"Even though you are not being paid, you should be known for your strong work ethic," Palmer says. "Try to line up projects for yourself that are substantive. If, for example, you are (a human resources) professional and you want to get a job in that field, make sure that you are not just copying and faxing all day. You want to demonstrate your HR skills."
Be honest with the organization
There's nothing wrong with volunteering simply to improve your job prospects, says Amy Faulkner, executive director of The World is Fun, a Seattle-based organization that connects volunteers with local charities. But she says volunteers need to be honest before they sign up.
"There's nothing to be ashamed of and most nonprofits will work with you, and your skill set and goals, to get you what you need," Faulkner says.
It's also important for prospective volunteers to be realistic about the time they can commit.
"Just because someone is unemployed doesn't mean they have a completely free schedule or that they want to volunteer all of their time," Faulkner says.
Being upfront also can help job seekers land a coveted reference, Faulkner says.
Showcase your volunteer work
Showcasing volunteer experience needs to be handled carefully, says Flemington, N.J., career coach Carol Camerino.
"Just as you would with a paid position, it's important to use professional language and to quantify results and achievements (on your resume)," says Camerino.
But how much should applicants emphasize their volunteer work? It depends on how much time they have spent volunteering, says Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of Flexjobs.com, a website that helps people find flexible work.
"If you're putting in a couple hours each week, then have a 'related volunteer experience' section on your resume that lists your different volunteer roles," Fell says. "If you're spending 10-plus hours each week volunteering, this can count as part-time work in the field and should be listed with your other professional, relevant, paid experiences."
When writing their resumes, volunteers who put in significant time shouldn't worry about whether they were paid, Fell says. Using headings like "professional" or "relevant" experience is a good way to cover significant volunteer experience.
"Paid or unpaid, you're putting in a significant number of hours volunteering and should count it as work," Fell says.