Proof That Volunteering Pays Off for Job Hunters

A new study confirms the connection between helping out and getting hired — but some unpaid positions are more beneficial than others

By Nancy Collamer
Originally Posted On June 30, 2013

A
A

Nancy Collamer, M.S., is a career coach, speaker and author of Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement. Her website is MyLifestyleCareer.com; on Twitter she is @NancyCollamer.

Digital Vision/ThinkStock
I noted in an earlier blog that I believe volunteering can make you a stronger job candidate if you’re out of work and hoping to get hired. Now, an eye-popping government study proves it.
 
The Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that promotes volunteerism, tracked more than 70,000 jobless people between 2002 and 2012 and found that those who volunteered had a 27 percent better chance of finding a job than those who didn’t.
 
Why Volunteering Can Help You Get Hired

One reason, according to the authors of the study "Volunteering as a Pathway to Employment": acquiring skills or knowledge as a volunteer and then putting them to use may “demonstrate higher levels of capacity, potentially making the volunteer more attractive to and productive for employers.”

A Boost for the Long-Term Unemployed

While these results are important for all job seekers, they’re especially welcome news for the nation’s 4.4 million long-term unemployed (those out of work for at least six months); the average duration of unemployment for job seekers 55 and older is just over 13 months, according to AARP. That’s because the longer you’re unemployed, the weaker your social networks tend to be and the harder it then becomes to get a referral.

As a career coach, I’ve seen many examples of volunteering's benefits for the unemployed, but even I was surprised by this research. I knew it was valuable for job seekers, but 27 percent more valuable? That’s impressive.
 
The Job-Search Technique With Maximum Impact
 
I can’t think of a single job-search strategy that’s been proven to have that much impact.
 
Employers like to hire people who can demonstrate that they’re motivated and hard working, even if they haven’t been getting paid for their efforts lately. Volunteering can also provide you with an insider’s advantage if the nonprofit has an opening for a paid position.
 
2 Big Benefits of Volunteering
 
But of all the many employment-related benefits of volunteering, I think two stand out most:
 
Volunteering helps lift job seekers’ spirits by making them feel needed and productive. That’s an important psychological benefit for people dealing with a prolonged job search. As I’ve written before, keeping a positive mindset is arguably the single most critical element of success for finding work.
 
I’ll never forget the time I spoke at a job-search support group and heard someone say: “I’ve been unemployed for a year and I’m feeling very discouraged. The one thing that has kept me sane is my volunteer job with EMS. I volunteer once a week and when I’m out in that ambulance, I’m just like everyone else. My services are needed and I’m able to make a difference. Seeing someone lying on a stretcher reminds me that my life isn’t so bad after all. I always feel better about myself after I volunteer.”
 
Volunteering lets you expand your network of contacts easily and effectively. Finding a job these days is all about networking. And when you volunteer, you gain access to people you might not otherwise meet, creating opportunities to develop positive relationships outside a traditional work environment. Those contacts could be people who might ultimately hire you or who could refer you to others with job openings.
 
But as valuable as volunteering is, it’s important to remember that some types of unpaid work at nonprofits are better than others for securing your next paid job.
 
Volunteer Work That Can Help You Most
 
So before you sign up to volunteer, I’d like to offer three pointers:
 
1. Find the right fit. Many of us agree to help out because a friend asks and we feel obligated. But don’t volunteer by default.

Seek out meaningful volunteer jobs that will provide you with new contacts, skills or expertise closely aligned with your professional goals.

2. Treat your volunteer job like a paid job. Even if you provide assistance for only a few hours each week, it’s important to demonstrate professionalism and a serious commitment.

Look for opportunities to take on assignments with greater responsibilities, like leadership roles or board positions.

Don’t forget to connect with your volunteer network on LinkedIn, just as you would with work colleagues and remember to incorporate your unpaid nonprofit duties into your LinkedIn profile and resumé.

3. Put the expertise and skills you have to use. When you’re in your 50s or 60s, you have plenty of knowledge and talents to share, so take advantage of your age.

Nonprofits are grateful when you can help them do things they either don’t know how to do or don’t have time to do, like project management, fundraising and strategic planning.

Taking on this type of work as a volunteer is a win-win strategy for all involved. The organization gets the benefit of your unique abilities and you’ll rack up new accomplishments to talk about during your next job interview, which just might lead to an offer.