When we are in high school, we are told how valuable volunteering is for our college applications — that and extracurricular activities. But as we become bogged down by college work and the subsequent job search, many of us forget how important volunteering and working for free are for our careers. Yes, just as important as they are for our college applications, volunteering and pro bono work can be crucial elements of your résumé — the difference between being hired or being passed over for someone else.
- Whether you are unemployed, underemployed, or just looking to give back, volunteering is an excellent way to use the skills you possess to help a worthwhile charity or a startup that cannot currently afford to hire new staff. That selfless attitude is not only viewed favorably by employers, but it is also an excellent point of discussion to use in your job interview.
- When you volunteer, you oftentimes must fill in the gaps that the understaffed agency has. You end up taking on tasks that may not relate to your current skill set, which present an opportunity for the job seeker to learn new skills and employ innovative strategies to help the charity or startup achieve its goals.
- While you don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the success of a charity or a startup, you have a little more freedom to try new things when you are volunteering and not beholden to a paycheck. When you employ outside-the-box ideas that work, your success leads to letters of recommendations, high-quality referrals, and a more robust body of work to present to potential employers.
- On that same note, while you may not be getting paid, you are still gaining valuable experience to include on your résumé and accumulating quantifiable results that are attractive to hiring managers (i.e. increased social media engagement for charity by 52 percent over the previous year, or created marketing strategy that increased sales of Startup B by 75 percent).
- Volunteering is still work. If you find yourself unemployed, volunteering is an excellent way to fill that résumé gap. You will still be able to include bulleted tasks that highlight your work and achievements, just as you would with any other job. And while you are not getting paid, you still allow yourself to get around that pesky problem of explaining what you did when you were unemployed for a period of time.
- If you are trying to get your foot in the door of a new career, performing some pro bono work will provide you with the crucial experience you need when entering a job search. Employers are looking at a number of candidates, and you need to do what you can to stand out. Without experience that matches the job, you put yourself at a disadvantage against more qualified applicants. Doing some work for free will allow you to put together a portfolio that highlights your skill set, so you can compete with other experienced professionals.
If you are still on the fence, allow me to add some of my own experiences with volunteering and pro bono work.
- While in college, my ex-girlfriend was the director of a senior center in the Bronx. I would often visit her on my way back from school, and I volunteered my time whenever I could. I gained valuable experience working at that senior center. When I applied to become the Director of Public Affairs at the New York City Department for the Aging, I was able to discuss that experience during the job interview. I ended up getting the job.
- Despite working as a reporter, I also volunteered my time every year at a fair, selling various goods to help a church raise money. As a reporter, I asked a lot of questions, but I didn’t develop a personal touch until I started selling merchandise that was often hard to sell. When I took a stuffed bear, placed a backward cap on its head and wrapped a yellow lei around its neck and convinced people to buy Bling Bears, I knew I could had the charisma to eventually become a successful public relations executive.
- I have 16 years of experience in journalism, public relations, and marketing. However, I’ve never promoted a musician before. I thought about exploring career paths in the hip-hop industry. I have always been a fan of Bay Area hip-hop, and when I discovered that an independent hip-hop artist was working on her new CD, I offered to help promote her music at no cost. This allowed me to use the skills I learned promoting other companies to work in an industry that was new to me. Now, I often discount my fee for freelance public relations for the same reason.
At the end of the day, you need to decide if it is worth your time and energy to work for free or at a cheap rate. If you think there is something bigger that might result from your efforts, the money you give up today may come back to you several times over in the future. It all depends on what you feel works best for you.
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