By Michael Carusi
As passionate as many people are about volunteering, I’ve found that many tend to segment it into a role outside of their working lives. Volunteering is something that exists as scheduled blocks of time in between sending resumes out, spending time at the office, and giving presentations. Sure, volunteering can make you feel better and provide a sense of enlightenment, but what tangible, visible effects can it have on your career?
Quite a few, actually.
The recession seemed to trigger some soul searching about the methods volunteering and community service with interesting results. Consider that volunteering can teach you critical skills for career advancement that you might otherwise learn on the job, giving you an advantage when applying for a position.
Also remember that nonprofits and volunteer-centric organizations often lack the hiring payrolls of a big company and real responsibilities are frequently delegated to volunteers or entry level associates. You’re almost always in a group setting which can be fantastic for networking. I could list the perks of volunteering until I ran out of room, but consider my initial career progression a case study.
I graduated in May of 2010 from American University all but assuring myself that I was above the dismal job figures. Several months and several hundred unanswered cover letters later I wasn’t so sure. It also didn’t help that I had very little direction in terms of what I wanted to do; “marketing” is a pretty broad term. That’s when I discovered AmeriCares. I knew by this point that I needed more marketable work experience and I fired off a resume after my parents suggested the organization.
In a refreshing change of pace from the average response time of never, I heard back from the hiring manager in less than an hour. One interview later I was at a desk as an AmeriCares volunteer and intern. I had myriad responsibilities that were my introduction to the tangible benefits of volunteering: I picked up skills in Microsoft Access and Excel, Google Analytics and I sharpened my already strong writing and research skills. On a more personal level, I also realized how petty it was to whine about not finding a cushy job when I saw the photos of what was happening in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake.
As it happens, one of my core responsibilities was day-to-day management of AmeriCares’ Facebook and Twitter pages. If you don’t have a marketing background, understand that if I were working for a big marketing firm, this type of responsibility is something that would take me five or six years to reach. Nonprofits and volunteer-centric organizations don’t have Burson-Marsteller’s hiring payroll; they rely much more heavily on people lower on the career leader for more integral responsibilities.
In many ways, AmeriCares was my first de facto client. Their social media presence was still blossoming, and I was fortunate enough to be able to help develop their web presence and content over several months. The experience culminated in my assisting with the social media response to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, when Facebook and Twitter traffic skyrocketed and gave me a real taste of the need for social media as a full-time, 24/7 job.
Far from being segmented into another part of my life, volunteering at AmeriCares changed my life forever. I gained direction and inspiration. I didn’t just create a job; I created a career that I could very well see myself spending my life in.
Mine isn’t an isolated story. Those same articles I linked above show multiple success stories of everybody from Millennials to Baby Boomers with volunteer work or even jobs at nonprofit organizations. This newspaper article summed it up beautifully: Job seekers should consider a new mantra: "Give back, and you shall receive." If anything positive came out of the recession, it’s that volunteering has taken a more integral role in peoples’ lives and they are understanding the rewards that come from it.
So remember: The hours you put in at your local shelter or the listing you apply for on VolunteerSquare isn’t a purely psychological perk. It may be a defining moment in your career. Trust me, I know.
Michael Carusi is a social media manager and consultant for a wide variety of organizations and businesses that want to rock their digital marketing, turn their customers into diehard fans, and make their social media the best it can be. He started his consulting business shortly after graduating from American University in 2010. He also volunteers and continues learning relevant skills from volunteering that help him in business.—Rachel Reese