Volunteering in the context of a job search isn't just about altruism. It's essential for job seekers to be picky about the volunteer opportunities they pursue, Palmer says.
"One real benefit to doing work on a volunteer basis is that it puts you in the environment to meet people who are in your field," Palmer says. "It can be another form of networking. And it gives a potential employer an opportunity to see how well you work."
Suitable opportunities will vary depending on your chosen field. But Palmer advises job seekers to research organizations that are related to their industry. Many experts say it's a good idea to contact the trade groups that serve your industry because they're often the first to know about job openings, and those groups usually need help.
As vice president of TicketKick, an online legal service that helps people beat their traffic tickets, Sara Schoonover manages a team of 10 employees in the company's San Diego office. She sees lots of resumes, and she says it's outstanding to see someone with a well-rounded history of volunteering.
"While I may not be able to relate to the applicant's volunteer choices, it's great to see people with passion for a particular cause," Schoonover says.
But for some job seekers, identifying their passion may not be so easy. For them, stand-up comedian-turned-pyschologist Nancy Irwin of Los Angeles has some advice.
"The best way to choose a volunteer opportunity is to watch the news, and see what's going on in the world that angers you," Irwin says. "Turn your outrage into passion by volunteering for a cause that is making a difference in that arena. It will light (your passions) up in places you didn't realize were dark."
Build job skills that are in demand
If you're going to give your time, it's only natural to want something in return. Ideally, it's a job, but for most volunteers it's more realistic to find an opportunity that builds on an existing skill or offers the chance to learn a new one. So, it's critical that job seekers consider which skills they want to learn before volunteering, says Christina Inge, the principal of Christina Inge eMarketing, a Boston-based company she started after volunteering for an industry trade group.
At first, Inge volunteered to do copywriting, but she soon found that learning a new skill -- social media -- made her more valuable as a volunteer. It ultimately gave her a marketable talent she could use to build her own business.
"It's a win for the organization because you're motivated and for you because you learn a new skill," she says.
To make sure that skill was in demand, Inge says she matched opportunities against the skills employers often listed in want ads. She also read industry publications to learn what employers were seeking.