Volunteering for career development: Seven steps to professional growth

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When one hears the phrase "I volunteer", one thinks about how nice it is for someone to give back to the community, how they are connected to their roots, how they want to make a difference to others. What they may not understand is many people volunteer to gain much-needed experience and skills to assist in either enhancing their career prospects or starting on their career path.

What can you gain from volunteering? Volunteerism is an opportunity to get involved in organizations in assisting them reach their goals and build better communities while gaining some concrete experience. Under the umbrella of end results are hard working employees with skills and experience who are not only willing to share their talents with others, but in some cases have been mandated to do so by the very nature of their organization. Some organizations even require staff to use their skills to help others. For example, accounting firms will do pro bono work during tax season for tax clinics at community agencies.

For the individual, offering time and energy through volunteering can be one of the best ways to gain on-the-job experience and develop a network . How else can you come straight out of a fundraising education program and be part of the planning of a golf tournament, while learning from the special events coordinator or even the director? How else can you finish a graphic design training program and get asked to help develop brochures that may be used across Canada? There are so many of these stories amongst the more than 12.5 million Canadian volunteers who do everything from stuffing envelopes to teaching children to read.

To find a volunteer role that will help you along your career path, follow these steps to increase your chances of connecting with the right position for you:

1. Make a list of your strengths. They do not have to be job related. What is it that you like to do? What are you good at?

2. Update your resume. Volunteer program administrators like to look at resumes. Resumes can help them pull out information based on what the organizations needs are.

3. Where are your gaps? Do you need more experience supervising others? Do you need hands on experience based on your theoretical learning?

4. Don't forget to consider what your long term goals are in both your career and personal life. Make a list of what you may be interested in. Use this list to generate potential volunteer opportunities. If you need help generating career and life possibilities, consider meeting with a career professional.

5. Research organizations that you think may be a good fit. Check websites that post volunteer opportunities like charityvillage.com or volunteertoronto.ca or your local volunteer centre. Volunteer positions are posted on the organization's website, but not all positions are posted; the one-offs are the gems in the collection!

6. Go to informational interviews with the volunteer program manager or coordinator. Sometimes you have some ideas but you are not sure where you fit. This is a great opportunity to speak to those that have more experience. Talk about what skills you have and what you would like to learn, be honest about what your expectations are and what you have to offer, including time commitment. If the volunteer administrator does not have anything, they may be able to steer you in the right direction. Many organizations know what is available in their communities and may be able to direct you to the right person.

7. Once placed, make sure that you add the information to your resume. You should include your responsibilities and accomplishments. For example, if you are sitting on a committee that raises $30,000 for a charity, that should be an accomplishment. If you answered a counselling phone line, you are demonstrating human service skills, ability to work under pressure, and more.

The impact of volunteering for you, the organization and the community they serve is vast. Volunteering can be a huge asset to your future...even without investing in a long-term commitment.

Lori Gotlieb is the Manager of Community Engagement for The Arthritis Society, Toronto Region and the founder of Lori Gotlieb Consulting. Lori is an internationally published author and workshop facilitator. Lori is the past president of the Toronto Association of Volunteer Administration, and an editor for the International Journal of Volunteer Management. Lori can be reached at lori.gotlieb@rogers.com.

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