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How Volunteering Can Help Your Career

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If you’re trying to break into a new industry or have just been made redundant, why not consider giving up your time for free? No, I’m not talking about an internship, though that’s also a valid way of getting ahead. I’m thinking more along the lines of helping out a charity or voluntary organisation. Not only can you maintain your skills, possibly learn some new ones and gain experience, but you can polish your halo while doing so.

Far from merely running second-hand shops or rattling tins in shopping precincts, charities and voluntary organisations also have back-room operations where conventional business skills such as tech support, book-keeping and general admin are required. Marketing expertise can be useful to their fundraising efforts, while anything that revamps their web presence can raise their profile as a whole. For every member of staff they have to employ, less money goes to the causes they support, so a helpful volunteer will always be welcome, even if they can only offer a few hours a week of their time.

All of us have causes that we think are worthwhile, and helping out in practical ways can be just as good as making a regular donation. While the larger charities will probably already have extensive support operations with paid staff, smaller outfits with their smaller budgets are the ones most likely to need volunteers. You may have to do some legwork before you find the organisation that’s right for you, but don’t be shy about asking around to find out who might need your help. Be honest about what you can do and the amount of time you can commit to, and before agreeing to anything, make sure that you’re volunteering won’t impinge on your other activities (such as those that earn you money.

Volunteering in a role similar to your day job but in a different environment give you the opportunity to stretch the boundaries of your current skill set and explore how you may be able to use your abilities in other industry sectors. You’re also likely to develop new skills as you pitch in. Many offices these days are far too regimented, with each department only focused on its function. The less formal atmosphere in volunteer-run offices will expose you to a number of other tasks and roles that you may not have experienced before. You can actually help yourself with helping out; think of it as a free version of professional development.

Not only that, but volunteering is also great for meeting new people. Trade shows, conferences and networking events all have their place, but in the end they all boil down to a bunch of people in similar jobs talking to each other. By volunteering, a new range of sectors open up to you indirectly: the people you meet and work with will have a diverse range of professional backgrounds, whether they too are volunteering in their spare time or if they have come to it after a career elsewhere. As far as networking goes, it doesn’t get much better than that. It can even lead to a new job!  Quite a few people move into paid, full-time roles in the same organisations where they were volunteering. A friend of mine had been out of work for a while, but started helping out a small charity with their computers. They were impressed enough to pass his name on to other local charities (hey, the voluntary sector networks too), and he’s now got a thriving business managing networks and websites for a number of them. You may be giving up your time when volunteering, but don’t let opportunities pass you by.

Finally, volunteering makes you look good. One of the things I used to dread was filling in the “Other Interests” section of application forms. CSI box sets and a devotion to Rioja don’t really cut it for securing job interviews. Volunteering gives you something else to highlight, shows engagement in your community and gives you the chance to talk about how you’re trying to make a difference. You can also talk about any new skills you’ve picked up, and how what you’ve learned could be applied in a more corporate setting. Not only that, but if you ever need a reference, you now have someone else to call you should you need to.

Volunteering, especially if you’re doing something similar to your usual job, can seem to some like working for free. A more helpful mindset, perhaps, would be to think of volunteering as helping yourself while helping others. Yes, the warm fuzzy glow you get from contributing should be enough; but it doesn’t do any harm to consider how your brownie points could also be helping your career.

[Image by San Jose Library]

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