Job search, as we’ve said many times in this space requires a host of strategies for success. One of my favorite strategiesin part because it worked for me, is doing volunteer work and pro-bono consulting. There are at least four main benefits to volunteering as a job search strategy:
- Demonstrate your skills and fit for a specific organization so they hire you when a job opens,
- Offering pro-bono consulting can lead to professional roles,
- Learning skills and gaining resume-building experience, and
- Volunteer work is a good thing for us all.
In fact, I’ve been told that volunteering is the main route to employment in certain fields.
Personally, I have directly volunteered my way into jobs twice, and used volunteer consulting roles as resume-builders that contributed to landing additional jobs. Additionally, I like the volunteer strategy because it’s more fun than sending out resumes.
Demonstrate your skills at a volunteer job.
Twice, I have landed jobs by demonstrating my skills as a volunteer first. The most notable occasion involved landing my first job in career services.
This opportunity arose after I was downsized from the Federal government in 1995. My co-workers and I were referred to Professional Re-employment & Outplacement Services (PROS) for assistance in finding new jobs. It was a new program with leadership that was willing to try new strategies. An approach they decided to try was bringing together client-facilitated networking groups. I joined the Non-profit Networking Group.
This turned out to be an excellent move. Our group started out with about 50 members and, after several months, I became a co-facilitator. A project I took on as co-facilitator involved calling members every week to remind them of meetings. (Few of us regularly used email then) The Career Advising Manager at PROS became aware I was doing this when members started calling her office to return calls instead of calling the number in my phone message.
Soon, the Manager needed someone to sit outside here office and call clients that had stopped attending PROS workshops regularly to find out whether or not they were working. She asked the Center Director to hire me for this role. My role expanded over time until I was promoted to Career Advisor during the frenzied months after 9-11 in New York. I remained at the organization until much of its funding ended in 2004.
The second time I landed a job through a volunteer gig evolved over a much shorter time-frame. I relocated to Philadelphia in 2012, and started volunteering to run job clubs and networking groups at organizations there. One of the organizations that asked me to do a presentation for their Job Club was Associated Services for the Blind. After the presentation, I stopped by the department head’s office to say hello and thank him for the invite. He asked me to apply for a job there. Six weeks later, I began a one year grant-funded assignment as the ASB’s only full time career coach.
It is common to get jobs through volunteer work.
As I wrote this, I wondered how frequently job-seekers find work through volunteer projects. Jill Mendelson, a consultant to non-profit agencies who supervised skills-based volunteers at UJA Federation of New York for many years, told me that five of her six project managers started as pro-bono consultants in her office. She hired them because they demonstrated the required hard skills, soft skills, and their fit with organizational culture while volunteering.
Jill’s job, in simple terms, was sending pro-bono consultants and other volunteers to her network of agencies. She believes many of her volunteers have been hired as employees at network agencies, but statistics are not readily available.
Additionally, I’ve been told on several occasions over the years that the only way to get hired into certain organizations is to start as a volunteer or unpaid intern. For example, Dr. Steven Schutz, a biologist in Concord, California, told me he believes the only way to land a job at aquariums and museums is to start out in the volunteer ranks. The two of us had dinner with a group of museum and aquarium educators some years ago and learned that all of them started their careers as student volunteers at their organizations.
Anecdotal experience does not prove that job-seekers will get jobs through volunteering. It is one strategy I believe is worth trying, and has other benefits, too.
Offer pro-bono consulting in your field.
A related strategy is to offer “pro-bono,” or free consulting to not-for-profit organizations in your area of expertise. Keep in mind, if you chose this approach, that the agency you volunteer with expects you to be an expert, according to Jill Mendelson. You are not there to learn although you will probably be applying your expertise in a new setting.
For example, when I joined a pro-bono consulting program Jill was running, I had just left a Federal agency job, and had some expertise on questionnaire design. She sent me to an organization that needed a client survey to guide their future direction. My role was to provide expertise—not learn research—but I did learn how to apply my expertise in the not-for-profit world.
You can gain experience and skills to build your resume.
Volunteer work, or pro-bono consulting will not necessarily lead directly to employment in the organization you support. It is still valuable, though, because the assignment can add hard skills to your resume and fill gaps. For example, a client I worked with volunteered in the box office at a not-for-profit summer theater. He learned the same ticketing computer system and other skills that are marketable for paying box office jobs.
It is rarely necessary to distinguish between career-related freelance, temp, pro-bono consulting, and volunteer assignments used to fill an employment gap. An old version of my resume included the following section:
INDEPENDENT CONSULTANT, Brooklyn, NY, 1996 – 1998
HR and Organizational Development Consultant
Conducted a variety of best practices and policy projects at non-profit agencies. Accomplishments:
- Reviewed and revised attendance sheet processing procedures at the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s’ Services (JBFCS) to ensure that office managers submit timely and accurate information to the Human Resources Department. Updated COBRA and FMLA procedures.
- Developed, implemented and analyzed results of policy research surveys that The Hebrew Free Loan Society used to modernize its mission and operating policies.
I was compensated for one project. The other project was a pro-bono consulting assignment. No interviewer asked me which project was a volunteer role.
Volunteer work is good for us all!
It is healthy to do volunteer or pro-bono work during a job search, whether it leads to a salaried position or not. Dr. Michelle Tullier, a certified career counselor with a Ph.D. in counseling psychology said in an email “volunteering is important to make time for during a search. It helps get someone out of their own head and their own needs and focused on others. It can be good for keeping perspective about one’s own problems, and in a practical sense, volunteering can expand one’s network and therefore is actually a part of job search strategy. Plus, of course, it’s simply a noble thing to do.”
According to Jill Mendelson, there are opportunities to find challenging pro-bono and volunteer assignments during the Pandemic as community centers and other organizations seek to reopen and find safe paths to serving their populations.We are here to help you incorporate your volunteer projects into your resume and LinkedIn profile. Click here for a spot on our calendar today.