid. The federal election had a massive shortage this year in Canada, and we could’ve done with more.

    There’s loads of these types of events if you live in a big enough city. Local bridal expo needs ticket people! Horse show needs cashiers! City festival needs info booth helpers! Federal blood donation org needs drive volunteers!

    I love volunteering with these sorts of events because it’s so simple. It’s usually a day, maybe two. Some of them are paid, some of them not. And sometimes you meet the right people who keep you in mind for other volunteering events. I actually volunteered at a career fair and that’s how I got my municipal job. It was pretty neat.

  14. Amber Rose*

    Your advice on resumes helped get me a job, and your advice on cover letters helped get Husband a job (one with a ton of competition), and an interview for a better one.

    Just wanted to say thank you, because in a way, your advice keeps making our lives better. :)

  15. MsChandandlerBong*

    Here’s a question for those of you who hire volunteers:

    If you are interested in a volunteer opportunity, should you only apply if you have direct experience in that particular skill? I’ve been a writer for 12 years; I’ve done tons of newsletters, blog posts, articles, reports, and proposals. I’ve never done grant writing, but I’m confident I could learn quickly. I have done some tangentially related things, such as writing letters to ask businesses/individuals for monetary donations, soliciting donations via telephone, and the like, but no actual grant writing. Do you think a nonprofit would give me a chance to prove myself?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Small nonprofits, yes — ones that don’t have the manpower to get it done on their own are very often willing to work with volunteers in exactly the situation you describe. (Larger ones will usually have their own grant writers on staff.) My sister did exactly this when she wanted to move into nonprofit work, and it worked!

      1. Mimmy*

        I thought about doing that a few years ago, but without any grant writing experience, I was worried that I’d do it all wrong since I likely wouldn’t get any guidance. That happened to me at one volunteer gig with a statewide membership association. They asked me to search for appropriate funders and felt I was way in over my head. I thought, to myself, if I can’t even find a funder, how am I going to write an effective grant?? So I quit. They wanted someone with initiative anyway (read: someone who knows exactly what they’re doing or isn’t afraid to try!)

    2. Cath in Canada*

      The way I learned how to write good grants was to read a ton of both successful and unsuccessful grant applications, alongside the reviewers’ comments on each one. I gained access to these resources once I was hired as a grant writer, so I’m not sure how easy they’d be to find from the outside, but you could always ask the orgs you’re interested in working with to see if they have anything they could share. Good luck!

  16. Timssphere*

    For me, and I suspect for most people, volunteering to secure employment only makes sense from a financial standpoint if you can get a job from relatively little volunteering. It’s basically gambling with your time in the hopes of hitting the jackpot.

    Let’s treat the outcome of getting a job as a reward worth two years’ salary, for the sake of simplicity. In my case, that would be worth about $80000 for the jobs I’m targeting. According to the original study, someone who’s unemployed and actively looking for work has a 45% probability of finding a job this year., so we have

    EV(do nothing) = 80000 x .45 = 36000

    According to the study data, the chance of finding a job when volunteering for those who are unemployed and looking for work increases from 45% to 50%. My skills in paid employment are worth about $20/hr., so we get this

    EV(volunteer) = 80000 x .50 = 40000 – 20*x

    where x is the number of hours spent volunteering. The break-even point is:

    40000 – 36000 = 4000 (difference in base EV)
    4000/20 = 200 hours

    So in my case, spending 200 hours or less volunteering to find a job is fine, but any more than that represents a loss in value. Yes, you could argue about the way I’ve framed expected value or that fact that I haven’t considered second-order effects (i.e. having a job may lead to even more lucrative jobs later), but those are harder to quantify.

    More personally, there’s a dignity issue here. I have two life-long disabilities, and have always had trouble finding work. People always tell me “You should volunteer and maybe you’ll get hired.” This reinforces the notion that the disabled are second-class citizens whose work isn’t worth paying for. The government needs to change the toothless anti-discrimination laws so the disabled have the same opportunity to work as the non-disabled.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d never suggest someone volunteer if they were doing it solely as a way to increase their hireability. You should really only do it if it’s something you’re going to feel good about regardless (because you’re helping your community, making the world a better place, or whatever is true for the type of volunteering you’re doing) — both because there’s no guarantee and because it’s not great for nonprofits to have volunteers who see it only through that lens. In light of that, I don’t think the equation above really applies!

