Volunteer jobs can launch paying careers

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Brian Greenberg

Anne Thompson parlayed volunteer work with a nonprofit into a paying job with the organization.

“Try volunteering in your community...” If you’ve looked for a job anytime since the onset of the Great Recession, then you’ve probably heard this advice in an employment article or workshop.

Indeed, volunteering does allow you to keep your skills sharp and close resume gaps. But does it ever lead to a real paid job? The answer, which may be a surprise to some, is a resounding “yes.”

Nancy Cooper started volunteering part time at the Jewish Council for the Aging (JCA) when her daughter went to college in 2004.

“I wanted to volunteer and thought I wanted to go back to work someday,” said Cooper, who after 20 months at JCA was offered a paid job-share position there. She is now a certified information and mobility specialist for JCA’s Connect-A-Ride Program three days a week.

“If you’ve been out of work for a while, your computer skills might not be as strong as they should be, so volunteering is a good way to bring them up to date in a work environment,” said Cooper, 56. “It’s a great way to meet people with common interests, and provides a ‘safe environment’ to try things out.”

Cooper’s job-share colleague, Abby Levin, 50, also began at JCA as a volunteer. “Working for the [JCA’s] Senior HelpLine meant that I was being exposed to all the resources for seniors in the area,” said Levin. “I have a Master’s [degree] in aging, and it was a way to keep connected to my field.”

“There are so many benefits [to volunteering], starting with the confidence factor, getting out of the house, and getting in an office environment with others,” said Gordon Silcox, who leads a job-search seminar for JCA called “The Career Gateway.” “The confidence factor is so important and can make the difference in a person’s success,” said Silcox.

“Volunteering is a great way to test out an organization,” said Reed Dewey, founder of the Volunteer Frontier, which helps nonprofits and governments optimize their use of volunteers. “If they treat their volunteers well, they probably also treat their staff well.”

Network your way up

Sometimes volunteering can end up landing you a job in management.

In 2004, Anne Thompson was enjoying a successful private practice as a licensed clinical psychologist when she decided to begin volunteering part-time at A Wider Circle, which provides basic items such as furniture to families transitioning out of shelters.

“I always wanted to do something that was going to make a difference,” remembered Thompson, 58, who has a Ph.D. After a few years, she was asked to be on the volunteer board of directors. Then, two years ago, she was offered the position of deputy director.

“When I decided to leave my private practice and told my mother, she said, ‘I didn’t raise you to lift furniture!’“

“I never thought that I would be the deputy director or stop what I was doing, because I didn’t really have any past experience in management,” said Thompson. “Sometimes, employers can look at the person and the heart and the capacity…they might not have the experience, but if they are the quality of person you are looking for and are smart enough, it could work.”

About 15 years ago, Joy Belew joined a volunteer task force at her church focusing on serving parishioners’ children with special needs. In 2002, when the task force obtained a grant for their growing special needs programs, Belew was hired to manage the activities of the grant.

A few years ago she saw an ad on Craigslist for Options for Senior America, a homecare agency. Belew was hired as community relations manager for the D.C. branch of the organization.

“One thing leads to another,” said Belew, 55. “I’m using all the skills I used as a volunteer.”

A volunteer position can even lead to a job at the very top of an organization. Lester Strong, currently CEO of AARP Experience Corps, made the leap from volunteer to CEO — twice!

Strong, now 63, was a seasoned TV reporter and news anchor in Boston when he began volunteering on the board of a foundation for yoga and meditation. “The board was working on a new organizational design and ended up asking me to be their new CEO.”

The second leap occurred while he volunteered on the board of Civic Ventures, which eventually led to his becoming CEO of Experience Corps. “I’m sitting here at AARP now because of my volunteer work at Civic Ventures,” said Strong.

Referring to both of his moves from volunteer to CEO, Strong said that “they were asking me to become more involved with organizations that I already knew and loved.”

Leverage your experience

Here are a few tips if you are just starting your venture into volunteering or would like to capitalize on your volunteer experiences for potential employers.

  • Find an organization that matches your values. “I think you have to find a place that is doing something that you find compelling,” said Abby Levin. “Once the subject matter is correct, you are more likely to invest in it and derive all the benefits from it.”
  • Look for assignments that match either existing skills or skills you want to further develop. “You might have to be creative. Don’t limit yourself to just concentrating on one skill or content area,” Belew said. Strong advised, “Don’t be tied to what you’ve done in the past. Ask yourself, ‘What are the fundamental skills that I have?’”
  • Network within the organization. “Senior staff and board members may be more approachable because they’re interested in the mission or subject matter of the nonprofit,” Silcox said.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask for recommendations from the people who supervise your volunteer work. “When people are volunteering when they are unemployed speaks volumes in terms of their character and work ethic,” according to Thompson.
  • Include your volunteer work on your resume, focusing on the projects you completed, the skills that were required, and any quantifiable results. Thompson advised, “Translate, but don’t exaggerate, what you did and put it in the language of a job.”
  • During an interview, be sure to talk about projects you did as a volunteer as well as your paid projects. According to JCA’s CEO David Gamse, “You don’t need to specify which of your projects were paid or not paid unless there is a compelling reason to do so.”
  • Be adventurous! “Follow your passion — what you never thought was possible — and see where it takes you. Take the leap!” said Thompson.

Brian Greenberg is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md. He can be reached for questions or comments at brian@words-with-impact.com.