Patricia Murray, of Durham, N.C., couldn't find a job. But she didn't sit at home, waiting for a work offer to arrive by mail or phone.
Instead, Murray started volunteering.
"When a new senior center was built downtown, some people complained that there weren't enough activities," Murray says. "So I started the Swingin' Seniors Club. I provide the music, and (the) seniors enjoy snacks and dancing."
One day, a nonprofit director -- and frequent visitor to the Swingin' Seniors Club -- asked Murray how she was faring. Murray revealed she was struggling financially, but otherwise happy.
"She wished me luck and started to walk away," Murray says. "Then she spun around and told me that I might be the right candidate for a job that she knew about."
As a result, Murray picked up a position as a seniors' directory writer with Durham County.
"I don't think I would have been considered for the job if I hadn't been right there volunteering," Murray says.
With the U.S. Labor Department reporting that more than 13.2 million Americans are unemployed, volunteerism has become an option for people waiting for that next job.
Volunteerism helps job candidates stand out from the jobless pack, make networking connections, gain new skills and hone proficiencies.
"If we are strategic, volunteerism can build our resumes and advance our careers," says Robin Ryan, a career counselor and author of "Soaring on Your Strengths: Discover, Use and Brand Your Best Self for Career Success."
However, volunteerism is much less effective if it's not well thought out.
"It can also waste our time, if we're not strategic," Ryan says.
Here's how to use your volunteer experience so everyone benefits.
Begin with the end in mindBefore you investigate volunteer opportunities, know what you hope to accomplish.
"Think about the job you really want, and consider the skills that would be most valuable for you to develop," says Susan Bernstein, a career coach at the Job Search Gym in San Francisco.
In many cases, volunteers hope to sharpen existing skills or to build new ones. Volunteering also offers less obvious professional payoffs.
For example, Ryan suggests volunteering inside a professional organization or association so you can meet others in your field. By developing a stronger professional network, you'll gain a crucial advantage in a world where thousands of jobs go unadvertised.
Internet help for volunteers
Several Web-based organizations can help you search for volunteer opportunities. They include:
"Don't go once and that's it," Ryan says, but instead stick with your volunteer commitment for the long-term by serving on a committee or helping with a cause.
Although professional development may be your ultimate goal, remember that personal satisfaction is central to a great volunteer experience, says Robert Rosenthal, director of communications at VolunteerMatch.org, which connects volunteers-to-be with needy nonprofits.
Volunteers should consider "what they care deepest about, what speaks to them personally and passionately," Rosenthal says.
"They need to feel good not just about the work they're doing, but impact they're making," Rosenthal says.
Charlene McNary is an out-of-work finance professional who volunteers on behalf of Habitat for Humanity Detroit. She says learning and honing skills in the nonprofit world keeps her out of the job-loss doldrums.