Volunteer Your Way Into a Job

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Published on July 21, 2010 with No Comments

By Caroline Dowd-Higgins

Unpaid internships and volunteer opportunities are not just for students anymore. This strategy is a great way for career changers and job seekers to get their foot in the door of a particular industry.
 The trendy new term: returnship is for seasoned professionals and provides a way for you to test-drive an organization from the inside to determine if it’s a good fit. Likewise, the employer will learn what you are capable of and if a position becomes available, you will have a competitive edge if you performed well as a volunteer. While some returnships pay, most are voluntary, and the time frame may last a few weeks or months depending on the organization.

The Sara Lee Corporation launched the returnship model and provides opportunities for mid-career individuals re-entering the workforce after having been away for a number of years. Their pilot returnship program was so successful that it is now an integrated part of the company’s ongoing recruitment efforts.

Goldman Sachs has also created a returnship program which offers training and guidance to help highly skilled women return to the financial workforce after having taken voluntary breaks that may have lasted anywhere from a few years to a couple of decades. While participants are not guaranteed jobs at Goldman Sachs at the end of the program, GS has hired more than half of the participants from last year’s returnship program.

Volunteering is also a great way to research career fields you have no experience with. If you are pursuing a career transition or simply have not landed your dream position, being an unpaid professional can allow you to see things from the inside to help you find the right match.

Free labor is a regular phenomenon for students, and, often, unpaid internships come with university credit-earning options. For a seasoned candidate, you may have to help an employer see the value in your volunteer efforts. Help them understand that this is a way for you to gain experience in your career area of interest and also fill a need in their organization. You should approach it with a no-strings-attached commitment so the employer does not feel threatened. But, you should also set realistic expectations so your good gesture is not exploited. Create a clear schedule that works for you and the employer. You need not volunteer full-time, but the more visible and pro-active you can be on the volunteer job, the better connected you will become in the long term.

As a volunteer, you should be ready to pitch your skills and expertise to an employer so they can give you meaningful projects that play to your strengths. You don’t want to spend your time making photo copies if you have skills that could be better utilized in the organization. Here are some things to keep in mind as you venture out into the world-of-work as a volunteer.

  • Don’t be afraid to try new things. This is the best way to learn, grow and develop new skills.
  • Follow through on your commitments. If you find that your schedule has become extremely tight or if you landed another job, let your supervisor know. Good communication is vital for volunteering, and your professional reputation is always at stake.
  • Have some ideas of projects you could do. If supervisors aren’t sure how you could best help, suggest a couple of ideas or projects based on what you know the organization needs. This advice is especially important with a supervisor who has never met you and doesn’t know your talents or values.


  • Be flexible. It’s healthy to be willing to change some of the details of your volunteer projects – people, organizations, and communities have real needs, and the needs can change based on outside circumstances.
  • Follow up with the volunteer supervisors. They may be overwhelmed with projects and assignments, so don’t take it personally if they don’t get back to you immediately. Take the initiative and call, or send a friendly email reminder in a week or so.

The non-profit sector also has a wealth of volunteer opportunities and may be easier to break into than the corporate entities that don’t have a formal returnship model in place. These experiences are resume-worthy and could also lead to employment. The networking resources are fantastic and often getting yourself back into the work arena will help stimulate and motivate you in your job search.

Historically, volunteering has been a way to strengthen communities by making it easier for good people and good causes to connect and partake in civic engagement. The playing field has changed, and volunteering is now a smart strategy for those reinventing their careers or re-entering the workforce after an absence. It has been a standard practice for students and now with the returnship, volunteering is a career development strategy for all.

Caroline Dowd-Higgins pens a career transition blog called “This Is Not the Career I Ordered” (www.notthecareeriordered.com).  She is also the Director of Career & Professional Development at Indiana University Maurer School of Law.

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