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Volunteer...To Be Marketable

From Career Tips, 2009 Volume 8, August 2009

Volunteering can help your career or career search in so many ways:
  1. Recharge - it provides a place where you are able to get involved in something satisfying, and puts your focus on something bigger than yourself.
  2. Feeling you are contributing counterbalances hits you've taken to your self-esteem from being laid off, sending out tons of résumés with few responses, or going on interviews and never getting the offer (or at least not the one you want!).
  3. Builds confidence so critical to your search, which changes how people see you! (See this article for more on this point: www.jhacareers.com/WinningMindset.htm)
  4. Gives you a chance to develop a new set of allies for your search and your career.
  5. Volunteering is a great leveler - you get to connect with people at very high levels in various organizations, or who know a wide spectrum of potentially helpful contacts.
  6. Attending volunteer initiatives can be a very casual, non-threatening way to 'network,' one that's not just 'about you'.
  7. Sets you up in others' eyes in a whole new (positive) light.
  8. Builds skills and adds to your portfolio of accomplishments that will help you sell yourself for your new job.
  9. Fills gaps in your work history.
  10. Shows people what you can do, which can often lead to offers to do similar things for pay.
It's interesting that despite all the benefits, particularly in these economic times when job seekers need every edge they can get, so many miss the boat. I can only conclude that they are so worried about their own situations, and so focused on everything they need to do to get their next job, that they forget about all the ways volunteering can actually help them achieve their goals.

Here are a few examples from my own career:

  • When I finished my actuarial exams in 1981, I complained about the quality of the exam materials on individual health insurance. This led to an opportunity to revise the entire syllabus, and to write 2 chapters of a new textbook. This opened my eyes to a talent I hadn't realized I possessed, and built powerful networking allies for my career.

  • Around 1986, I attended a workshop on effective communication skills, at which the chair of the sponsoring organization asked for volunteers for the executive committee. That shortly led to me becoming chair of the Management & Personal Development Committee, and started me down the road that ultimately led to my current coaching practice - while providing me contacts that have been integral to building my network and securing speaking engagements.

  • In 1997 I volunteered for a committee to evaluate our town's school facilities. This led to creating and leading a grass roots initiative that secured overwhelming voter approval for a $15 million bond referendum that even one of our strongest supporters confided he had never thought we had a chance of getting passed. This provided a strong story of leadership, forged powerful bonds throughout the community, and did wonders for my negotiation and presentation skills!

    I hear from people regularly about volunteer initiatives that led to job offers, built connections that got them consulting assignments, and opened their eyes to new opportunities they had never considered. However, if you are going to volunteer, be sure to do it the right way. Here are some traps to avoid:
    1. Don't volunteer just because someone asked you to. Look for the opportunity that aligns well with your passions and your goals.
    2. Don't over-commit. (This is especially easy to do if you've done a good job with #1!) Watch for the time commitment that you can manage around your search. If you are in a job search, especially guard your 9-5 time, since that is the key networking meeting and interviewing time.
    3. Seek out volunteer activities that will help you in concrete ways, such as (a) Developing skills that will make you more marketable. (b) Giving you strong 'accomplishment stories' that you can use to strengthen critical areas in your background or areas of expertise. (c) Putting you in regular contact with influential people who can help you in your search / career.
    4. Don't push too hard, too soon on the networking opportunities that arise from it. Let people first see that you are very committed and adding value before you try to enlist them as allies in a career search.
    5. Don't complain about the rest of your life, your search, or even how the organization is going about their charge. You want people to see you as upbeat and confident, someone they would want on their team or want to refer to someone else's team.
    6. Don't let someone's position intimidate you. You are likely to find yourself elbow to elbow with CEO's and other senior officers, political figures, and people who have a wide range of influential contacts. The fact that they see you volunteering for a cause to which they are also committed will incline them to want to help you, making it fairly easy to connect.
    I'd love to hear from you as to what additional advice you would provide - send me other benefits from volunteering, and other traps to avoid, and I'll include those in upcoming issues of Career Tips.

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    (C) 2010 John West Hadley, All Rights Reserved
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