How skills-based volunteering can advance your career

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New graduates moving on from the security of student life understand all too well the pressure of a job search, and many are overcome with a sinking feeling as they sift through job postings that call for multiple years of work experience. Making such a transition can be daunting and isn't unique just to new graduates. Many people with established careers have a desire to make a transition (be it from the private to the nonprofit sector or simply within their sector) or propel their career forward, but do not feel they have the skills or experience necessary to make the jump. How can these individuals gain transferable skills and develop their talents in order to get a job or get ahead in their current career? A great way to do this is through skills-based volunteering.

Skills-based volunteering entails providing service to nonprofit organizations that capitalizes on personal talents or core business or professional skills, experience or education. In other words, it involves the intentional transfer of skills, either by contributing skills or developing someone else's skills.

This type of volunteer engagement can be beneficial to all of the aforementioned groups: recent graduates looking to leverage their degree, those in the private sector wishing to transfer their skills to nto the nonprofit sector, as well as those currently working within the nonprofit sector looking to advance their career. Most SBV opportunities help volunteers develop their interpersonal communication skills, leadership skills, organizational abilities, fundraising or financial skills, technical or office skills, or increase knowledge in a certain subject area.

Skills-based volunteering is ideal for recent graduates as it allows them to directly apply their degree to the needs of an organization while developing valuable hands-on experience and knowledge the meantime. These volunteers, often between the ages of 20 and 30, have increased demands on their time and are often looking for a higher level of flexibility with regard to their role, and nonprofits are adapting to welcome them through skills-based volunteer projects. These volunteer positions allow new graduates to develop their resume and add to their portfolio, which can help them move to a paid position in the future.

Graduates may want to be cautious about full-time unpaid internships, instead looking for opportunities that require a few hours a week or taking on a short-term project, allowing them to focus on their job search. These opportunities can vary widely. A recent journalism graduate, for example, could lend their keen eye for proofreading and fact-checking to an organization writing research reports. This experience would not only hone the graduate’s reviewing abilities, but would also build skills in the areas of written communication, community awareness and self-motivation. A recent marketing graduate could design the logo or brand for an organization and cultivate media contacts for a nonprofit, thus giving them practical experience of taking on a marketing project while developing their skills in interpersonal communication, brand development and problem-solving.

While individuals with professional experience have generally already acquired practical skills and expertise, skills-based volunteering can refresh them in a specific area, giving them a new appreciation for their career or perhaps steering them towards a more rewarding line of work. For mature volunteers, it is also an effective way of honing specific skills with the aim of transitioning into a more long-term volunteer position following retirement. A leadership coach, for example, could provide one-on-one coaching to an executive director of a nonprofit, honing counselling, problem-solving, active listening and supportive communication skills while learning about the ins and outs of being an executive director. These skills and new knowledge could help propel the volunteer into a management position or possibly give them fresh ideas for coaching clients from a wide variety of backgrounds more effectively. An accountant working for a private company could volunteer to help with the bookkeeping of a nonprofit organization, thus increasing the organization’s awareness of nonprofit financing and a solid accounting framework. This could set the volunteer up to transition out of the private sector into the role of a CFO of a nonprofit organization.

Overall, skills-based volunteer positions provide valuable learning opportunities and practical experience to those in a transitional period career-wise. It can be the solution to the pressure to find experience felt by most recent graduates, and gives seasoned professionals the chance develop the skills necessary to pursue their dream career.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect, however, is the fact that this type of volunteering is mutually beneficial. As James Temple from PwC Canada notes, skills-based volunteering is great way to start “learning how people’s skills and passions can be mapped to a project at the nonprofit that will have the best possible long-term impact for all involved.” In other words, highly-skilled volunteers can contribute to the efficiency, visibility, financial stability and longevity of nonprofit organizations, and this mutually beneficial relationship in turn fosters strong and connected communities built on collaboration and integrity.

For more information on Skills-Based Volunteering, feel free to check out:

Leigha McCarroll is the Membership and Outreach Officer at Volunteer Canada, the national voice for volunteerism in Canada. Since 1977, Volunteer Canada has been committed to increasing and supporting volunteerism and civic participation. This article was written with contributions from Paula Speevak, President and CEO of Volunteer Canada.

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