The nonprofit leap: Turning a volunteer gig into paid employment

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For more than ten years, Tyler Coad had been a volunteer in Ontario’s rugby community. From refereeing games every weekend from May to November, to coaching junior teams in Toronto and Barrie, Coad’s springs, summers, and falls were dedicated to sport he loved.

The decade of volunteering, combined with countless hours spent at province-wide rugby pitches, made Coad very well-known among Ontario’s rugby ranks.

While Coad’s volunteering was consistent, his work life was anything but. After years of bouncing around jobs in the service and hospitality sector, Coad could not find a position that left him satisfied with the work he was doing. His passion was rugby, but he needed to hold other jobs in order to pay the bills.

Upon graduating from Humber College’s police foundations program last September, Coad was ready to make the leap into law enforcement when he found that a position opened up with Rugby Ontario, the sport’s nonprofit provincial administrative arm.

“After I finished refereeing a match, one of the coaches approached me to let me know that Rugby Ontario was hiring,” said Coad. “At first, I was shocked they were hiring, because they only have six full-time employees, and there is typically very little turnover in the office, so I knew an opportunity like this didn’t come around very often.”

Coad’s decision to apply proved to be fruitful – he was hired as Rugby Ontario’s technical development coordinator two weeks later. He credits his dedication to the sport as one of the main reasons he was selected.

“They told me they wanted to hire someone who knew the sport inside out, and that no other candidate had as much experience in the Ontario rugby community as I did,” said Coad. “It was my volunteering that set me apart. It gave me the edge.”

Coad’s transition to a paid position in the nonprofit sector helps to identify an overarching trend for those looking to turn a volunteer gig into employment: prior volunteer experience with the hiring organization can serve as a major advantage.

Nonprofit sector’s unique advantage

Although circumstances vary from one nonprofit organization to the next, one consistent trend that is shared throughout the sector is that volunteers often have a beneficial ‘foot in the door’ when it comes to the hiring process.

“Anecdotally, we know that a lot of the organizations that we work with, when they are looking to hire, like anybody else, they look in their network first,” says Christa McMillin, co-founder and partner at Foot in the Door Consulting, an organization that specializes in helping nonprofit professionals build sustainable careers.

“Often, opportunities will be circulated within the volunteer pool before it hits the job boards, to see what they’d get within their own pool first,” she adds. “With many smaller nonprofit organizations without dedicated HR staff, they look to fill open positions within their pool of people already active and up-to-speed on how their organization works and what the issues are.”

Alan Kearns, founder of career counseling service CareerJoy, says that the unique set of circumstances shared by nonprofits – namely tighter budgets, leaner staff, and shorter hiring windows in comparison to for-profits – bodes well for current volunteers looking to make the leap to a paid position.

“The organization you’re with is far more likely to work with somebody they know and trust, than they are to hire outside their organization. Let’s face it, hiring people is a pain in the butt,” laughs Kearns. “So when an organization already has a volunteer that really impresses them, it’s a major leg up.”

Not only does looking within a volunteer pool take the aforementioned “pain” out of the hiring process, but it also speaks to a level of trust that is often built between volunteers and their directors.

“It’s very important for me to hire within my pool of volunteers, because these are generally my right-hand men, and these are the people I work with every single day, or every week, or every month on particular projects,” says Zeina Osman, director of communications at Ottawa high-tech charity CompuCorps. “My trust in my volunteers’ work makes me feel more comfortable approaching my executive director to ask for a contract position for one of them, rather than externally reaching out and looking for an individual outside of the organization.”

Osman is one of ten paid staff members at CompuCorps, a charity that provides technology-focused products and services to other Canadian nonprofits. She and her colleagues manage a pool of around 250 volunteers.

“We’re a go-go-go organization,” she adds, “and we’ve learned that we don’t need to spend time digging for the perfect employee, when often they’re already under our roof.”

The inside track

For six summers, Jessica Bergen had volunteered as a stage manager and a communications and marketing assistant with GlobalFest, an inclusive, multi-cultural nonprofit arts festival in Calgary.

In September 2012, after taking on volunteer roles that increased in responsibility year after year, Bergen was very surprised to receive a full-time job offer from the Festival’s management.

Bergen, who studied marketing at the University of Calgary, was looking for a full-time job at the time, though had not anticipated that a position would open up with her long-time volunteer organization.

“After the 2012 Festival ended, they approached me out of the blue to ask if I wanted to work with GlobalFest full-time,” says Bergen. “What shocked me the most was that they wanted me for a position that had nothing to do with my volunteer position, nor my university degree.”

The position that management sought Bergen for was a director of corporate partnerships role, and had told her that they had been so impressed with her long-term dedication to the organization that they were ready to offer her the open position.

