What you may not know is that volunteering can help you get a job, too. Here are five reasons you should carve some time out of your job-hunting schedule to “work for free," along with a bonus tip:
1. Volunteering is great for your morale. Let’s face it, a long fruitless job hunt can start to make you feel like a loser. What’s worse, potential employers can smell desperation and anger a mile away, and they are put off by it. This is why it can help to put your focus on others. Volunteering rejuvenates you and renews your sense of self-worth. Volunteering fills you up with positive feelings of accomplishment, feelings that will spread over into your job hunt.
2. Volunteering grows your network. A job hunter’s contact list can never be too long. If you’re targeting your job search to a particular company or companies (and you should be), go a step further and volunteer where employees of those companies also volunteer. Find out which foundations your target industry supports and get active in them. Or, try volunteering directly for your target company. Working together for a common goal is a great way to build strong, useful relationships with new people.
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3. Volunteering looks good on your résumé. Particularly if your jobless period has stretched out, it’s nice to be able to put something in that empty space. Volunteering tells potential employers that you are an energetic, compassionate person who—even when faced with problems of your own—found the wherewithal to help others. Also, consider taking on some greater responsibility in your volunteer role. Managing a fundraiser or serving on a board demonstrates leadership and puts you in a position to make higher-level contacts. (Note: If you are a new college grad, volunteering is an excellent way to beef up what might otherwise be a thin résumé.)
4. Volunteering can be a way to learn new skills, or improve the ones you already have. Whether you’re seeking to change industries or careers, or you want to move up in your field, volunteering is a great way to acquire the necessary skills. For example, if you’re a graphic designer who wants to move into PR, volunteer to not only design the logo for a local charity group but to write the copy for their brochure. Voilà, a new skill to put on your résumé.
5. Volunteering can help you choose a career. Can’t decide what you want to do? Wouldn’t it be smart to test drive a possible new career first? If you’re interested in healthcare, say, you could volunteer at a hospital or nursing home. You would find out pretty fast if this is a world where you want to spend your working life. In addition, volunteering puts you in a wonderful position to meet potential mentors and to learn about opportunities or job openings in your desired field.
A final bonus tip: While you’re volunteering (while you’re doing anything, actually!), consider the impression you're making on others. Sure, you may be “only” dishing up free meals for the homeless, but the server standing next to you may just be the CEO of a company you’d love to work for. So treat your volunteer work like a job—display a great work ethic, a good attitude, and stellar leadership skills. Do this always, and your philanthropy may just lead to a paying gig.
Karen Burns is the author of the illustrated career advice book The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use, recently released by Running Press. She blogs at www.karenburnsworkinggirl.com.