5 ways volunteers boost their careers

"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."

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.

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