“It was a discussion between them and I about whether or not I’d be interested in coming back, and what could I contribute to the Festival, and what would I be interested in doing for the Festival,” says Bergen. “It was pretty cool in the sense that I got to customize my job description with the organization, an opportunity that was afforded to me through my years of volunteering.”

Bergen now manages GlobalFest’s sponsorship program, and says that while the road she took to full-time employment with a nonprofit may not have been typical, it would not have been possible without volunteering.

“I was given my shot after six years of volunteering – six years of getting to know everyone in the organization,” she says. “They were confident that they had seen enough of me to know that I would be able to tackle this new role.”

Be upfront

Most volunteers looking to make the transition to paid employment are aware of the common pieces of advice that get bandied about: ‘work really hard’, ‘show passion’, and ‘be a leader’ are typical bits of guidance one can expect to hear.

One piece of advice that volunteers may not have thought of is being upfront about their goals.

“Stating at the very initial volunteer meeting that you are open to the idea of employment opportunities with the organization can be quite effective,” says Osman. “It helps hiring managers keep that person in mind to say ‘this person is interested in coming on board with us a little bit more than just the hour or two that they might volunteer a week.’”

Osman dismisses the idea that this approach is too forward.

“It shows initiative, and if volunteer works hard, they’ll shoot to the top of many ‘potential candidate’ lists.”

Kearns agrees, acknowledging that while this approach may appear unorthodox, it can be a useful tool to help stick out from the crowd.

“The nonprofit sector has a very strong volunteer management piece to it, so it’s already also got an infrastructure set up to draw new people in that way,” he says. “Being clear with what you’re looking for right off the bat can send a positive signal to the organization’s management.”

Networking

One of the difficulties in standing out as a volunteer is the relative anonymity that can come with the position. Often, volunteers only work a few hours a week, and they can be one of dozens, or hundreds, in an organization’s pool.

A way to prove that you are not just another face in the crowd, or volunteer in the pool, is to network.

“Build your community, build your network and your relationships within the organization you’re volunteering with,” suggests Kearns. “Talk with anybody and everybody, and by building that network of relationships, it ensures that managers in different areas get to know you for more than just your work, and that they now know you as a person.”

Bergen says that her willingness to get to know her organization’s staff helped her to stand out as a volunteer.

“When I was volunteering, we only had three full-time staff members, compared with 750 volunteers who help during the Festival, so it was a little tough to be noticed,” she laughs. “I made it a mandate of mine to try to meet as many people as possible within the organization – shake hands, remember names, ask people about their days – and it helped me to stick out from the crowd.”

In turn, now that Bergen has a say in her organization’s hiring process, she is a lot more likely to recommend a volunteer that she has spent time with face-to-face.

“If you have the capacity, try to get yourself into a senior volunteer role,” she says. “If one of our team leaders came to me and said ‘I’m interested in pursuing a full-time opportunity’, I would know them, and I would be able to speak to the work they’ve done from all of the time we have spent working directly with one another.”

Contract positions

It’s important to note that making the jump from ‘volunteer’ to ‘paid employee’ might not mean landing a full-time position, at least right away.

Osman cautions volunteers from thinking that all paid positions with nonprofits are full time.

“It isn’t as black and white as we’d like to think, because a lot of charities run on tight budgets, and sometimes the hiring process is dictated by what kind of funding you receive that year,” she explains. “A lot of the time we will offer a contract position for a particular project, as opposed to full-time employment.”

Osman says that this method serves as a bit of a “trial and error” window for the volunteer-turned-employee, and it can often lead to full-time employment down the road, “perhaps when more funding becomes available.”

McMillin agrees, and has seen a growing trend in nonprofits looking to fill paid contract-based positions from within their own volunteer pools.

“Having volunteer experience with the organization is a big foot in the door,” she says. “It certainly opens up possibilities for not necessarily that long-term, full-time, semi-permanent-as-long-as-we-having-funding type of position, but for the more contract-based positions: ‘We need somebody to do this piece of work over the next four months’ or ‘We’ve got a maternity leave replacement position open’, something like that.”

Values aligned

Coad, now happily settled into his position with Rugby Ontario, says he can’t imagine working anywhere else.

“There’s something to be said about actually being able combine your ‘life’s work’ with your actual ‘work’,” he says. “If I hadn’t have volunteered with the organization first, I certainly wouldn’t have been considered for the job, and chances are I wouldn’t have even heard about the position in the first place.”

“I’d always hear people tell me to ‘do what makes you happy,’ but I never really understood what it meant,” he adds. “Now, the saying finally has meaning.”

Brock Smith is a radio reporter/producer and communications specialist based out of Ottawa, with a special interest in the nonprofit sector. Brock can be reached on twitter at @brocktsmith.

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