Strategic volunteering: Lessons from a mature student

Wed, 22 Oct 2014

Volunteering. You have likely been told it is important. If you were like me, you grew up believing that donating your time is a sign of good character, that it tells future employers you are an active participant in your community, and that you have personal qualities that would make you a great member of their team. 

However, over the last years, the act of volunteering has changed. The job market has become more competitive, and volunteering today is not just a demonstration of your character, but an opportunity to develop real life skills that are transferrable to your career.

There are more strains on student time than ever before. So if you are going to spend your valuable time somewhere, find a great volunteer program, put in as much as you can, and you will reap amazing benefits.

Here are some tips on how to get the most out of your volunteer experiences.

1. Choose wisely

The big kahuna. I’m going to say it, no matter how obvious it may seem—pick an organization that means something to you. There are lots of opportunities out there, so it is easy to find volunteer positions with organizations that reflect your values. Non-profits, sporting tournaments, school organizations, film festivals—whatever fits you best. You will be more fulfilled by contributing to something that you value, and will feel happier while doing it. You might also be surprised how quickly any rookie mistakes are forgotten when you are a pleasure to work with.

2. Pick positions that demonstrate your soft skills

These are skills you can’t often prove with a degree, or through your references. For example, I always looked for volunteer positions that required leadership. These volunteering assignments allowed me to not only cultivate my desire and ability to lead, but to include these leadership skills on my resume. Putting myself in leadership positions also demonstrated that I was interested in learning as much as possible and didn’t want to go unnoticed. Your mom might describe this as being a “go-getter," and she was right (moms usually are).

3. Don’t just act like you are getting paid, act like you want a promotion

Yes—you should be on time and do what you are supposed to do. But the most significant volunteer experiences are often the things that no one asked you to do. Find ways to go above and beyond. Open the lines of communication with the people you are working with. Know about the organization. Passion about the cause comes into play here, and if you love what you are a part of, you will naturally gravitate to playing a larger role.

4. Don’t be shy, stand out!

This can mean different things in different roles, but you should always try to find some positive way to differentiate yourself. Position yourself to work closely with key individuals so you can request a personalized reference letter. Remember, there are two kinds of reference letters. One tells a prospective employer that you showed up for your volunteer shifts. The other tells them what they really want to hear—what your responsibilities were, what your work ethic was like, if you were easy to work with, and the cherry on top—if they should hire you. No one owes you this kind of letter. If you want it you have to earn it, and your contribution needs to inspire that person to take the time to write a letter for you.

Now get out there—engage with the community around you—and develop skills to move your career forward. Good luck!