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How Volunteering Can Benefit Your Career

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What You Need to Know

  1. Volunteering is not just for school leavers and retired people. Volunteering your time and skills can be a great way to break into a new career or advance in an existing career
  2. Research has found that three quarters of all employers give preference to candidates who have at least some voluntary experience on their CV
  3. Working as a volunteer is often the best way to break into a competitive industry such as the media, arts or fashion. In fact, volunteering is often the only way to get a break!
  4. Above all, volunteering is the perfect chance to gain and develop useful skills, though you will need to choose a voluntary role carefully to ensure it’s useful to your career
  5. Volunteering can also help you develop soft skills, especially if you have just finished university and have no experience in the world of work. It can help you develop your communication skills, your team-working abilities or interview technique, for example
  6. Make it clear from the start how much time you can afford to commit and make sure an employer knows what you want to gain from volunteering. If possible, sign a Volunteer Agreement to ensure your career goals are met
  7. Going the extra mile is the best way of making the most out of volunteering. Don’t be shy and do as much as you can if you want to stand the best chance of getting a glowing reference or even the offer of a paid position 

Why Should You Work for Free?

Working unpaid as a volunteer will never offer any financial rewards, at least not in the short-term. And, for many, this can be a key factor in whether or not they choose to volunteer their time and skills.

However, if you are able to volunteer, it can offer a range of other benefits, not least when it comes to your career. A well-chosen voluntary role can give you the experience you need to get started in your chosen career, or it can help you move forward in an existing career. In fact, according to one study carried out by recruitment firm Reed Executive, three quarters of employers prefer to take on candidates with at least some voluntary experience on their CV.

Alongside the many career benefits, people also volunteer for a host of other reasons. Maybe you want to give something back to your local community, or maybe you are retired or unemployed and want to keep active and expand your social circle. Whatever your motivation, there’s sure to be a voluntary position for you.

The Career Benefits of Volunteering

Studies suggest that the average age of volunteers in the UK is now around 24 years old. So, no longer is volunteering the preserve of school-leavers or retired people with too much time on their hands. Rather, the typical volunteer is a graduate or young professional determined to enjoy an early career boost, which is exactly what a good placement can offer. Here are just some of the ways a stint working as a volunteer can help boost your CV:

  • A foot in the door: Competition for jobs has never been higher, especially in popular sectors such as the media, law, finance, charities and NGOs, fashion and the arts. Working as a volunteer can give you a valuable foot in the door and help you break the vicious cycle that comes with having no relevant work experience. Of course, even unpaid roles in some sectors can be incredibly hard to get, and you may need to gain voluntary experience with a less-glamorous organisation before you land your dream role.
  • Narrowing down career aims: One great thing about volunteering is that it can allow you to get a little experience in a certain sector or role without having to commit to it. In fact, many volunteers do unpaid work experience placements in order to try different things and see what they will enjoy doing for the rest of their lives. You should, of course, try and narrow down your career aims as much as possible before you start looking for placements, but then don’t be afraid to try a few varied placements in order to better determine what you want to do with your life.
  • Building up a CV: By far the biggest advantage of undertaking a voluntary role is the fact that you should be able to gain the valuable skills and experience employers are looking for. Indeed, since growing numbers of candidates now offer degrees or even postgraduate qualifications, anything that can help you stand out from the crowd will give you a big advantage. From the start, however, you need to be clear about what skills you want to learn, and then target your search for voluntary roles accordingly. For example, it’s no use learning how to code computer programmes if you ultimately want to work as a fashion designer, so don’t waste your time (or that of an employer) learning skills you will never want to actually use in any future career. Do, however, make it clear the professional skills you have developed through volunteering when you update your CV, as this is often the first thing an employer will look for.
  • Developing soft skills: It’s not just hard professional skills that a voluntary position can help you develop. Volunteering is also great for gaining and developing a wide range of ‘soft skills’, all of them likely to help you progress in your chosen career. These could include your team-working abilities, your communications skills and even your confidence and self-esteem, again all things most employers will look for in potential new recruits. You may even find the process of applying for voluntary roles and then going along for an informal interview to be useful preparation as you hunt for paid work.
  • Making contacts: One other crucial way in which volunteering can help you develop your career is that an unpaid position can enable you to build up some useful contacts. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to anyone you feel might be of use in your future career, though do remember they are also trying to get on with their job. Always be smart, courteous and enthusiastic. That way, if and when paid roles become available, you will be at the front of their minds, and even if there are no opportunities for paid work, you will be able to rely on glowing references.

