University of Minnesota
Office of Human Resources

Volunteering: A Win/Win

by Teri Spillers, Career Consultant

How do I get the experience I want or need? How do I find more meaning and value in what I do? Where do I connect with people that share my interests and values? How can I make a difference? These are familiar questions posed by job-seekers, potential career-changers, and employees who want something new without leaving their current position.

One answer to these questions is volunteering. Volunteering is a easy way to build knowledge, skills and abilities, connect with like-minded people, and have opportunities to make a difference to individuals or impact social change. It can be both a personal and professional growth tool.

Volunteering offers you an opportunity to:

  • Experiment with little risk and limited commitment
    Volunteering gives you a chance to try new skills without risking your job and income or to enhance skills you may not have used in a while.
  • "Try On" a new career
    Volunteering before making a career-change offers a chance to really understand what is required for the profession and to see if it is a "good fit" for you. You can then update your resume with related skills needed to enter the new profession.
  • Receive formal and on-the-job training.
    Many volunteer organizations provide initial and on-going training. Identify organizations that provide training in areas you want to develop.
  • Boost confidence and self-esteem
    Volunteering helps you develop the confidence to try skills in other arenas. Knowing that your skills are valued and being able to contribute to your community can be a tremendous confidence boost and can enhance your sense of identity, especially if you are not finding satisfaction from your job or if you are looking for a job.
  • Pursue activities of your choice
    Consider finding a form of involvement that allows you to fulfill your dreams by tapping into the "inner you". Ask yourself: What causes or issues matter the most to me? What am I passionate about? Find out what cause is closest to your heart and make a difference.
  • Build networking contacts
    Connecting with others who share your interests and values is an incredible opportunity and benefit of volunteering. Volunteering can also be an excellent testimony of what you offer to an organization. People you meet through volunteering may be able to connect you with resources and job leads and may be willing to vouch for your work quality and character.
  • Be appreciated and recognized for your work
    Many organizations plan volunteer events to celebrate work done by volunteers in that organization. Volunteer coordinators or supervisors can provide you with recommendation letters documenting your involvement and work. If a performance review is not a regular part of your volunteer program, ask for one!

Here are some tips for making a volunteer experience work for you:

  • Think creatively
    Most of us picture volunteering as direct service (e.g., working in a soup kitchen). Non profits and community organizations also need help with other aspects of their organization, such as administration, grant writing, computer programming, word processing, mentoring, working with animals, project management, writing a newsletter, teaching, building a house, event planning, fund raising, advocating at the capital, working with school districts, consulting, and more.
  • Focus your efforts
    Identify skills to develop and set specific goals. If your goal is to develop networking contacts, find a volunteer agency where you can work closely with other volunteers.
  • Choose opportunities carefully
    Agencies differ in many ways including the training they offer, the skills they expect volunteers to bring, and the opportunities they provide. Be clear with the volunteer coordinator about your goals and expectations and work together to identify options.
  • Don't ignore internal opportunities to volunteer
    University and departmental committees offer excellent opportunities to develop skills and network on campus. Some examples include the Civil Service Committee, Academic Staff Advisory Committee, Capital Campaign, Mentor Connection through the Alumni Association, Office for University Women, United Way Campaign. Bargaining units (e.g., AFSCME, Teamsters) also offer many opportunities to get involved.
  • Set up a realistic volunteer schedule
    With careful planning, volunteering can be a part of even the busiest schedule. The opportunities exist on and off-campus, maybe even in your own community. You can volunteer on a one-time or on-going basis. You can even share this experience with friends and family members, so you don't need to sacrifice time spent with loved ones. Choose experiences that fit your lifestyle and make sense to you. Be candid about how much time you can realistically commit and stick to your limit.
  • Know what to expect when contacting an agency
    Most agencies will want to know more about your background, qualifications, and experiences. Expect to complete a written volunteer application form and an interview. Depending on the type of agency and your assignment, you may be asked to sign a confidentiality statement, agree to a criminal background check, and/or receive training.
  • Update your resume
    Experience is experience, whether you were paid or not paid. Update your resume with the new knowledge, skills, abilities, and training you have gained.

The true beauty of volunteering is that you can define what you want to do, where and when you can do it, and who you want to include in the experience. All this and the satisfaction of making a difference - that is truly a win/win.

Volunteering Resources:

Other resources may include Community Centers, Chamber of Commerce, School Districts, and Religious/Spiritual organizations.