Volunteering is good. It’s good for the communities and individuals who benefit from it directly, it’s good for the people who do the work, and it’s good for society in general. It can also be good for your career.
It’s hardly news that hiring managers like seeing volunteer work on a resume, and certainly many people are motivated by both the feel-good vibes of helping people and the career boost it can offer. But if you’ve got career ambitions, you should be thinking about your volunteer work more strategically, because that work can offer a lot more value than just a line on your resume—it can help your grow your career in a lot of different ways.
Making your volunteering more strategic and career-oriented doesn’t lessen the good that you do, and all it requires is outlining your professional goals and looking for volunteer opportunities that match up—in other words, being thoughtful about where you devote your efforts. Depending on your goals are, there are different ways to go about finding an ideal volunteer opportunity to benefit your career (and, you know, the world).
To develop leadership skills
If you’re ready to move into a leadership role but haven’t had the chance to hold a leadership position at work, an excellent way to gain that experience is to serve on a charity board. Serving on a board requires more than just free time and extra energy—it requires a much deeper commitment to an organization. But most crucially for your career ambitions, it’s a way to exercise leadership skills similar to those required by director, vice president, and C-suite-level positions.
BoardnetUSA and BoardStrong are matching services for charity boards and volunteers to find each other. They both work in the same way: You register and fill out a profile listing your experience and skills, and then you can browse a list of organizations seeking board members. Serving on a charity’s board can be a huge commitment—many boards are very hands-on—so only make this move if you’re ready to work.
To gain experience in project management
Project management skills are always in high demand. The difference between working on a project in a support capacity and leading the team—not to mention coordinating across several cross-functional teams—is often the difference between being considered for higher-level management positions and…not being considered for those positions.
If you lack project management opportunities at your current position, this can lead to a frustrating situation where you can’t move on in your career because you lack experience, but you can’t get experience because you can’t move on to a new job. Volunteering with an organization like Taproot or Catchafire could be your resume solution: Both groups match your skills with project teams that need them, but both can offer opportunities to gain experience leading projects as well. In order to get the most professional benefit, be prepared to speak up and assert yourself, as many of these projects can become a bit over-populated.
Make a career shift
Many people eventually discover that they made a slight miscalculation at the age of 18 and now regret the career path they’ve chosen. Sometimes this just requires a pivot into a related field, but sometimes a dramatic course correction is in order. Either way, shifting careers can be challenging because all of your experience is suddenly of much less value, and the skills you’ve actually learned may not transfer over perfectly.
Volunteering offers a possible path. LinkedIn’s volunteer marketplace and VolunteerMatch offer listings categorized in different ways, which allows you to identify opportunities in the specific field you’re hoping to infiltrate. Not only will you gain the necessary experience to make your resume more attractive to companies in these fields, you’ll also have the chance to network specifically within the career space you’re interested in.
Get experience mentoring and managing
If your career goal is to rise up the corporate org chart and get that proverbial corner office (even if these days the corner office is more of a concept than an actual space), you will at some point have to manage a team. Typically this starts off with a small management role with just a few direct reports, with a steady scaling up as you rise through the ranks.
But sometimes people miss their moment and find themselves stuck just below that management level. Volunteering can be a chance to gain meaningful experience managing and mentoring others—experience that hiring managers will value when considering you for a managerial role. MicroMentor is always seeking people to act as professional career coaches and mentors, and can give you real experience acting in the role of a manager. Likewise, Net Impact not only promotes social and environmental issues but engages volunteers in mentoring programs that offer the chance to show your leadership skills.
If you like the company you’re with but find yourself frustrated with the pace of your advancement, one of the smartest things you can do with your volunteer energy and time is to look internally. Many companies have robust volunteer support programs, ranging from specific time granted each employee for donating their time to explicit partnerships with volunteer organizations. If your company has a relationship with a charity or other organization, volunteering through your workplace can get you noticed and put your career advancement on a faster track.
You can also sleuth out where your managers and other company leaders are volunteering and do the same. Volunteering at the same organizations as the folks making hiring and advancement decisions at your organization can be a powerful form of networking.
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