By CATEY HILL
Restless with his> part-time public relations job, Stephen Anfield, 30, began volunteering in the AARP's Washington, D.C., office about a year ago. It wasn't easy: On top of his 30-hour work-week, Anfield put in another 10 to 15 hours writing blog posts, making and printing PowerPoint presentations, and other office tasks. "It was like what you'd do at a typical job," he says. But after six months, he found a new job courtesy of a referral from an AARP staffer. "It's not the typical way to get a job, but it worked for me."
With unemployment still at its one of the highest levels since the Great Depression, some job seekers are adding another tactic to their traditional job search: volunteering. "It definitely is happening more," says Dan Ryan, a staffing expert and panelist for the Society of Human Resource Management and a principal at staffing firm Ryan Search & Consulting. No one tracks volunteers' motives precisely, of course, but after years of declines, volunteerism is up about 3% in the last three years a small percentage, but one that represents an additional 2 million volunteers, for about 63 million American volunteers total.
Many are passionate about a cause; others are just passing time. But some career coaches and recruiters are advising job-seekers to volunteer for more strategic reasons: It's an outside shot at a full-time job. "Volunteering is a differentiator," says R.J. Morris, the corporate director of staffing for McCarthy Building Companies, one of the largest commercial building firms in the U.S. "It shows initiative and that you're active in your desired career field."
Of course, using a volunteer post as a conduit to a full-time gig is far from a sure bet. Nor is it a short cut. It takes diligence and patience to find the right slot at the right organization; then you need to work hard enough to see results and develop a good reputation all of which takes time. If that sounds like a lot of work, that's because it can be. "We're looking for volunteers who treat it like a job," says Simon Tam, the marketing manager for the Oregon affiliate of the "I Have a Dream" Foundation, which helps give children access to higher education. "You can't just do nothing."
Even so, in today's hypercompetitive job market, experts say it can be worth a shot, especially if it allows a job-seeker to identify measurable achievement a fund-raising goal met, or new skills learned. Also as Morris points out, volunteering can demonstrate energy and ambition, which can be especially critical for people who are out of work already. Furthermore, the right volunteer opportunity can add to your skill set and broaden your network, says Marci Alboher, vice president of Civic Ventures, a think tank focusing on employment for baby boomers all of which never hurts in a job search.
Here's how to strategically volunteer to land a paying gig.
Pick your cause carefully
Let's be honest: This is not an exercise in civic virtue at least, not fully. While you might enjoy reading to children at the local library or handing out bagels at the end of a charity 10-K, neither is likely to help you get a job in finance. Instead, find a volunteer position that relates to your chosen field, suggests Artie Lynnworth, author of "Slice the Salami - Tips for Life and Leadership, One Slice at a Time." The Taproot Foundation matches professionals who have experience in human resources, management, marketing or information technology with nonprofits who need the expertise; VolunteerMatch.org, provides broader matching services.
But for once-and-future high-level professionals, even a position in your chosen field may be humbling. Many organizations rely on volunteers for administrative work or manual labor: Marketing pros might be asked to make copies; a public relations executive might find herself taking coats at an event. And in order to make sure volunteers represent the organization well, fund-raisers may have to work with a staff member on how to make sales calls, said Tam even those who have done this hundreds of times in the past.
Trade your time for new skills
Because they're not paying you, a non-profit organization may be more willing to let you take on new tasks or learn new skills in ways a paying employer might not encourage. Tam, who has trained volunteers in dozens of national organizations, has taught them everything from how to give a presentation to how to operate a sound or lighting system to how to ask a sponsor for donations. To your benefit, you learn new skills that can bolster your CV, and do it in a low-risk environment, says Lynnworth. "You can fail a few times without risking your job."
Getting on this learning curve, though, is rarely immediate, says Tam. Volunteers typically spend hours helping with tasks that they already have skills or time for; only in exchange, will the organization will also teach new skills, experts say. Because while volunteers do donate their time, unless the organization has a specific training program, it probably has its own institutional goals to meet that take priority you're your career development. As such, when you inquire about opportunities, it's important to also reference the skills you already have, not just the ones you're looking to learn.
One of the biggest benefits of volunteering may be meeting new people board members, employees, other volunteers who can help you find a new or better job. But that doesn't happen overnight. "You won't always have instant access to everyone, especially board members," says Lynnworth. And not only might they be hard to reach, you'll also have to impress them with your dedication, consistency and work product. Only then are these people likely to be references for you or introduce you to people who can help you land a job. They may even hire you themselves, says Alboher.
To improve the odds, "volunteer at places where your [potential] clients also volunteer," says career coach Laura Rose. Habitat for Humanity may be a good fit for construction professionals or architects; A struggling sales pro might want to find a spot at doing fundraising for a national organization like the American Cancer Society. In any case, apply the same creativity and initiative you would in a paying job, says Alboher. That often means putting in time, recruiting other volunteers, and even identifying organizational needs and helping to raise money for them. You may even be able to create a job for yourself by pointing out a job that the organization needs and creating funding for it, by say, writing a grant.
Correction: Marci Alboher's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.