For over two decades I have lived and worked in Volunteer-Land—a New York City suburb filled with smart, well-educated, highly accomplished women who have traded paid work for volunteer jobs of every shape and size. You’re probably one of these great women who have given endless hours to schools, community organizations, national non-profits and more.
But I know the real truth. There’s actually an end to the “endless” volunteer hours. A time when women say “Enough”. A time when they say, “Now I want to be paid.”
Though I have preached for years that women continue to develop business skills in volunteer settings, the fact is that it can be a hard transition from volunteer back to professional. I’ve written many blog posts on the subject (check out, for example, my 25 Tips for Strategic Volunteers), and I think you should add this article by Caroline Ceniza-Levine (excerpted below) to your reading list. Like everything I aim to write, Caroline offers no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is tips that will help you elevate your volunteer work to professional status and compete toe-to-toe with current professionals when you search for jobs.
Volunteer experience (altruism aside) can be great for professional development – you develop new skills, you meet new people, you work with different organizations. However, when your only recent experience is unpaid – say, you’ve left the workforce to raise a family, or you’re in-between jobs – is volunteer experience still as valuable? Can volunteers compete against paid professionals? Do employers care as much about what you accomplished if you were unpaid?
On the plus side, volunteer experience can be competitive experience if your role and results match what the prospective employer needs. At the end of the day, companies care about what you will do for them, not what you did. Your past experience is a proxy for what you will do, so you want to match your skills, expertise and accomplishments to what the employer needs. Volunteer experience can absolutely do this, but many candidates are overly modest especially with unpaid experience – it was “just” a volunteer position. To be competitive, you have to value the experience, unpaid or not, and outline exactly why it translates to your new employer–so they value you.
On the down side, employers will wonder why your volunteer work was unpaid if it was truly important to the organization. Why not set aside a portion of the budget to get these key activities done rather than leave the organization to the mercy of volunteers? You need to answer this question whether or not it is asked. You need to share the details of how you came to play such an important role to the organization, how budget was allocated elsewhere (perhaps all labor was unpaid or this was an unusual turnaround situation), and why you stayed in a volunteer capacity rather than seek paid work.
So, yes, volunteers can compete with paid professionals and land jobs, when the volunteer experience is valuable and can be used as evidence of abilities and accomplishments. However, volunteer experience is easiest to sell as a complement to other paid experience. When using volunteer experience as your standalone experience, then you need to effectively raise its importance to paid status by showing how mission-critical it was to the organization. People equate price with value, and employers are no different. If volunteer experience is substantive and if an organization would have paid for it but there is a good reason why they did not, then volunteer work can be perceived as valuable as paid professional work.
Caroline Ceniza-Levine is a business and career expert, having launched a range of eclectic businesses from SixFigureStart® (career coaching) to FBC Films (independent film production). Caroline welcomes your comments and questions. This guest blog post originally appeared on her SixFigureStart site, with the title “Can A Volunteer Beat a Paid Professional for a Job”?
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