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Five Ways Volunteering Can Help You Make a Career Change

Volunteering can be a great way to help make the leap between a private-sector and nonprofit career, or between two different areas of interest.

Volunteering can be a great way to help make the leap between a private-sector and nonprofit career, or between two different areas of interest within the nonprofit world. What’s most likely to help you in your particular search will depend on where you’re coming from and where you want to go, but some benefits usually apply across the board:


1) Expanded personal and professional networks: People already working in your target field are great sources of information about job openings, affinity organizations, and people you should meet. If you have a good experience volunteering, your supervisor may serve as a reference when you’re applying to jobs. See the networking section of the Idealist Career Center for more on this actually-not-scary word.

2) New and transferable skills: Volunteering will help you develop new job skills as well as apply current skills in new ways. For example, a mid-career professional who has worked in concert promotions could use her marketing skills to help an organization with their fundraising or other mission-based events. A college student accustomed to doing research for school assignments could volunteer to research an issue or a demographic for a nonprofit. For inspiration about what skills you might share and an overview of some organizations’ current needs, peruse our information about volunteering at home or abroad, and search for volunteer opportunities anywhere on earth.

3) Career exploration: Volunteering allows you to try on different organizations, roles, issues, etc., without job-hopping. Of course, volunteering isn't the same as being on staff, but it can expose you to the work of an organization in a deeper way than becoming a member, following it on Twitter, or even conducting an informational interview with an employee.

4) Track record of work on a specific cause: Nonprofits value dedication to their issue area. By turning your values into action, you will demonstrate to your potential employer that you are committed to—and educated about—their issue of concern.

5) Hiring managers value volunteerism: Having volunteer work on your resume can help you stand out. In Idealist’s latest “Voices From the Sector” surveys of U.S. organizations and job seekers, almost 65 percent of nonprofit hiring managers said they consider volunteer experience to be at least “somewhat important” when selecting candidates.

If this sounds good but you’re wondering how to define the best volunteer fit for you, have a go at the Five Lenses Framework in Idealist’s Career Center. Developed for those starting down a new career path, but equally viable for those seeking productive volunteer work, the exercise can help you better understand what really draws you to nonprofit work, and consequently how to design a search that will serve your strongest interests.

For a full description of the Five Lenses and other exercises and tools to help you decide on the best volunteer and career paths for you, check out the Idealist Guides to Nonprofit Careers for First-Time Job Seekers and Sector Switchers, both available as free downloads.

Photo via Flickr (cc) user Bman2011

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