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Improve Your Résumé With Volunteer Work

In between jobs? Do some good and build your professional skills, too

Working for free is probably not at the top of your mind right now, especially if your nest egg isn't quite what it used to be. But if you've been job hunting fruitlessly, offering up your talent on a pro bono basis could help you land the job you want.

See also: Which type of of résumé is best?

How so? Career strategists say volunteering your professional skills can strengthen your job history, expand your elbow-rubbing network and boost your self-confidence.

“You get a chance to give back, but it also allows you to keep networking and keep your skills fresh,” says Ken Schmitt, president of Turning Point Executive Search, which offers career coaching and finds job opportunities for mid-career and senior-level professionals. “In a pure selfish way, you can keep your résumé up to date. You don't have this blank gap in your résumé.”

That's important today when more employers are viewing out-of-work applicants as undesirable. And a recent report from AARP's Public Policy Institute shows that older Americans are staying unemployed longer than their younger counterparts. Reasons could be chalked up to age discrimination, outdated skills or just a lack of jobs. Still, doing nothing shouldn't be an option, experts say.

"When you leave a job, it's like driving a car off the lot; a car that depreciates is just like one losing his or her job skills rapidly. Volunteer in that field to stay sharp and stay up with what's going on," says Charles Talley, virtual job coach with the AARP Foundation Virtual Job Coach Program. "The world is really changing. The things we did yesterday are not the things we'll be doing tomorrow."

Feeding the homeless or stuffing envelopes may be well-meaning ways to give. But to add some oomph to your résumé, consider helping those same organizations by offering to do what you're good at. It might be customer service, marketing, recruiting, office management, fundraising or computer technology. Nonprofits, especially, will be glad to have you.

"We have noticed in the last few years that people are coming to us because they feel it's a good time while they're in transition," says Stacey Winter, program manager with the New York office of the Taproot Foundation, which matches the business talent of some 4,000 "consultants" with nonprofits in need. Volunteers commit to working three to five hours a week on six-month engagements. Likewise, helps nonprofits and social enterprises leverage the skills of professionals who are in New York and online.

Buying into the idea of volunteering your skills as you job hunt? Keep these tips in mind:

1. Choose wisely. Make sure the job fits you. “Really scrutinize what you are getting into,” says Jeff Foley, national workforce coordinator for the AARP Foundation Virtual Job Coach Program. “It will make a difference in your ability to do that job.”

2. Find your passion. Try to find a cause to which you have a personal connection, Schmitt says. “You'll be much more productive, and feel much better at the end of the day.”

3. Be at your best. Don’t slack off because you’re working for free. In fact, work even harder as a volunteer, Talley says. “This is what you're saying you want to do. People can see that you like what you're doing.”

4. Don’t assume they’ll hire you. Take a volunteer job purely for the experience. If you’re offered a staff position, then it’s icing on the cake, right?  Volunteering “may not be a means to employment,” Winter says. “But a lot of people want to make good on a promise to give back. Some are looking to network and meet people.”

5. Try professional organizations. Search for volunteer positions with organizations such as Taproot, or But also shop job search engines such as for pro bono work.

6. Smile, be positive. Make them wish they could afford to pay you. “It's all about the attitude that people bring to the job,” Talley says. “We lose sight of that. People want to be around folks they don't have to worry about.”

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