April 15, 2009 in Career

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.

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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.

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Begin with the end in mind

Before 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.

Internet help for volunteers
Several Web-based organizations can help you search for volunteer opportunities. They include:

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.

“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.

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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.

“I don’t have time to be anything less than fully pumped about my future full-time employment prospects,” she says.

Clearly state expectations

Too often, volunteers are left to complete a project without any support. For this reason, it’s important to state your expectations of the position right from the start, Bernstein says.

“Take the time upfront to negotiate the terms of your working arrangement,” says Bernstein. “Check in with someone at the organization about your working experience at regular intervals.”

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When you take on a volunteer role, try to clearly outline objectives and timelines — much as you would in a paid position.

Remember, volunteering is a two-way street. While you hope to learn new skills, the organization expects to receive a helping hand, not an extra burden.

Initiative is important when working with a nonprofit, as most nonprofits expect you to learn quickly on the job, Ryan says. Volunteers are not helpful if they’re “asking 900 questions and don’t get work done.”

“Asking questions is good, but asking every five minutes makes you a pest,” Ryan says.

Some people hope a volunteer position will lead to a job with the organization. But nonprofits often have a small staff and tight budgets, so volunteers may spend a long time waiting.

“People volunteer in art museums, the symphony, opera and theaters and wait a long time to get hired,” Ryan says, noting that the arts is one of the most difficult fields, with low turnover for coveted positions.

Ryan suggests limiting your expectations. Rather than hoping your stint will develop into a dream job, focus on getting a letter of recommendation for proficiently performing your volunteer role. Or, concentrate on networking.

Volunteerism and unemployment benefits
Can volunteering interfere with your unemployment insurance eligibility? State law determines whether volunteering negatively impacts your job search, says Suzy Bohnert, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Department of Labor.

“As a general rule, if the volunteer work does not affect availability or work search, and if the individual can leave immediately to take employment, the individual’s UI eligibility will not be affected,” Bohnert says.

But if the volunteer work requires a full-time commitment, the state might wonder whether you’re truly available for full-time employment, she says. Check with your state department of labor to make sure you’re staying on the right side of your responsibilities.

Explore new career directions

In some cases, unemployed workers use a volunteer stint to launch themselves on a new career path.

Patrick Rauen was recently laid off as a research scientist at a small pharmaceutical company. But he had a backup plan in his lab coat.

For the past two years, Rauen has volunteered at the Field Museum in Chicago. The museum was one of his favorite places to go when he was a child.

Today, Rauen acts as a docent, or museum tour guide, and brings natural history alive for visitors of all ages.

Inspired by his volunteer work, Rauen returned to school in January to obtain an education degree.

He plans to become a middle-school or high-school chemistry teacher. Since his layoff, he’s applied for substitute and teaching aide positions while still volunteering at the museum.

Other volunteers can benefit from pushing themselves in new professional directions. Bernstein cites the example of someone looking to break into a career in marketing.

“You might help a nonprofit with its promotional strategy, like helping them design an e-mail campaign to reach their members,” she says.

Ryan says volunteering helps clarify whether a new career path is a good fit.

For example, someone considering enrolling in medical school can benefit from helping out a children’s hospital.

“When you’re holding babies or reading, you’re testing the waters,” Ryan says.

Volunteers see professionals at work in everyday settings. Someone who volunteers to work with a doctor sees the full range of a physician’s daily experiences, from the moving to the monotonous.

“It’s a very practical way to understand what the work would really be like,” Ryan says. “Do I think I could do it? Would I like it?”

Build on past expertise

In other cases, out-of-work volunteers may be less interested in a new career and more interested in sharpening skills in their present career field.

McNary worked for Chrysler for 14 years until she was laid off last November. While seeking a job, she’s increased her volunteer activities at her church and started serving on Habitat for Humanity Detroit’s finance committee.

“Nonprofit accounting and reporting is very different from the for-profit world,” McNary says. “My strengths in aligning operational goals and financial metrics, which I learned in the for-profit world, are coming in handy and I’m growing in ways I never imagined.”

For example, McNary says she’s learning to manage the cash flow of donations and grants, along with presenting nonprofit financial information in an easy-to-understand manner to superiors and peers.

Jennifer Benz, a benefits-communication specialist, says she’s benefited from applying expertise she acquired in the corporate world to new volunteer roles at nonprofits.

For the past seven years, Benz has provided pro bono services to the Taproot Foundation, which matches professionals to nonprofits seeking specialized assistance.

“There’s a lot the corporate world could learn from nonprofit(s), and vice versa,” Benz says. “Small, nimble organizations can be very resourceful in how they use their budget.”

Benz says such lessons have made her a firm believer in the professional value of volunteer experiences.

“I’m a chronic volunteer now,” Benz says of her work with Taproot. “It’s part of my professional identity.”

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