Volunteering is a regularly-used word but a misunderstood act. Many people associate volunteering with working at soup kitchens or charity shops, or helping to build schools abroad. But there's a host of other possibilities.
I'm a busy person. I have a successful career in digital and search marketing where I head up a national team at a large global media agency. I'm a blogger on a number of sites, I volunteer with a youth charity to teach digital marketing and website skills and I love to travel and explore whenever possible. I'm desperately trying to learn to play squash, I'm an obsessive cook and baker and I'm supposedly learning the bass guitar – the list goes on.
I also try to volunteer as much as possible. Over the years I have volunteered in various activities. Some were personal while others contributed to making my career the success it is today. Here's but a few:
- Working at a holiday camp for socially deprived children for two-three weeks each summer when I was a teenager
- Teaching basic English language skills to Chinese refugees
- Volunteering in the marketing department of a global IT charity
- Guest blogging within the digital industry
So how does this mish-mash of work contribute to revolutionising your career? Let me break this down into five key points.
- Volunteering gives you a chance to practise and learn new skills
I was talking to my boyfriend about why I had the idea for this post, and why I feel strongly that everyone should volunteer at some point in their career. I started explaining a point about learning new skills, and he gave me the perfect example with which to illustrate it. He studied film production at university, which is great in theory but is also one of those skills that needs a lot of practise rather than theory in order to perfect. When he finished university, he volunteered to help out designing a local youth magazine. This required at least a working knowledge of Photoshop – something he didn't have. However, they had no funds, and he had the desire to learn. This gave him a purpose, and a place to practise those skills. He was slower, and probably not as good as a professional designer – but he cost nothing and was greatly enthusiastic. Compromise is the key within volunteering, and will lead to a win/win situation.
Approach a small company or charity that with requires the skills you're looking to develop or which has a direct relation to that industry. Don't wait for them to ask for volunteers – go up to them and put your hand up!
- Volunteering broadens your horizons
Volunteering allows you to pick up new skills and introduces you to people and situations you may not otherwise become familiar with. I have made lifelong contacts around the world by forcing myself into out-of-the-ordinary workplaces and situations. As a result I've been referred onto other work, and industry contacts, providing me with freelance work and wider experiences.
No voluntary position is too inconsequential or too scary – try something you normally wouldn't, and put yourself in new positions. It boosts confidence and adds some great potential career contacts to your little black book.
- It sets you apart from the crowd
Volunteering looks great on your resume, especially if it has boosted your skillset, or contributed to your knowledge about an industry. Jobseekers often don't realise that although their resume may have been absolutely on the money, if there are 100 other resumes to go through for the same position, it's the small things that help somebody gain an edge.
Add a volunteer position to your resume, and you have given yourself a competitive career edge. You have that extra little something to talk about in your interview and the "achievements" section on your resume takes on a whole new edge.
Review your resume as a potential employer might. Look beyond the obvious skillset and consider what related topic you could possibly gain more experience in through volunteering. If you are in traditional marketing, look to work with a charity that may need some help with its brand – if that allows you to gain digital as well as traditional marketing experience, that allows you to bring more to your role.
- It's a demonstration of your dedication and team spirit
People who volunteer tend to be dedicated, helpful and selfless. These are all qualities sought by potential employers.
My mother recently gave up a lot of her time to volunteer as a nurse at the London Olympics. This involved 10-12 hour night shifts, and using up most of her allotted holiday time from work. She has since retired from her previous job and is now taking a slight career change in the type of nursing she does. Her dedication to that voluntary work stands out on her resume and in the stories she can relate back to future employers.
Not all of us have the time and dedication to invest weeks in volunteering, but just an hour or two a month is still something to shout about. Start small and stick with it.
- It makes you feel good, and that shows!
Sharing your skills with others, doing something good for nothing, learning something new – they all contribute to a more motivated, happy and engaged worker. You will attack your daily work with more interest and gusto simply because you feel proud of yourself. As an indirect consequence of volunteering, the confidence boost will also influence your career progression.
Chat about your volunteering experiences openly, with colleagues or potential employers. It'll do wonders for your self-confidence and motivation. People are always interested in things they haven't tried and it's amazing what a bit of morale-building can do.