Getting into your professional career can be daunting for a multitude of reasons. One of the most sizable factors that contributes to this pressure-packed time of life is figuring out where to start. How are you supposed to really know what you want to be when you grow up? Where do you look to gain the experience needed to help you answer that ever-looming question?
It may feel like the first job we take out of school is binding us to a lifelong contract. While, logically, we know this isn't the case, that natural feeling creates this sense of unnecessary urgency that seemingly screams,
“YOU NEED TO KNOW EXACTLY WHAT YOU WANT TO DO FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE AND YOU NEED TO KNOW THAT NOW!”
That’s just not the case.
So we return to that initial query, how do you figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life?
To help answer this question we call on the far too often overlooked, but all too powerful, deed of volunteering.
But what exactly is volunteering? Besides being the underdog of excellent experience, volunteering, by definition, is the act of “freely offering to do something.” What that something is, is up to you. Volunteering can look like many different things. It can look like donating blood, being a Little League Coach, picking up trash on the beach, serving food at a soup kitchen or even helping out around your office or school. Volunteering can be done in formal settings with established organizations like Best Buddies International or Feeding America, or it can also be done more informally like tutoring kids at your local library or offering other skills and services you have for free.
You may be wondering if volunteering is worth it, though. Not in the sense of whether or not lending your time to others is a nice thing to do (helping others out is always a nice thing to do), but rather in the sense of whether or not volunteering has any meaningful impact on your resume and the strength of your application. Again, speaking logically, the thought that real-world work experience trumps all is a reasonable thought to have. However, real-world experience should not, and realistically, cannot be the only type of experience you have if you want to be competitive in the job market. In fact, according to a LinkedIn survey, 41% of recruiters consider volunteer work just as valuable.
Because of my background in baseball, I admittedly view statistics through a skewed lens. In baseball, a hitter with a 30 percent success rate throughout his career will land in the Hall of Fame. So a survey that says over 40 percent of employers view volunteer work as just as valuable as professional experience, is legendary. What I’m getting at, is 41 percent is a substantial amount.
For graduates, volunteering offers a unique opportunity to add layers to your resume and it shows employers that you're someone who takes initiative. Not only does volunteering help you become a more well-rounded applicant on paper, but it also helps you learn what you like and don't like, which is wildly valuable information to gather before diving into your full-time career.
I’d be remiss not to also emphasize the importance of volunteering for those who are well-established in their careers. While you may have a pretty clear picture of what your profession looks like, volunteering can act as a way for you to improve on existing skills, learn new ones and even develop fresh interests.
If I’ve learned anything from my parents’ recent retirement, it's that beautifully aged dogs (certainly not old dogs, right mama?) can learn new tricks. And even if you’re at the peak of your career, there are always new tricks to learn and volunteering can act as the perfect teacher.
So, wherever you are in life, whether you’re in school, out of school, on the job hunt or immersed in a great profession, volunteering can be the missing piece to take your career to the next level. It’s got seemingly endless benefits, many of which often get overlooked, but luckily for you, those benefits are just what we're jumping into next!
The Benefits of Volunteering
Gaining Hands-on Experience
As the old adage goes, “practice makes perfect,” and our careers are no different. When we want to develop a new skill or sharpen an existing one, one of the best ways to do that is to take a page out of Nike’s playbook and simply “just do it.” Volunteering is a low barrier to entry and provides an opportunity for gaining meaningful experience. If you’ve always toyed with the idea of getting into politics and public service, but aren't sure you’re ready to make the jump, signing up to volunteer on an upcoming campaign can give you a first-hand look into that world. Similarly, if you want to venture into the expansive world of information technology, offer to help with technology issues at your local community center. Chances are, they will welcome you with open arms and just might make you mayor for a day for teaching them the invaluable “turn it off, then turn it back on again” trick.”
Connecting with New People
In the United States alone, there are nearly 2 million nonprofit organizations in domains such as religion, education, STEM, sports, social welfare and much more. So, just by playing the odds, there is bound to be an organization in a field of your interest looking for volunteers. When you volunteer, you get the opportunity to meet like-minded people who are interested in many of the same things you are. By volunteering at your local pet shelter each Saturday morning, for example, you organically build relationships with the staff and other volunteers there. While you may love animals but may not have any interest in working at a shelter full-time, the relationships you build can lead to new connections that can help you further your career. At the very least, you may come out with some new lifelong friends.
It’s important to note that to build meaningful relationships, your interactions cannot be just transactional. You cannot and should not, simply ask only what other people can do for you. By all means, ask for help when you need it, but also be sure to extend your own helping hand when others are in need.
Exploring Your Passions
Volunteering provides a magnificent landscape for you to dive into the things that you're passionate about. If you're not sure what it is that ignites your fire yet, volunteering can help shine some light on that too. If you're interested in early education, volunteering at an after-school program or daycare, may be a good place to start. If you think law enforcement may be your calling, there are several opportunities to give back to your community as a civilian volunteer. In any case, volunteering gives you a first-hand look at how organizations are run. Through these experiences, you get the opportunity to try out new roles in environments you may want to be part of. You may discover your calling, or you may discover that that job or industry wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Remember, discovering what you don't like is just as important as discovering what you do like!
Supercharging Your Existing Skills
You can certainly discover new skills through volunteering, but volunteering also allows you to sharpen many of your existing ones. Contributing your time to an organization lets you hone in on those communication, teamwork, and leadership skills of yours. No matter how closely aligned your volunteering experience is to what you do or hope to do in your career, the skills you are practicing like the ones listed above as well as your organization, time management, and problem-solving skills, will most certainly translate into your profession and help you supercharge your career.
The Skills You Can Acquire Through Volunteering
Volunteering doesn’t only help others in your community, it can also help you grow both personally and professionally. Let's dive deeper into a few of the many skills you can develop through volunteering:
Teamwork and Collaboration
Just about all volunteering opportunities will have you working with a group of people, and this cadre collaboration comes back tenfold when you are looking to supercharge your career. Working on a team gives you valuable experience in partnering with others to solve problems, work toward common goals and communicate effectively. These skills are highly sought after by employers and more importantly, provide a great foundation for many other areas of life.
Problem Solving and Adaptability
I am a big believer in the idea of practicality over perfection because of its application to so many aspects of life. While in ideal circumstances, the fundraising event you volunteered to lead or the free seminar you are putting on at your local library will go off without any hiccups, chances are not everything will go to plan. Now, as much of a “glass half full” kind of guy as I am, I think it’s important to embrace the reality of the unknown and accept that some things are out of your control. But this reality presents a fantastic opportunity to be able to learn how to think on your feet and adapt to whatever situation life throws at you. When you volunteer, regardless of your role and the organization you work with, you will come across some surprises that you will have to work through. You may need to find additional funding for new computers at your community center or you may need to come up with innovative ways to connect different members of your community. In any case, volunteering will present you with endless chances to problem solve and adapt to changing circumstances; both skills that are essential to leading a successful career.
Other Valuable Skills Gained From Volunteering
Planning and Prioritization
Improved Interpersonal Skills
The reality is, you don't need to know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life, but if you’re looking for a bit more clarity, volunteering is a great place to start. Whether you’re just getting into your first job or well-established in your career, volunteering provides incredible ways to meet new people, give back to your community and gain meaningful experience to supercharge your personal and professional life. Like anything, you get out of volunteering what you put in, and by taking initiative, you can create an exceptional experience for yourself and the people you work with. Volunteering is a great way to help yourself while you're helping others.