Volunteering as a Career Advancement Strategy: A Win-win

“Love cannot remain by itselfit has no meaning. Love has to be put into action, and that action is service” (St. Teresa of Calcutta).

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I’m a volunteering addict.

It sounds like false humility, like one of those lines people give hiring managers in a job interview — “What’s your greatest weakness?” “I’m a perfectionist!” — but I’ve had to learn to balance the service I want to provide the Church and my community with my very real time limitations.

That said, I value the volunteer commitments I do make. I love serving on a nonprofit board of directors. I love coaching kids with disabilities. I love being the managing editor at Catholic Women in Business.

I love seeing the impact one person can make on the community, and I love trying, in my small ways (much as it frustrates me sometimes not to have big ways), to make a difference.

However, and I realize when I say this that it may sound opportunistic, I also love the benefits volunteering has had for my career. I graduated from college nine years ago with a degree in psychology and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I accepted the first good, somewhat relevant job offer I received and then used volunteer work to start discerning my career path. That work included a lot of writing, because writing is something I’ve always loved doing. When it finally occurred to me to try to make a living at it, I’d built up a fairly good portfolio — one that I used to get a job in marketing and then editing.

Career advancement shouldn’t be the primary reason you volunteer. You’ll burn out quickly, and as Christians, we are called to give without thought of receiving. That said, if you’re early in your career or looking to transition into a new one, volunteering can be a great way to do so. Here are five tips to make volunteering both a resume-builder and an authentic gift of yourself.

1. Find Something You’re Passionate About

It took me a while to narrow down what I wanted to focus my volunteer work on. Every time I read a story about an injustice, I felt moved to action — so what was my niche?

Something might have already popped into your head as an area you want to explore in volunteer work, but if you’re like me and wish you had more hours in your day to help everyone and save the world, try:

  • Praying: Before you commit to an organization, spend some time in prayer. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your decision.

  • Making a list: What are some local organizations and ministries that have sparked your interest?

  • Paying attention to your conversations: Which current events or social problems do you get heated when you talk about?

  • Listening when God calls: What random opportunities or topics repeatedly come across your path? Maybe they’re not random after all.

I went to a women’s college and have worked in female-dominated workplaces ever since. I’ve worked on research into women’s leadership development and spoken at conferences on the topic. I have four chronic illnesses, three of which are either gynecologic conditions or predominantly female conditions. I’ve developed a passion for serving Catholic women partly through my own personality and partly through happenstance. God keeps dropping opportunities like my volunteer positions with FemCatholic and Catholic Women in Business in my lap, and it’s through these opportunities that I’ve discovered a mission.

2. Identify Skills You Want to Offer and Develop

Ideally, your volunteer work will leverage skills you already have and help you nurture and develop them more. It will not only give a nonprofit the benefits of your gifts but help you build a portfolio of experience that you can use to find a new job or advance in your current one.

Skills nonprofits need (and help develop) include:

  • Marketing and public relations

  • Fundraising (sales)

  • Finance and accounting

  • Mentoring or coaching

  • Strategic planning

  • Public speaking

  • Event planning

  • Administrative support and office management

  • Graphic design

  • Web development

3. Manage Your Time

Sometimes, you’ll have to say no. You can only give so much without burning out or spreading yourself so thin that you can’t give anything of value. Keep in mind your limitations, and don’t take on too much.

To give your best work to the organizations you do say yes to, learn how to manage your time. There are a variety of tools to help, from simple note-taking systems and paper-and-pen planners to online calendars and digital productivity tools. Find something that works for you, and prioritize your tasks based on your values, your commitments, and yours and your family’s needs. If you drop a ball, apologize, try to make it better and then let it go.

4. Become a Leader

Volunteering for a nonprofit organization is a great way to develop leadership skills. You might start as a tutor at an educational nonprofit, then join the program development committee and then the board. Maybe you join the church choir and a pro-life committee and then the parish council. Employers look not just for business leadership but nonprofit leadership as well.

If you’ve been out of the workforce for a while, maybe as a stay-at-home mom, you can leverage volunteer leadership (maybe you served on the PTA board?) to find a job. Those skills you developed are relevant, and employers are starting to recognize them as valuable.

5. Look for Training Opportunities

Many organizations offer training for nonprofit leaders. For instance, about a year ago, I joined the board of directors of The Power of the Dream, a nonprofit organization working to support employment for adults with autism or intellectual/developmental disabilities in the Raleigh, NC area. I’d been volunteering with the organization for a while, helping in an entrepreneurship workshop and starting its blog. Last year, through my service, I had the opportunity to participate in a board leadership “boot camp,” where I learned about topics like nonprofit leadership, running board meetings, and nonprofit sustainability — all of which are also topics that could come in handy in business, too.

Growing your career is not the primary reason you should volunteer. You should volunteer because you care about other people and want to help. But everyone loves a win-win, and volunteering is a great one.

Taryn Oesch, managing editor of Catholic Women in Business and owner of Everyday Roses Editorial, LLC, is a writer in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she writes and speaks about women’s issues for a variety of publications and conferences. Her role models are all named Teresa, and she keeps discovering new ways they influence her work and her life. When not writing or editing, Taryn is typically reading Jane Austen, drinking Earl Grey, and spending time with family and friends. She is a contributing writer to FemCatholic.com and an active member of the Raleigh Catholic Young Adults, where she leads a women’s Bible study and plays the piano and flute for monthly Holy Hours. You can follow Taryn on Twitter, on Instagram, on Facebook, and on her blog Everyday Roses.