Volunteering - a good idea for career transition?

There has been much discussion about whether volunteerism is a useful technique in career transition. I remember a Washington Post article about a year and a half ago that cited a study claiming that 27% of volunteer jobs lead to other full-time paying jobs.   

I'd like to expand on that idea. I don't think volunteerism is only beneficial to the lower-skilled job seekers mentioned in that piece; I think it's good at any level. Since the article focused on that particular group, I'd like to talk about the others who are more skilled and experienced.

On a purely emotional and practical basis, volunteering is a great idea for building structures into your day. That's always a big problem with people who are out of work all of a sudden - their regular structures, and peers, disappear.  

I don't encourage clients and students to seek full-time volunteer positions, though, because it would take them out of their regular, structured search activities, and the loss of momentum is problematic. Go for part-time. Three days a week would be fine. No more, because it won't leave enough time for a reasonable job search, or at least my version of one.

I think finding the right volunteer situation is critical for those who are more educated and skilled. By "right," I mean something that might add a skill necessary for your targeted career goal, or might reinforce an existing one. If you're an events planner, for example, getting involved in fundraising activities for a non-profit would be a great idea. Or if you're in finance, why not offer services in the financial area of a non-profit? Even though it might not be the same as the jobs you've been doing, it's something you can point to when going out on the job market.  

There's one part of this most people overlook. If you're going to offer your services for free, you can negotiate! Yes, negotiate. I frequently tell the people I work with that they should discuss a few items up front:

•    Ask if you can be called a consultant, rather than a volunteer. Looks better on the resume, and sounds better in networking and interviewing.

•    Be sure what the role is, that it won't be a bait and switch situation. For example, you've been told you're going to help them design a new system for membership, and then you find out after you start you're doing data entry. Not useful for you.  Don’t do it.

•    Ask if they'll provide excellent references for you (calling you a consultant, of course), assuming you do the terrific job that you will.

•    Also, if you're going to do that terrific job for them, would they assist you by perhaps providing some help in building new networks?

•    And . . . perhaps, if things work out well on both ends, would there be a possible position that might become available (if you're interested, of course)?  

I'm not surprised by the 27% number provided in the article. I’ve always thought that volunteering during a search is a no-lose proposition, if set up well.  


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