Volunteer work helps your career while you help others

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We are entering the age of volunteerism. Generation X has shifted charity from the hierarchical, corporate-backed methods of the Red Cross and United Way, to a grassroots, episodic volunteerism of, say, tutoring neighborhood children. And Generation Y is donating more of their time to charitable causes than perhaps any generation in history. According Leslie Lenkowsky, professor at The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, 90% of college-bound high school students volunteer.

Young people are determined to make a difference; they accept only a mission that is close to the heart and take action only when they can get their arms around the whole project. These attitudes affect choice of both charity and career, and increasingly the two overlap in ways that finally dignify the word “synergy”.

Melissa Krodman graduated from Boston University with a communications degree and joined a casting agency in England. But she found that industry was no match for her values. She wanted to do something larger in media, but she wasn't sure what. “Also,” she says, “I was faxing and doing things where I wasn't learning very much.” So she moved back to the United States to regroup, and she volunteered at What’s Up magazine.

Bruce Tulgan studies the working lives of young people, and he sees Krodman's criteria as typical for recent entrants into the workforce. “Mission is especially important for both career and charity, but then they want to know what they'll be doing. They ask, What will I learn? Who will I work with?”

In many cases, volunteering can add both mission and key experience to one's work life. Enter episodic volunteering: short-term, project-based, local, and hands-on, this is the type of charity that can improve your karma as well as your career.

Aaron Hurst is president and founder of the Taproot Foundation, which provides ways for people to donate their skills to discreet projects for nonprofit organizations. He says, “In the first ten or fifteen years of a career people have limited money giving ability but can give a relatively significant donation of time and skills. The average Taproot volunteer donates five to seven thousand dollars in work, and they could have never given that much in cash.”

For some volunteers, time with a nonprofit can shine light on a true calling. Krodman explains that, “For a long time I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. Volunteering at What's Up gave me a much more clear focus. What's Up introduced me to media that inspires activism. That's a part of the picture I didn't have.”

Even those who know their true calling can expand their skill set by volunteering for challenging projects. Hurst says, “Experiential learning is the best way to teach adults, especially when it comes to soft skills like leadership. Law firms have used pro bono work as a great training tool, and now it's spreading to other industries.” Hurst gives an example of a graphic designer for Hewlett Packard who had used the same font and colors for five years. Volunteering was a good way to stretch his design skills.

One of the most frustrating aspects of an entry-level job is the lack of responsibility. Krodman points out that volunteering is a good way to gain responsibility fast: “In an organization where you have bosses and work for someone else there is a certain amount of climbing you have to do. At What's Up, I am my own boss and I get to do work that I would not get to do at a big corporation until years down the line.”

And no matter where you are in your career, volunteering is a way to build a network. A typical Taproot branding project, for example, combines a project manager, brand strategist, graphic designer, and copywriter, each from a different company.

This benefit is not lost on Krodman. She used the contacts she made through volunteer work at What's Up magazine to find her ideal job — one that provides solid mission as well as solid salary. But what would she do if she landed that dream job and didn't have to work at cafes to pay rent? “Volunteer more,” she says. “There's so much to be done.”

10 replies
  1. Diana
    Diana says:

    “90% of college-bound high school students volunteer.”

    As a recent college grad (class of 2005), I can safely say that most of those 90% of high school students who volunteer do it to get into college. Colleges want to see a broad spectrum of extracurricular activities, and volunteering makes your application look better. Also consider that the impressive-sounding National Honor Society requires volunteer work every semester.

    I don’t mean to sound cynical, but I doubt that alot of those kids who volunteer in high school continue to do so once they’ve gone college, started working, etc.

    Now that I have that out of the way… I completely agree with you. I started volunteering in college with Habitat for Humanity and another local housing improvement organization. When I graduated and I had less time on my hands, I committed to volunteering once a week at The Habitat Store, whose environmentally and socially responsible mission is something I feel very strongly about. I’ve been doing that consistently for about a year now, and I’ve made some really great friends and done some low-key networking.

    I did start volunteering because I wanted to help the community, but had a reasonable amount of free time and zero cash to donate. And it makes me feel good about myself, I won’t lie. I’m just one of those people who really wants to be helpful. ;) I don’t like to brag about it (I hope I don’t come off as doing that now!), but it’s a personal pride of mine that I’ve been able to get out and volunteer so consistently.

    And of course, where I choose to spend my time volunteering is related to what I want to do with my life. As I mentioned above, The Habitat Store’s environmentally and socially responsible mission really appealed to me, and as a (hopeful) future architect, I would focus my studies on sustainable, green, affordable housing.

    I hope that I will always be able to make volunteering part of my life… I find it so much more rewarding than cutting a check every year. It’s great to actually interact with the people you’re helping, know their names, and share the joy of giving their families a better place to live.

  2. Paulette
    Paulette says:

    I agree that volunteerism is a vital part of society. Non-profits couldn’t function as successfully without their army of volunteers. On a personal note, it allows me to play a small part in contributing to society. No matter what you may think it does make a difference. It makes me proud to help in some small way (given that, I too, can’t give as much money as I would like).

    By birth, I straddle the “baby boom/gen-x” segment. I, too, have realized the importance of “giving back”. I volunteer with a couple of organizations and the satisafaction I received was the impetus to a career change. Now I am embarking on a a career (with another degree) in public relations. This will enable me to pursue my goal of working in community relations.

  3. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Diana, I think you’re right that most students volunteer so their college application looks good. But there’s a silver lining to that, which is that people learn how good volunteering feels, and how much it can help you in your worklife, as well, so people continue volunteering even after their college applications are done.

  4. snand
    snand says:

    you are doing great by making so many like us refresh ourselves by going through your messages.
    could you write your views on happiness at workplace.
    am doing some work on same and will share as it takes shape.

  5. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Oh, I write about happiness in the workplace all the time. Type happiness into the “search” field on the sidebar. Or, for my pet source on the happiness topic, type in Daniel Gilbert.

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