In a world where many of us are already struggling to maintain some semblance of work/school-life balance, it is certainly challenging to spend your spare time working for free. While many people pursue volunteer opportunities purely for altruistic reasons, volunteering can also be a pragmatic and practical step for career development, which should appeal to even the most selfish of us. Here are four reasons volunteerism is an important part of your career.
Develops Your Skills
In university and college you’re paying to learn. Think of volunteering as a free program that has the potential to become a full time (paid!) gig. A volunteer opportunity, such as an unpaid internship or weekend service at your local community garden, will expose you to the hands-on requirements and the day-to-day environment of a job. It will force you to learn new skills, such as how to speak and write professionally or work on a team to achieve a strategic purpose and help you sharpen existing skills, such as researching, building websites or giving presentations, all without any necessary long-term commitment or stressful expectations.
Volunteering is the solution to the Catch 22 that so many young professionals face: they don’t have the skill to climb to the next level of their career, but can’t learn the skill unless they get the new job. Volunteering can offer a way out of this frustrating cycle. You can learn the skills on your own time and still help your organization.
Build Your Network
Most volunteer positions are connected to organizations with multiple employees or with other volunteers who may share some of your common interests and/or career aspirations. A volunteer position can be great for connecting you with the powers-that-be, who may one day be looking hire, know someone who’s hiring are willing to provide a helpful letter of reference. Your volunteering also gives you a platform to connect with people who share your interest in the organization and could one day support your career aspirations. Finally, once you’ve established your network, treat it like a puppy in need of lots of attention. Don’t ignore your new contacts once you finish your volunteer term. Stay in touch through social media (LinkedIn is better than Facebook), email or coffee meetings. Cultivate and nurture your network and it will positively influence your career direction in the future.
Volunteer Like a Pro
Volunteerism provides you with a wonderful way to demonstrate your work ethic. From an employer’s perspective this allows them to test out a potential employee without having to formally hire them. That’s why it’s important to treat your volunteer position like you’d treat a job. Do what you say you will do. Arrive promptly (or early) and try to add value wherever possible. Be proactive rather than reactive in your role. Finally, make sure you keep a smile on your face throughout your volunteer tenure. At the end of the day, your ability to get along with co-workers and your leaders will be a defining way you’ll be remembered.
Be Humble and Know Your Role
Many people are graduating from high school, colleges and universities with great education, but with few skills. Being able to think is important – especially the higher you climb –but when you are starting out, what is most important is being able to do stuff. When I worked in politics we frequently had volunteers approach us interested in writing policy. When I worked for a public relations firm, occasionally we’d have interns who were disheartened about being assigned the tedious task of media monitoring. They wanted to conduct strategic communications planning or crisis management. In each scenario the volunteers had unrealistic expectations about the value of their skills. Generally, organizations won’t put great responsibility on the shoulders of untested workers (let alone volunteers). That being said, by maintaining a positive attitude and treating your volunteer work as a learning opportunity to sharpen skills you can gain a huge amount of experience.
By treating your volunteer work for what it is, serious business that will inform your career, and mapping out what you want to learn (and who at your organization you’ll learn it from) you will develop more professional competencies than you ever could by pulling an all-nighter.