Find Meaningful Volunteer Work That Boosts Your Career

Volunteering is usually seen as a way to help others. But there is nothing wrong—quite the opposite—with also seeing it as a way to help yourself.

Volunteering is usually seen as a way to help others. But there is nothing wrong—quite the opposite—with also seeing it as a way to help yourself. If you are seeking to meet a professional goal as part of your volunteer experience, here are some jumping-off points:


Think about what experience or knowledge you want to gain.

Do you need more project management experience to move forward in your career? Or maybe learning a new software program would help? Whatever expertise you want to develop, there’s likely an organization or project already in progress that could help you do that. A management example: nonprofits that use volunteers often need a hand coordinating their volunteers’ activities (community clean-ups, weekly volunteer nights, and staffing big fundraisers are just a few). Offer to help at an upcoming event and express your interest in a managerial level of responsibility; if it’s a good fit, you could find yourself gaining good experience in short order.

On any given day, you can find more than 10,000 volunteer opportunities from U.S.-based organizations on Idealist.org. Pick some keywords that describe your goals—"manage," "fundraising," "editor"—and try searching for opportunities that include them, then contact the orgs in need to get all the details.

Think about what experience or knowledge you could contribute.

Another great way to search for the right opportunity takes just the opposite tack: start with what you can give instead of what you want to get. Say you’re great with Dreamweaver but want to learn Raiser’s Edge—do some searches that include "Dreamweaver" and see what pops up. Maybe you could offer to help an org update their website in exchange for some real-world training with their fundraising database. The possibilities are endless.

Determine your parameters.

How much time can you devote to volunteering? For what duration? Are you available during the day, or just evenings and weekends? Knowing exactly what you’re able to commit to will make it easier to search for the right fit. Idealist’s volunteer opportunity search lets you refine results by a slew of criteria, including time commitment desired, area of organizational focus, languages spoken and—get this—"training provided."

Use your network.

What organizations are you already familiar with? Have you donated money somewhere? Are there local organizations that have a great reputation in your community? These can be good places to start, especially if you're a first-time volunteer. Try polling family and friends for their thoughts, too. The short "Identify potential partner organizations" section in Idealist’s Volunteer Resource Center has more ideas to help you identify good options.

Dive in.

To volunteer is to make a commitment just like any other. So for best results, treat your volunteer gig as you would a job: be professional, be on time, complete the work you pledged to do. And try to take full advantage of the opportunity: learn as much as possible, ask questions, make connections, and take on additional responsibilities. Remember that although you’re not getting paid in cash, the experience you stand to gain from a well-chosen volunteer position could well be money in the bank down the road.

Photo (cc) flickr user USDAgov

April Greene is a writer and editor for Idealist.org, a nonprofit website that connects people, organizations, and resources to help build a better world.

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