I think about volunteering the same way most of us think about fruits and vegetables – important to your health, good for your future and, every once in a while, the last thing you want added to your day. No one talks about it but I've seen it as both a volunteer supervisor and as a volunteer myself. However great the cause, however much you care, some days you just want to stay in bed. After all, they're not paying you so what does it matter if you miss a day or two?
What professional volunteer coordinators know is that volunteering isn't just good for showing the world you're a good person who cares about others: Choosing to volunteer builds skills you might otherwise not have the opportunity to develop, making you immensely more attractive to future employers and colleges. If you volunteer with young students at a religious school or daycare, for example, you will be better at working with young students than someone with no experience but that commitment also adds to your organizational ability, proves to potential employers that you are responsible and able to do self-directed work and shows your commitment to causes outside your normal purview.
In addition, peer mentoring or tutoring (paid or unpaid) adds to your employability. First, it shows that you are good at working with other people – a requirement for many jobs – and second, many employment opportunities (from consulting to banking to physical therapy) require that employees can clearly and concisely explain their point of view to others. Teaching someone how to do a math problem may be as applicable to your career in management consulting as any classes you took in college: It's a transferable skill that you will use again and again.
Finally, if you are interested in working in the industry that you're volunteering in, there's a good chance that you'll be considered an internal candidate for any job opportunities that come up. That usually means that your application will be read before outside candidates (even if they have more direct experience) and often increases your chances of getting an interview. Besides, if you've done good work, you've effectively gained an extra (positive) reference so think about your time volunteering as an extended job interview.
On that note, go forth and volunteer! As a former volunteer supervisor, I know we welcome the help but you're probably getting as much from it as we are.
Liz Coffin-Karlin grew up in Sarasota, Florida where the sun is always shining and it’s unbearably hot outside. She went to college at Northwestern University and after studying Spanish and history, she decided to study abroad in Buenos Aires. In college, she worked on the student newspaper (The Daily Northwestern), met people from all over the world at the Global Engagement Summit and, by her senior year, earned the title of 120-hour dancer at NU’s annual Dance Marathon. She currently works in Buenos Aires on freedom of speech issues but is thinking about returning to the U.S. for a job in urban education.
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