Volunteering to Benefit Your Career

Last week I blogged about volunteering and what I see in the value of what I give back to my community. This week I want to take that a step farther and explain how you can use volunteering to help you in your career or even to help you decide what career to pursue.
I've been asked by many young aspiring IT professionals if they can work for me “doing what I do”. I have to sit them down and explain that, at my level, the years of experience required to "do what I do" are long and littered with the casualties of the brutal hours and failed projects. (a topic for another blog)
What I tend to do is recommend that if someone is interested in IT, has some skills but nobody will hire them is to consider volunteering. Many nonprofit organizations have shoestrings for budgets and will welcome any and all help that they can find. If they have someone willing to toil away for countless hours installing, configuring and fixing computer problems, you will have friends for life. On the flip side, you will be gaining invaluable time that will look very impressive on a resume. The other big but secret bonus is this: If you don’t know how to use their web graphic design program but express an interest in learning, you will be more than welcomed to learn. You will have access to the hardware and software and time. Not many companies today will pay for an inexperienced person to learn new programs on their own time and dime. How much better can it get than that!
Now, not only will you have gained IT experience but you have a double win with the volunteer work. Employers look at potential employees very carefully and having volunteer work on your resume (or CV) will go a long way to showing your level of commitment and dedication. These are qualities that are highly desired by resume screeners and hiring managers.
So if you are looking at IT and want to get into it and give it a go, volunteer and find an nonprofit organization who is looking for someone who is willing to learn on the job and help where others are not willing to help. The other benefits to volunteering can be found on my previous blog.
Now the other aspect of volunteering is how it can be of great value to your career. Say you want to take on more challenging responsibilities but your boss just isn't giving them to you. Or you have reached the top and there is nothing else that you can learn or take on in your current job. Great ways to add skills to your portfolio are to (you guessed it) volunteer! Volunteer organizations have so many opportunities that it would take many weeks to list them all.
If you volunteer for a large event, you can get experience in event coordination. There are college diploma programs that are focused on event coordinator planning. Spend several months (or years) coordinating large scale volunteer events and you will learn more than you could ever learn in school. Remember that school is just the beginning of your learning path. Large scale events usually have several (if not more) coordinators and Rule #1 always applies is this situation. (see Rule #1 below)
If project management is your cup of tea but you just haven't had the chance to manage a large project, look for a volunteer organization who needs an assistant to the volunteer coordinator. They will more than likely hand off as much as they can. Volunteer coordinators are managing large scale, multi-year projects. Don't forget: Volunteers are always looking for their replacement. Did I forget to mention that?
The other aspect of volunteering is the ability to be assigned positions where you can become a people manager. Volunteer coordinators have to interview, hire, and fire volunteers. Getting practice in these situations where it isn't as life changing for the people on the other side of the table can only be learned on the job. Unless you have taken acting lessons, you probably haven't gone through the process of hiring a bright, talented individual only to find out that they were a scam and had to be terminated.
Another great way to gain skills that you might never get at work is to volunteer for boards, executives or other committees. These are the groups that handle the overall budget, long term planning and other activities that in a typical company are handled at a senior level. This experience is excellent if you plan or want to plan on moving up the chain and into management.
So what is stopping you from getting out there and volunteering? I haven’t regretted any of my volunteer work and I am always looking for more responsibilities and challenges that I apply to my own career.
One last note: Don’t forget the other people that are out there volunteering. You may bump into another volunteer who needs an IT guy and you just so happen to fit the bill, come with excellent references and a proven track record at your current volunteer organization. Rule #1 also applies in this situation. That volunteer you are working beside or with or for maybe on the hunt for new talent.
Volunteer Rule #1: Once you volunteer for a position, always be on the lookout for your replacement.
You never know how long you will be in that position before you can recruit your replacement.
Volunteer Rule #2: Dress for the job and perform like you are being paid.
Take on the responsibilities as if it was your real job. This will help those who manage you provide excellent references to potential employers.

More rules will follow in later blogs, so stay tuned.

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