When it comes to getting a job, you’ve probably wondered, “How can I get the experience I need if no one will give me a chance to gain it?”
One suggestion: Try volunteering.
While it can be difficult to convince a traditional employer to take a chance on your unproven skills, there are usually a lot of charitable organizations and small businesses that would be willing to give you a shot at showing your stuff if you're not expecting financial compensation in return. There are some legal constraints both parties have to keep in mind – especially when it comes to private-sector organizations, since the Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits companies from exploiting such situations in order to dodge minimum wage laws. But as long as you do your homework and understand what's permissible, you’ll find there are all kinds of ways you can partner with an organization that will help you build legitimate, relevant work experience.
If you decide to take the volunteer route for career advancement, here are my top five tips to help you get the maximum benefit out of your experience.
- Don't just offer to be a warm body.
If you're seeking to volunteer for career development purposes, remember that the goal isn't simply to volunteer in any capacity for an organization. Digging ditches and passing out blankets may be noble causes, and greatly needed by some organizations, but this is not the kind of involvement we're talking about here. Instead, you want to seek out a professional project that clearly relates to your future career goals and the types of competencies you're looking to build. You might offer to help a nonprofit organization revamp their website. Or do the books for a faith-based institution. Or supervise groups of students at the local library or school so you can further refine your leadership skills. Again, the goal is to acquire specialized and marketable experience, not just to participate in random, unstructured activities.
- Make sure there's quid pro quo.
While I hate to say it, there are quite a few organizations around that will gleefully take every ounce of time, talent or creative energy you can give them without providing you with anything all that tangible or useful in return. So, if you're exploring the possibility of volunteering for career development, I'd suggest that, before you start on a project, you ask for a reference letter, testimonial or some other form of concrete support upon completion that will help you move forward with your goals. You might even negotiate a specific job title with them, despite the unpaid nature of the role, in order to get your resume moving in the right direction. Take the time to be sure the organization is willing to trade you something useful in exchange for your efforts.
- Keep your networking periscope up.
Another great benefit of volunteering, in many cases, is the extra exposure it gives you to a diverse cross section of the local community. Now, don't get me wrong, you don't want to cross the line and shamelessly glad-hand everybody you meet or ask for too much from people too soon. But, during your time volunteering, you should definitely keep your eyes open for friendly board members, volunteers, donors and other folks who might be willing to lend a hand in your professional development efforts. Once you've built a rapport with them, it's perfectly appropriate to let them know about your long-term career goals and ask whether they might have any suggestions related to your objectives or might know of any individuals related to your target field or industry.
- Hold on to your work product.
Landing a volunteer assignment that will give you the chance to work on some real business problems and flesh out your portfolio is a great start. The next step? As you complete whatever various and sundry pro bono projects you've agreed to handle, make sure to hold on to the fruits of your labor. Keep a copy of that business plan you authored or the new marketing materials you pulled together. Capture screen shots of that new fundraising database you developed. Take photos of the housing project or community facility you helped build. Of course, make sure you get permission to do these things from the place you're supporting, because, ultimately, such materials will play a key role in showing rather than telling a prospective employer how good you are.
- Leverage technology.
Last but not least, I'd point out that, thanks to technology, it's a lot easier to track down suitable volunteer assignments than in years past. There are numerous websites, for example, designed to help match up eager volunteers with appropriate organizations. VolunteerMatch is one such site. Flash Volunteer and Idealist are others. Even LinkedIn has jumped into the game with its new LinkedIn for Volunteers page and some special sections – Volunteering & Causes, Organizations – that you can plug into your profile to showcase your pro bono work. Additionally, you can always go the do-it-yourself route and reach out to pitch a volunteer project to a relevant institution, using a site like GuideStar to search for local organizations (nonprofits, in this case) that relate to a given topic or cause you believe in.
So, there you have it. In a world where it can be remarkably tough to get your foot in the door and prove yourself, there remains ample opportunity to sharpen your skills by donating your time and talents to a worthwhile cause. Most nonprofit organizations will welcome volunteers with open arms, and if you follow the five recommendations above, you'll maximize the odds of parlaying your generosity into useful career momentum.