Finding a Rewarding Voluntary Position

There really is no shortage of voluntary work placements out there, so you should have no trouble finding someone who will happily let you work unpaid for them. However, if you are serious about using a spell of volunteering to improve your career prospects, you need to treat the search for a placement with the same seriousness as you would looking for a proper, paid job.

Some of the key things you should do when looking for a voluntary placement include:

  • Pinpoint the skills you want to develop: This is by far the most important thing you will need to do. Simply draw up a list of what you want to get out of volunteering (whether it’s professional contacts or specific skills such as coding or designing) and then use this to research organisations that can help you.
  • Research a potential employer: Before you commit to a placement, you should always do your homework. Check out where previous volunteers have ended up. Have they been offered paid positions? Have they progressed in their chosen careers? Or have they not progressed or simply gone on to more unpaid roles? Don’t be afraid to ask these questions if there is an interview, as it will show that you are serious and ready to work hard.
  • Determine what you can offer: From the start, you should make it clear how many hours a week you will be able to volunteer for, and for how long you will be able to stay in one placement. As a rule, the more you can offer, the more you stand to gain, but you should never commit yourself to too much, as this will only mean you will disappoint the employer. Being honest and realistic will benefit both you and the organisation you want to volunteer with.

Generally speaking, bigger organisations are better for volunteering than smaller ones. Not only will they look better on your CV, but there’s also more chance of you getting offered a paid position at the end of the placement, or at the very least being able to develop the widest set of skills. For instance, if you want to break into the NGO sector, a placement at Oxfam of the WWF will always help you stand out from the crowd, though competition for even unpaid roles in such organisations can be extremely tough.

Making the Most out of a Voluntary Position

Simply volunteering your time is not enough. Rather, you need to treat a voluntary position with the same respect you would a paid job, working your hardest and doing whatever you can to impress. Most organisations that offer unpaid roles will, of course, have volunteers coming and going all the time. The good news is, however, that, with a little extra effort you can make yourself remembered and get more out of a role than the next volunteer. Here are a few tips about how you can make sure volunteering really pays off:

  • Don’t be shy and nervous: Being ‘just a volunteer’ can be daunting, especially if you find yourself working in a busy and stressful office. Understandably, you may be worried about getting in the way of people trying to get on with their normal jobs and you may even be worried about your lack of skills and experience. However, you need to put such worries aside and make a real effort to be seen and heard. Introduce yourself to your temporary colleagues and make the effort to learn what they do. Let them know your skills and background and why you are volunteering, and offer to help in any way you can, even if it’s just making the tea. Volunteers who make themselves known and useful tend to be offered more opportunities and get better references than those who sit back and just wait for someone to give them something to do.
  • Ask for a Volunteer Agreement: Larger organisations in particular tend to offer Volunteer Agreement contracts. These set out your responsibilities, as well as what you can expect to get in return for your unpaid time. Even if an organisation doesn’t offer this, try and speak with your manager from the start and draw up a plan for your professional development, and don’t be afraid to voice your concerns if you feel you’re not getting enough out of a voluntary role (for instance, if you’re a qualified and experienced professional stuck doing the photocopying).
  • Go the extra mile: It goes without saying that you will get out of volunteering what you put in. And the biggest winners tend to be those who go the extra mile and make their own luck. So, forget about long lunches in the pub. Instead, spend your break shadowing a colleague and learning a completely different side to how the organisation works. Your enthusiasm will be noted. Plus, don’t forget that volunteers who socialise with their colleagues tend to be fondly remembered, including when it comes to writing references or filling vacant positions, so don’t turn down too many invitations to the pub or the work softball game.

Your Rights as a Volunteer

Legally speaking, as a volunteer, you don’t have the same workplace rights, or the same benefits, as paid workers, including paid temporary staff. At the same time, however, neither do you have the same responsibilities.

Firstly, as the name suggests, you will not get paid for volunteering. Some (in fact, most) organisations will pay your expenses, that is, your travel to and from the place of work, as well as maybe your lunch. However, this is not compulsory and some smaller places may not even offer this. If you do have your expenses paid, then be sure to keep all receipts and travel tickets as you may not get your money back if you cannot produce these.

You should also remember that, as a volunteer, you are free to leave a placement any time you want without needing to give any notice. So, if you are offered a paid position or even a volunteering role that would be better for your career prospects, you are free to take it. Do remember, however, that it’s always best to give as much notice as possible, as this gives the employer more chance to find a replacement and makes it more likely they will give you a good reference!

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