Career Advice Sep 07 2011

Volunteer Your Way Into a Job

By kelly eggers

Job seekers should consider a new mantra: "Give back, and you shall receive." Including volunteer experience on your resume could help you land a job, according to a new survey.

Some 41% of nearly 2,000 professionals said that when evaluating candidates' resumes, they consider volunteer experience to be equally as valuable as paid work experience, according to a survey from LinkedIn.

"There's a misconception that volunteer work doesn't qualify as 'real' work experience," said Nicole Williams, connection director at LinkedIn and author of Girl on Top, a career guide that takes its lessons from the world of dating. What people need to keep in mind, Williams said, is that many qualities that make an applicant attractive, such as diverse, relevant skill-sets, can come from unpaid, part-time work.

"When you have a competitive labor market, and a hiring manager has 10 to 15 equally qualified applicants, volunteering can be the thing that ends up differentiating you and getting you over the line," she said. In fact, 20% of the hiring managers surveyed said they have made a hiring decision based on a candidate's volunteer experience.

Yet, only 45% of those surveyed actually include their volunteer experience on their resumes. To that end, LinkedIn has introduced a new feature, "Volunteer Experience and Causes," a space for members to list volunteer work on their profiles.

Nicole Kennedy, a Washington, D.C.-area non-profit industry professional, took on volunteer work after leaving a role in technology sales.

"While I was looking for a non-profit job, my friend suggested I try volunteering in the interim," she said. "Some organizations have a time commitment -- such as a certain number of hours they'd like you to work each week -- but I was in such a state of flux as a job seeker that I didn't know what I wanted to commit to."

Kennedy began "microvolunteering" with, a San Francisco-based website which works to match the needs of charities with appropriately skilled volunteers. In Kennedy's case, volunteering helped her discover what she wanted to do professionally.

After volunteering at several organizations looking for help with their social-media strategies, Kennedy said she discovered her niche. "It made me see the importance of having a social-media strategy, and that I liked doing it." Since, she has landed a full-time role with a national non-profit organization, helping with social-media, event planning and execution, volunteer recruiting and grant writing.

Among's users, Kennedy is not alone. According to a recent online survey the site conducted among its users, 87% use Sparked to showcase their professional skills, and 63% are currently looking for a new job. The company's CEO, Ben Rigby, said he's seen many Sparked users add their microvolunteering projects as jobs or activities on their LinkedIn profile.

Aside from gaining professional skills and expertise, taking on volunteer work can be rejuvenating, and can help stave off the doldrums that often accompany unemployment.

"Inevitably, looking for a job in this market is demoralizing," said Williams of LinkedIn. "Volunteering can help you look back out at the world and regain perspective."

Williams and other experts say that the focus should not be on the overarching cause, but instead be on the specific role you're taking and its requisite skills, and how they translate to the bottom-line needs of a for-profit corporation.

"Most non-profits have the same kind of work that for-profit companies do, they're just not getting revenue in the same way," said Kathy Kane, SVP of talent management for international staffing firm Adecco. "If you're responsible for managing finances, developing a website or a social media strategy, those are things that are completely relatable to the for-profit world," Kane said.

Stephen Udden, a former telecommunications professional and current job seeker in the Boston area, has become an active volunteer in numerous organizations, from his church and town government to his school district's parent-teacher organization and a non-profit agency, Wheelchair Recycler, since he was laid off two years ago. Each of his these roles requires a different skill-set, he said, which has helped him keep his edge as a job seeker.

"Volunteering has kept me in work mode," he said. Through his work with his local government and planning fundraising events for the PTO, for example, he has maintained contact with high-level officials and business owners in the community, participated in executive recruitment efforts, reviewed budgets, managed spreadsheets and made decisions that affect his entire community.

"They have been some of the most enriching, fulfilling, exciting, and sometimes most intense experiences of my life, and I wouldn't change them for a minute," he said.

Since starting his volunteer work, Udden has decided to consider careers both inside and outside of telecommunications.

"One thing volunteering has given me in my job search is a strong outlook on a new path I never dreamed I'd be looking at," he said.

Write to Kelly Eggers

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