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7 Reasons Volunteering Can Lead to a Job

Legions of Americans are devoting time to nonprofits and finding paths to employment

By Julie Shifman

Some people start volunteering because they’re passionate about a cause. Michael Burke, a Baltimore chef, began volunteering because he got rheumatoid arthritis. That decision paved the way to his current paid job.

In 2003, after nearly 20 years working as a cook or chef, Burke found that standing during the long shifts had become too painful and that the arthritis made it hard for him to maintain his skills. Then a friend told him that the Baltimore arm of the national nonprofit Experience Corps was looking for local volunteers to tutor and mentor elementary school children. He immediately applied.

“I had always had a passion for changing kid’s lives,” Burke says. “I worked with children's summer programs and after-school programs at my church. This gave me the opportunity to do it on a consistent, more structured basis.” He loved the three years he spent volunteering. “It's wonderful to see the light bulb go on in a child after hitting a road block,” Burke says. “It was great for me, too.”

After the volunteer work and enrolling in computer/office technology courses at a community college and the library, Burke was able to convert his new skills into a paid position as an administrative assistant with Experience Corps. Volunteering was “the best training I could have had for a new career,” he says. The job's predictable hours makes his rheumatoid arthritis manageable.

Volunteering also morphed into a paying job for executive Keith Limbach of Cincinnati.

Limbach, now 51, found himself out of a job as vice president for a customer-management firm in 2009, after spending 26 years in IT. Eager to change fields, he enrolled in a nonprofit board-development program offered by the United Way of Greater Cincinnati. That led to a volunteer position on the board and technology committee of a school and rehab center for children and adults with severe disabilities.

The volunteering experience in the newly gained tech sphere led D+H, a financial-services and software company, to hire Limbach as a client delivery executive. “It demonstrated that I welcome leadership roles and challenges and that giving back to the community is important to me — a value that many companies take very seriously,” he says.

{C}Why Volunteering Can Turn Into a Job

As the founder and president of Act Three, a Cincinnati-based firm that helps women get back into the workforce, I’ve found that there are seven reasons why volunteering can ultimately result in a paying job:


1. You acquire new skills. Diane Rehm, the popular NPR host, was a stay-at-home mom before becoming a volunteer producer in 1973 for a talk show on WAMU, the public radio station in Washington, D.C. “I just jumped in as a volunteer,” Rehm says. “I was reading the newspapers constantly, thinking about topics we could do.” She was soon hired as an assistant producer: “I literally learned on the job.” In 1979, Rehm began hosting the station’s local morning show, which now reaches 2.2 million listeners across the country.

2. Volunteering can show you're staying engaged in the work world and learning new skills. Employers often prefer to interview people who are employed in some capacity. So listing a volunteer position on your resume under “Current Employment” will prevent a hiring manager from thinking you’re jobless. You don’t have to mention that the job is unpaid. (Of course if you are asked, never lie).  A volunteer position can help you stay up to speed in a given field and make you a more compelling candidate to employers in that field. 

3. You improve your LinkedIn profile.  LinkedIn, the online business-networking site, has become a key way to find a job or to be found for one. Adding a volunteer position to your LinkedIn profile provides two advantages. It allows you to “link” to, and thereby connect with, anyone affiliated with the organization or in a similar field. You can then introduce yourself to these potential employers and offer your services. Putting your volunteer work in your LinkedIn profile also makes your profile appear more robust. That can impress a hiring manager enough to want to meet you in person for an interview. 

4. You make new contacts. Many jobs are obtained through someone you know. That’s why any chance to expand your network is a plus. Joining a nonprofit board can provide a chance to hobnob with influential people in your community. “A definite benefit of board service is that the people you serve with can introduce you to many people you wouldn’t otherwise meet,” says Kathy Buckley, director of United Way of Greater Cincinnati’s Volunteer Connection.
5. You’ll get a feel for today’s work environment. This can be a huge benefit for people in their 50s and 60s who haven’t been in the workforce lately. “If you take on a serious volunteer role, you get a chance to experience what’s expected of you in today’s business climate and can get used to working with younger people,” says Marci Alboher, vice president of Civic Ventures, a nonprofit think tank on Boomers, work and social purpose. “That's great practice for re-entering the workplace, where you might find yourself working with and for people young enough to be your children.”

6. You gain an in-depth knowledge about a specific cause.  This can be a big plus if you want a paying job relating to that mission. “If I have to choose between two equally qualified candidates, and one has shown a real passion for our cause through volunteer work in the field, I will absolutely choose that candidate,” says Neil Tilow, president of Talbert House, a Cincinnati nonprofit network of social services. 

7. Your self-confidence will grow. It’s easy to diminish your sense of self if you haven’t worked lately (or ever), but volunteering to help others less fortunate will almost certainly give you a lift. And becoming a key person in a nonprofit organization will likely boost your self-esteem. “Volunteering provides you with a confidence that you can be successful again,” Limbach says.

Julie Shifman is an inspirational keynote speaker, career coach and the author of Act Three: Create the Life You Want, which is available on and in bookstores. You can buy a signed copy at her website. Read More
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