I’m far from the first person to suggest this, but it’s worth repeating that volunteering can be a wonderful way to build new skills during a job hunt, if you are out of the workforce for awhile, or even if you are still working. Here are a few examples of how volunteering has enhanced my value to an employer over the past few years.
- In some ways managing volunteers is more challenging than managing employees. Volunteers are only there if they want to be; you can’t force them to show up. You can’t always select people who are the best match for the task at hand, and you can’t easily fire them if they are not well-suited. So, you have to provide clear direction, constant feedback, meaningful opportunities for growth and social interaction, and reinforcement of the value of the work in terms of the organization’s mission. Do I think my volunteer management experiences will improve my ability to manage employees? You bet.
- Since non-profits are always trying to do more with less, there are often opportunities for challenges you wouldn’t be considered for in a paying job. As a volunteer, I’ve led much larger teams than I’ve ever led in a paying position, with far wider responsibilities. I’ve also been able to participate in discussions about adopting software platforms, social media campaigns, and website designs, to name just a few areas, leading to new skill development.
- Some non-profits have wonderful training opportunities, which are free as long as you commit to helping the organization. Thanks to several non-profits, I have training in outdoor leadership, first aid, archaeology, invasive species management, and counseling, among other things.
- Working with kids (mainly through Girl Scouting) has greatly improved my project management and communications skills. There are few audiences less forgiving of a dull presentation than a group of nine-year-old girls at the end of a long school day, and few projects more likely to go awry without careful planning and continuous adjustment than a weekend-long group camping trip with a bunch of second-graders.
- Volunteers often spend a lot of time with people who are very different that those they mix with in their usual community interactions. I’ve learned a lot about others, and about myself, from interacting with nursing home residents, families who live in poverty, and teenagers, among others. It’s much harder to take your own lifestyle for granted when you’ve spent some time viewing the world from other perspectives.
Of course, the most important part about volunteering is finding an organization or organizations where you have a true passion for their mission. Volunteering requires a willingness to commit and roll up your sleeves to help with whatever needs to be done. Case in point: I spent a couple of hours this morning doing data entry that urgently needed to be done, and made someone’s day by fixing a jammed printer. Bonus for me: I then got to go see the wood frogs in the pond, who are starting to come out to do their spring thing.
If you find the right fit between you and a worthy non-profit, both you and the organization have a lot to gain from volunteering!