Career Q&A: Does it matter if your experience is volunteer or paid?

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I have recently graduated with a Masters degree and am looking to build a career in the nonprofit sector. I have been an active volunteer with a number of organizations over the years and have gained experience in my field through unpaid internships, but my paid work has been as a barista and camp counselor. Does it matter if my experience is from volunteer roles or paid jobs?

The short answer is no. Nonprofit employers in particular understand the things you have to do to earn a paycheque while pursuing your passions.

You are already a step ahead of some recent graduates who do not have relevant experience — paid or not. Too often, employers at nonprofit organizations receive applications from candidates who think they meet the qualification of “demonstrated interest in / understanding of” the organization’s cause by simply stating that they are interested in it. Interest or understanding is actually demonstrated by dedicating time and energy to a cause, regardless of how it was remunerated.

But what does matter is how you profile your volunteer experience on your resume. Here are a few guidelines to create an application that will position you as a serious contender.

Do not bury your relevant experience. Volunteer experience is often relegated to the last section on a resume, with only the name of the organization and date range of experience. You are doing a disservice to yourself and potential employers by not featuring it prominently.

Integrate unpaid experience with paid. You do not need to separate volunteer work into a different section on your resume. List all positions in your Work Experience section.

Have proper job titles for your unpaid work experience. Special Events Volunteer or Microenterprise Developer say more to potential employers than do Volunteer or Intern. Your supervisors in these positions can help you define a title if there isn’t one already.

List your responsibilities and achievements for your unpaid work as you would your paid work. Focus on your results and quantify your experience (e.g., the amount of money your events raised, or the number of committee members you coordinated) whenever possible.

Do not over-emphasize your paid work if it is not relevant. Employers do not need to read five bullet points about your barista experience if none of it matches the stated qualifications. This valuable real estate on your resume is better used for profiling your accomplishments in volunteer positions relevant to your desired job. On the other hand, make sure to include your transferable skills and experience. For example, include the point that you were a shift manager responsible for eight employees if your desired position requires supervisory experience.

Be transparent. Do not mislead potential employers by implying you were a paid staff member of an organization when you were a volunteer. You can include volunteer in the job title or add volunteer in parentheses after the title.

Make sure you have references from your unpaid work. When you get to that stage in the competition, provide references from the organizations with which you volunteered or those that coordinated your internships. These people can likely provide more relevant insight into your fit and ability to take on your desired position.

Finally, be strategic about the volunteer positions you pursue. Regularly compare what you have to offer with the qualifications of your desired positions. Volunteering should be part of your professional development plan, as it is a great way of gaining appropriate experience, developing relevant skills and cultivating a useful network. Ensure that your unpaid experience is putting you on the right path for your dream job — one that comes with a paycheque.

Congratulations on entering the fulfilling world of a career in the nonprofit sector!

Nancy Ingram and Christa McMillin are co-founders and partners at Foot in the Door Consulting which specializes in helping nonprofit professionals build sustainable, satisfying and values-driven careers. Together, they have over 30 years of experience on both sides of the hiring and management process in the nonprofit sector. They can be reached through

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