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How To Sell Your Volunteer Experience To A Potential Employer
Once, while interviewing for a job with a local organization, I discovered that my resume needed a little explaining. The interviewer, puzzled, asked: “What does this mean—volunteering? Your recommendation letter said that you worked for AmeriCorps.” I explained, quickly, that while I did “work” as an AmeriCorps, I was technically a full-time volunteer.
My interviewer was puzzled. How could I volunteer full-time, and what did that mean for my status of employment? In fact, although I was eventually able to explain that AmeriCorps was a volunteer program that offered a stipend for contracted volunteer hours, I realized just how confusing it is to employers that want a firm boundary between a job and a volunteer position. However, the fact is that that line doesn't always exist.
In my subsequent job interviews, I have worked hard to demonstrate to my potential employers the ways in which working a job and full-time volunteering were similar and yet different. I have noticed, over time, a few trends that I think are useful in marketing yourself on a resume or preparing for a job interview.
Projects, Not Duties
One of the greatest benefits of volunteers is their ability to adapt. After all, what volunteer job is full of the same, day-to-day duties without a single need for improvisation or changes in strategy? Nothing that I've done yet!
It's been really useful to explain to potential employers what this means as far as my skills. Most employers, I have found, are interested to know that while I volunteered for the same hours as any of the full-time employees, my projects were often much more challenging and sporadic than they would have been if I were a full-time employee.
For instance, when an employee was forced to leave the country for a month to conduct her long-awaited adoption, I found myself picking up all of the projects that she’d left unfinished. This meant, in a nutshell, that I needed to quickly make connections, catch myself up to speed with her projects, and complete them, with very little supervision, in a way that would be satisfactory for her when she returned.
Whenever I tell this story to a potential employer, I always laugh and say that a volunteer is an employee without a job description. While this can be frustrating, it allowed me to gain such a variety of skills as editing speeches, building enormous agricultural hoop houses, using cartography software, and marketing our events. These kinds of skills, while they might not be as useful in your permanent field, are great for demonstrating just how versatile an employee you are and should be highlighted during interviews and on resumes.
What To Make Clear
When speaking with a potential employer, it’s important not only to discuss the skills that you learned while volunteering, but the dedication that you showed as a volunteer. Unfortunately, many people in the business world view volunteering as lightweight, or else as busy work until a “real job” comes along.
For many volunteers, of course, this is not true. What you need to make clear is that your volunteer work was much more of a lifestyle or job for you. There are a few talking points to mention, both in your resume and during any interview situations:
- Skills demonstrated
- Frequency of volunteering (hours per week)
- Duration of volunteer position
- Community or global effect of volunteer position
- Leadership during volunteerism
Notice especially the fifth element of your volunteer experience. Because volunteering is so unpredictable by nature, many employers are starting to realize that good leaders and volunteers are often one and the same.
It is very common during volunteer projects to have a very high turnover of volunteers, high expectations, and little resources. It is, therefore, a great idea to demonstrate any leadership roles you may have taken on as a volunteer in these conditions. What you want to them to understand is “If I can do this with nothing, just imagine what I can do for you.”
Want to learn more about marketing your volunteer abroad experience? Check out this article we wrote for GO! Overseas.
Photo credits: bpsusf and Colin & Sarah Northway.