Volunteering for Skills and Career

Some things have been happening recently with the staff of a website that I volunteer with, in a department I used to volunteer for until The Real World ™ swallowed me alive. This site has a few paid staff and numerous volunteers working together to keep the site running. In fact, recently they have been hiring on more staff to help the volunteers, and they’re from within the volunteers so they pretty much know how everything works. However, the choices made in hiring have been interesting. The volunteers are spread all over the world with the administrators for this one department at one point spread all over the world as well.

One of these administrators lives a state away from the home base, though. This particular volunteer has been working actively for this site for two or three years, and maintains several areas of the site. If she walked away from the site, they’d have fun training up new volunteers to take her place, and actually her workload would have to be distributed among many volunteers. This woman has treated her volunteer job like a real full-time job in the hopes she would be noticed and hired on. So, imagine her surprise when she found herself being passed over for a paid position. Now she’s debating whether it was worth it or not to put in so much time for so long with the site. It’s rather understandable.

The real problem here, though, is that as she’s looking over the past couple of years, she’s looking at it with a mindset that the time spent was a waste. However, over the past few years, she has learned and honed skills that could translate to a real career away from this website. Her management style is firm, and the fact that she’s 21 with an incredible managerial background doesn’t even begin to impress her. She’s learned a lot about technology. Her business writing is simply elegant. She’d be incredible out in the business world if she could see her skills learned and perfected at this volunteer job are worthwhile and transferable.

Several years her elder, I feel her pain. I spent seven or eight years of my life volunteering in the field I most want to step into. I have a volunteer career as a museum educator that many directors wish they had. I was first approached for the directorship of an education department when I was 23 because of the previous five years’ worth of volunteer experience. I am routinely chastised for not including my volunteer experiences on my resume, because they really paint a better picture of who I am professionally than the random jobs I have had. The lesson I have had to learn is that skills gained through volunteering efforts are just as valuable as skills gained through paid positions.

Volunteering, in and of itself, is a worthwhile activity to pursue, regardless of the work. You are freely giving of your time and your energy. In cases where you volunteer with a cause you feel strongly about, you might also be bringing knowledge and skills with you. Many of us look at our volunteer work and think about how much we have brought to the organization simply by being there. What many of us fail to think about is how volunteering with that company has also benefited us. It’s really a two-way street.

Take my case, for example. I have volunteered with two planetariums, an aquarium, and three museums. In addition to being able to practice my teaching skills in these settings, I also have learned to run an office, to put together shows, to create dazzling effects. I have also learned how to promote something, to manage volunteers with very diverse needs, and how to interact with people of varying temperaments. I’ve honed my lesson planning skills to the point where I can turn out a complete, viable lesson in a few hours if I have to. I have also been given the chance to organize special events. My resume, both the chronological one and the functional one, is two pages long on my volunteer work alone, and because of the autonomy and opportunities I’ve had, I feel confident enough to work toward striking out on my own as a freelancer.

Volunteering also has a nice side effect. It can help you shape your own career path. Don’t know what you want to do? Try volunteering with a cause you like. Don’t be surprised if you find a new career that you truly enjoy just by giving a volunteer organization a few hours a week of your own time.

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