Unsure if it's worth doing something for nothing?
Updated: Oct 3, 2021
How to volunteer in a way that moves your career redesign forward ...
WELCOME TO STRATEGIC VOLUNTEERING!
If volunteering only conjures images of a long-ago gap year under foreign skies or sheepishly petitioning local businesses for school raffle prizes, you’re missing a trick. Used strategically, volunteering can be a powerful weapon in your career redesign armoury.
The key is asking, not only “What can I GIVE, but what can I GET?”
Strategic Volunteering is all about giving back whilst ALSO using and developing your skills, gaining valuable experience, knowledge and contacts. Here’s what's you can gain from the right kind of volunteer role:
BUILD YOUR CONFIDENCE
If it’s a while since you were formally employed, you may feel like your confidence has taken a pounding. Volunteering can be a relatively pressure-free space to remind yourself of your vast skillset and realise (pretty darn quickly, I’ll bet) how hugely competent you are. It can be a great way to update your technical skills, get your team player hat back on and see the value you bring to a wide range of situations. It can make you feel productive and needed.
SUPERCHARGE YOUR CREDIBILITY
You worry about the dreaded career “gap” on your CV … whilst it shouldn’t (and often doesn’t) matter, if it’s getting in your way, some recent relevant volunteering experience may give you the credibility you’re looking for. It provides you with additional raw material for interviews – really up-to-date experiences to weave amongst your longer-standing achievements when you need to provide evidence of your strengths, skills, interests and commitment.
And if you’re making a career change and feel your previous work record doesn’t relate to the direction you now want to take, some volunteer experience in your new field could be powerful in helping you bridge that gap too.
TEST DRIVE YOUR IDEAS
Volunteering is a fantastic way to dip a toe into a new industry or sector that you’re curious about. You can Google the hell out of something, but nothing beats getting stuck in. You don’t want to throw huge amounts of time and money at a new career before you’re sure it’s right for you. Take it for a test drive first with some volunteer opportunities. Get ready to ask lots of questions and build a clearer picture of the organisation or profession to see if it really is what you’re imagining.
EXPAND YOUR CONTACTS
You may feel there’s something a bit – be honest - “menial” about a lot of volunteering. It’s quite possible your skills will initially be underused. Sadly you don’t get volunteer CEOs! But think of your volunteer work as a chance to make an impression and build your network. Yes, you might start by stuffing envelopes or showing people to their seats, but make it your mission to build relationships with people who can see all you have to offer in a more professional capacity. Once you’re in, offer your more extensive skills and look for further opportunities to shine. Get yourself front of mind, ready for when a paid job is coming up. Build a new network of people who will help you move your career redesign forwards.
THE PRACTICALITIES: WHERE TO START
For what you might think of as “traditional” community volunteering opportunities, an easy first step is to turn to your local council or county council website. Here’s an example for London, but a quick internet search will soon turn up your local equivalent.
Other classic volunteering roles, focused on charities, can be found here (or you can of course search direct on the websites of charities which particularly interest you):
The key is to select opportunities that match your skillset, and not just where you’re an extra pair of hands. Many websites now have a filter you can apply to narrow the kind of volunteer roles you’re after eg marketing, finance, comms, tech, healthcare.
Here are a couple of really creative ones that caught my eye:
POSITIONS OF RESPONSIBILITY
If you’re looking to flex your leadership muscles again, or take on something more “senior”, why not consider applying to become a charity trustee:
or a school governor:
or taking your skills onto a board of some kind:
GETTING CREATIVE: TAKING CONTROL
It’s vital to remember that volunteering opportunities are everywhere. And if you can’t find them, then go and create them … There’s nothing to stop you offering your services to anyone! Who doesn’t want a helping hand?
This is particularly powerful for career changers. Think of ways you can learn more about the industry you’re interested in, or practice your new growing skillset by offering it for free.
Target local businesses or organisations that you’re passionate about. So if culture and heritage are your thing, try approaching your local National Trust property, theatre, gallery, garden or museum and see what you can offer them. Don’t just google and give up. Identify key people and approach them direct.
Offer your skills to a local event – a book, film, food or music festival, a wedding fair, sports event, business conference … whatever sets your heart racing or where you sense a need for what you offer.
Approach local businesses or friends of friends. Keen to learn more about physiotherapy but you’re a digital marketing specialist? Why not offer to create an Instagram account for the physiotherapy studio down the road and see what you learn about their work in the process?
Working as an accountant but want to be a wedding photographer? Why not offer to run a tax return workshop for members of the local photography society and see what contacts you can build?
Get creative and go and have some fun! Remember, this is a journey of discovery. Not everything will fall brilliantly into place, not everyone will say yes, but the more you step into new places and situations, the more you allow the career gods a little room to manoeuvre.