Don't Overlook VolunteeringMany job seekers overlook the value of volunteering for building relationships and career opportunities. Some think their time is too valuable for volunteering; they don’t want to give away a skill for free that they’re hoping to get paid for.

Others think any time spent volunteering takes away time that could be used for job seeking.

Still others may not think their skills are needed in volunteer work, or they simply don’t see how it can help their careers.

First of all, you should be getting paid — and paid well — for your skills. But if that’s just not happening at the current time, volunteering can help you move in that direction. Consider any time spent volunteering as marketing yourself, which technically counts as energy well spent in a job search.

As for your skills not being needed, well, that’s just not true. You might not see immediately how your skills can translate to volunteering, but take a look at the needs around you and you’ll soon see you can help in many ways.

I’ve lived in several states, and each time I move, the first place I start with my new career is by volunteering. One reason is that it helps you forget the “poor me” attitude of being unemployed and helps you build confidence in yourself. Let’s face it; helping others makes us feel good. The second reason is that it truly helps you find a job, no matter what your experience level is.

Here’s how volunteering can help you build relationships, experience — and career opportunities:


1. It Introduces You to the Community

This allows you to better understand the needs of the people and businesses around you.

Say you’re looking for a job in education, and you’ve spent the entire summer tutoring at-risk children and helping them improve their reading skills. During interviews, you’ll be able to explain what you learned about the needs of these children and how the techniques you used could also work in your classroom. This will put you far above applicants who have never worked with at-risk children and don’t have the results to show for it.


2. It Helps Fill In the Blanks On Your Resume

Employers will ask what you did for those six months you were between jobs, and answering with “I played video games” probably won’t impress them.

Imagine you took your “time off” between jobs and used it to make a difference. Instead of playing video games, you volunteered as a youth sports coach. You can explain to potential employers how this helped improve your leadership and organizational skills, and they’ll see that you understand continuous education can come from a variety of experiences.


3. It Shows You Take Initiative

You don’t just sit back and complain about a problem; you step up and help out for the greater good. Employers want employees who are engaged and committed, as well as problem-solvers and those willing to step up when help is needed. Volunteering proves your ability in these areas.

Let’s say you’re looking for a job in construction or interior design, and you realize a women’s shelter in town is in desperate need of remodeling. Imagine what potential employers would think if you volunteered to help the shelter raise funds for a remodel or offered your services at no charge to help make over the shelter. It would show you’re an out-of-the-box thinker who gets results, and employers love seeing this type of initiative.


4. It Introduces You To a Wider Network of People

Ever heard of “it’s not what you know but who you know”? People who volunteer come from a wide variety of backgrounds — and better yet, people who volunteer like to help! By sharing your career ambitions with other volunteers, they just might be able to introduce you to a hot job opportunity.

Let’s say you’re interested in an environmental science job, but you’re struggling to find the right company. While you’re looking, you volunteer at the local recycling facility. You go out of your way to make small talk with patrons as you help them unload their vehicles, and you have conversations with the other volunteers about how you’re passionate about the environment and what you want to do for a career.

Not everyone you cross paths with will have a job opportunity for you, but if you show you’re a positive person and hard worker, you’re likely to get leads you wouldn’t have found on your own.


5. It Builds Your References

Any good volunteer organizer or director knows the importance of thanking their volunteers and singing their praises. If you volunteer your skills or expertise and do it well, you’ll have no problem getting a glowing reference.

If you volunteer your project management skills to organize a fundraising dinner for an art gallery, not only will you gain experience and meet new people, but the art gallery director will likely thank you publicly. Maybe she’ll mention your name in the event brochures, signage or press release. She might even give you a verbal thank you in front of the attendees. If you did a great job, people will want to meet you and learn more about you. That’s when you can hint that you’re available for hire!


6. It Boosts Your Experience

Organizations looking for volunteers are grateful for any help they can get, so even if you’re not an expert in your field, your skills will be appreciated and you’ll probably get the chance to try things you’ve never done before.

There are lots of organizations that need help with websites and social media, for instance. If you’re looking to build your skills in website design or marketing, you’ll be in hot demand. Maybe you’re familiar with social media but you’ve never managed an account for a business. Volunteer to help the local animal shelter set up a Facebook account and administer posts for them. You could even help them develop social media guidelines for employees. This will give you credible experience to add to your resume.


How to Leverage Volunteering for Career Success

Now that you understand why you should volunteer and how it can help you build relationships and skills, let’s explore some tips to make the most of volunteering.


1. Hone In On Your Dream Career

Think about what skills and expertise you need to get the job you truly want. Are there any skills you still need to develop or any people you should get to know?

Try to think creatively. If you want to be in sales, then you don’t just need to know how to write an invoice; you’ll need good people skills as well. What type of volunteer work could you do that will get you lots of face time with people?


2. Do Your Research

Think local as well as global when you start looking for organizations that could use your help. Learn more about them and what their needs are. These national websites are a good start for finding available volunteer opportunities:

Remember, you may not find a posted opportunity that’s right for you, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Try contacting organizations directly or asking friends and family if they know of any needs you could fill. An organization might not even know they need your skills until you explain what you can do for them.


3. Reach Out

The number one reason most people give for why they’ve never volunteered is that they were never asked. Don’t wait around for a personal invitation; step up and offer to help.


4. Be Honest

Don’t mislead anyone about your skills, experience or intended time commitment. It’s in everyone’s best interests to have a clear understanding of offerings and expectations.


5. Document Your Results

Keep track of your successes in volunteering, as well as any challenges you were able to learn from. Remember, you’re using these experiences to help boost your employability, so make the most of your time and give 110%.

Include your volunteer experience on your resume, LinkedIn profile and in your cover letters when appropriate.


6. Be Grateful

Don’t forget you’re getting something out of the volunteer experience as well. Thank the organization for letting you be a part of its mission and goals.

Volunteering is truly a win-win for all involved. (Like this thought? Tweet it!) Share your passion with a deserving organization to build valuable career experience and networking opportunities.

Whether you’re moving to a new community, just starting out in a new career field or find yourself unexpectedly unemployed, opportunities are all around you to start building your resume and making the most of the situation. Make the choice today to volunteer for your own career.

Have you volunteered in the past? What lessons and opportunities did you gain from the experience? Share with us in the comments!

Image: Ängsbacka Kursgård on Flickr