According to LinkedIn research, 42 percent of hiring managers surveyed say they view volunteer experience as equivalent to formal work experience.
"Discounting skills gained in volunteer work is a common mistake made by those trying to find a new career in the nonprofit sector," says Laura Gassner Otting, the founder of Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group, a national executive search firm, and author of a new book for nonprofit job seekers called Mission Driven: Moving From Profit to Purpose. "In fact, at our firm, we consider the track record of candidates for both their paid and their unpaid work, knowing full well that often the unpaid successes are the hardest to come by."
Many corporations have a soft spot when it comes to social responsibility. Do-gooders are respected. Volunteering also shows your enthusiasm to learn new things, contribute creative ideas and deliver hands-on help in situations where organizations are understaffed and lacking resources.
You stand to gain a lot professionally by volunteering and lending a hand.
A more impressive résumé
If you already have a history of volunteering, list on your résumé and LinkedIn profile the specific charity or business and the dates you worked.
Add the "Volunteer Experience & Causes" field on LinkedIn to describe what you did. State specific opportunities you're looking for, such as joining a nonprofit board or providing pro bono consulting. Include causes you care about, such as animal welfare, the environment or education.
Include your volunteer experience in LinkedIn's work experience section and in the summary section at the top of your profile where you write about what motivates you about the work you do. You might write: "I am passionate about the work I do with this nonprofit, and I use these specific skills in the work I do there." You might also opt to weave that experience into your job chronology on your profile and on your résumé. If you were between jobs and volunteering a significant amount of hours, it fills in gaps in your employment history.
Don't use the word "volunteer" in the title. List it as "fundraiser" or "project manager," or whatever your role was, or is, in your volunteering gig. Highlight the bottom-line results, returns, special awards or accolades you received for your efforts. Mention in the actual job description that it was a pro bono project. This highlights your selflessness — but by defining it as a professional job, you give it the status and respect it deserves.
A confidence boost
Job hunting can throw you into a funk, particularly if you're dealing with rejection or radio silence after filling out applications and sending résumés. Volunteering is a great way to combat that feeling. It gets you out of the house and around people, and best of all, you're making a difference.
"Even if you haven't volunteered for a particular cause, a history of volunteering anywhere shows a side of you that is attractive to nonprofits, if you're eyeing a job in the sector," Otting says. "Volunteering can take the form of hands-on work, which is so important to nonprofits, but would be even more useful if you had experience in actively creating and overseeing strategy from a board level."
If you're interested in serving on a board for an organization, sign up at BoardnetUSA.org to receive emails about organizations that are looking for people who fit your profile.
Making new connections
If you pick a volunteer opening that's in line with the type of job you want, you might run into people with the same interests or someone working in areas similar to the one you're seeking. "An employee or another volunteer may be able to open a door that you didn't know existed or didn't know how to open on your own," says George H. Schofield, an employment expert and the author of After 50 It's Up to Us.
While you're doing the job for free, you have the pleasure of working alongside some pros — who may very well turn out to be super mentors for you. They can be great sounding boards, introduce you to others in the field and offer advice that can smooth your way into that line of business. These new connections could also serve as references for future jobs.
Sharpening or learning new skills
If you've been in charge of the silent auction at a nonprofit's fundraising event, you can surely add event planning or event marketing to your résumé and online professional profile. If you don't supervise anyone at work but can manage a team of volunteers, you can add that leadership experience and get noticed by a hiring manager.
An 'in' at an organization
Volunteering at any type of business is a viable path to a full-time engagement. Here's why: An employer gets a chance to size you up with few consequences or expectations and vice versa.
"Understand your end goal," Schofield says. "Do you want a for-profit job? Do you want a not-for-profit job? Where you volunteer — or are an intern — will establish the pathway to where you end up."
6 Questions to Ask Before Volunteering
1. How much time do you realistically have to offer? Volunteering more hours than you can rationally afford can also be a losing proposition if it takes away from time you need to spend job hunting.
2. Are you ready to go after a volunteer job with as much determination as you would a paying job? To apply for volunteer work, you don't just call and show up. Apply, send a résumé and go in for an interview.
3. What type of business or nonprofit is in line with your job interests?
4. Would you choose a small organization with a clear mission or assignment in which you can really play a big role? Or would the lure of potential skill building and training at a bigger organization be better for you in the long run?
5. Are you an out-in-the-field kind of person, or would you rather be back in the office working on strategy?
6. How long of a commitment do you want to make? Don't get roped into a year-long project if you actually only have a few weeks free.
Kerry Hannon, AARP jobs expert, is a career transition expert and an award-winning author. Her books include What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond and Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … and Pays the Bills. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.