      1. Kristoffer*

        Check your privilege. Not all of us have the privilege of being able to volunteer our time as we please because we have jobs. People like Timssphere and myself certainly don’t. We can care about volunteering with your privileged idealism once we can actually support ourselves and earn a living.

        People deserve the right to be able to support themselves and earn a living. Self-employment is not the answer: I have the tinnitus and chronic depression to prove that. Employment should be a civil right, and should be enforced by a law saying that any unemployed person who is unemployed for six months should be forced upon a business of their choice that rejected them.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Of course not everyone can volunteer. There are loads of suggestions on this site that will help some people, but not everyone. That doesn’t mean that things should only be suggested if they’ll apply to 100% of everyone.

          The idea of forcing a business to hire someone is obviously ludicrous in a free society.

    2. New Math*

      I think your time is only worth $20 per hour when someone is willing to pay it. During a period of unemployment, the value of your time is probably better measured in comparison to whatever else you could spend the time doing – searching for jobs to apply for, completing applications, customizing resumes, studying something new, networking, watching television, doing the laundry, etc.

      Spending 3-4 hours per week volunteering may have potential value in your job search as well as value in other areas of life. It also hopefully helps an organization whose work you believe in. It may give you added skills. It may open a path you hadn’t considered. It may expand your network.

      I volunteered and was offered a job. The director encouraged me to pursue a masters degree which I did while working. This led to a manager’s job at another organization and finally a director position. All because I volunteered.

      1. Kristoffer*

        I think your time at your comfy job is only worth $20 per hour when your employer is willing to pay it. See how ridiculous it sounds when it comes out of a mouth other than your own? And thanks for treating a disabled person like a second-class citizen by flat out implying that they should be slave labor.

        I don’t believe you for a second when you say that volunteering helped you get a job. You’re probably delusional. Want to know why I think that? I’ve put in over 4 years of volunteer work of copyediting and researching for a friend’s book. It’s been wonderful, but it’s getting near the end. I tried to parlay my experience from that into a freelance copyeditor, since copyediting has proved to be a job I want to do. I sent out hundreds of emails. I got nothing but rejections. That is, if I even got the common courtesy of a response. Only 1 of the rejections showed any sympathy. Only 2 of them had the balls to flat out tell me that I didn’t have enough experience. All the others went no further than a polite “We’ll keep your name and resume on file in case we ever need you.” Which amounted to cowardly rejections, since I have never heard back from a single one of them.

        Volunteer experience is not considered real job experience, and doesn’t grant an edge. Why would an employer pick an unemployed person who volunteers when they can easily get someone with 10+ years experience who is bilingual and volunteers at half a dozen places?

  17. Anon 4 This*

    I did a lot of volunteer work through college, grad school and after grad school. I quit volunteering a few months ago because even though I am unemployed, a lot of interviewers don’t consider volunteering legitimate experience in my field. They kept asking why it was on my resume and why I couldn’t get a real job. I feel like its usefulness really just depends on the field.

  18. Butter Tooth Callahan*

    What is the best way to bundle a cover letter and resume? Zipped with a resume; as the body of an email with attached materials; as a first page in a resume document?

    I’ve been out of the job market a long time due to being self employed for years before returning to school, all totaled, it’s been about 14 years since I’ve really applied myself to a sincere job search.

  19. GG*

    Late to the party, but I’ll chime in

    I’d love to volunteer, but at the same time I can’t afford to be broke. In my opinion, it’s best to volunteer if you at least have a side job you can depend on for the time being. I don’t want to just volunteer and do internships and be without income. I already did one my senior year of uni that led nowhere, and it’s 2 years later, and I’m still nowhere.

  20. annonymouse*

    On the subject of cover letters I feel I can write that I’m “uniquely qualified”.
    This is because I work in a niche sports industry and I have strong experience in both coaching and administration – which is a rarity.

    If I was applying for a regular admin job and kept that sentence in there I heartily agree I should be slapped.

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