By: Alice Neville
This week, as volunteers are celebrated for the contributions they make to our communities, it’s an apt time to remember that volunteering brings benefits to those giving their time too.
In addition to the “warm fuzzies” that inevitably occur when you help a cause you care about, volunteering can have real career benefits.
“Volunteering is a great way to refine your sense of purpose and what’s important to you in a career,” says Rebecca Clarke, who founded the Ask A Recruiter meet-up group and is on the New Zealand council of RCSA (the Recruitment, Consulting and Staffing Association).
“It can be a good way to get some practical experience of things you might be interested in, which can also help you choose a career path,” says Clarke, who has an extensive volunteering background herself.
“You meet such a diverse range of people who have similar values, and that can really be a bridge to employment,” she adds. “You’re exploring different sectors, meeting new people and continuing to learn.”
Tracey Han is in her final year of a conjoint Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Business at AUT, majoring in international studies and human resources management, and is working towards the AUT Edge Award, which formally acknowledges students for involvement in volunteering, leadership and employability activities.
In addition to industry-specific volunteering such as helping out at Ask A Recruiter meet-ups, Han has given her time to various causes, with a focus on helping those from migrant and refugee backgrounds.
“I’ve had the opportunity to develop a variety of soft, transferable skills – such as communication, creativity and collaboration – which are important for any graduate entering the workforce,” she says.
“I’ve also developed my personal and professional networks, and have learnt that sometimes it isn’t what you know but who you know that matters most within the professional context.”
Clarke also emphasises the importance of transferable skills. “Attitude and soft skills are becoming much more important for employers. With volunteering, you’ve got to fit in with a group of strangers relatively quickly to get things done that you have a common passion for.”
For those interested in volunteering, Clarke recommends asking yourself what you want to get out of it. If you’re hoping to improve your employability, you might ask around your network or check out the LinkedIn profiles of people you’d like to work with to see if they have volunteering experiences or support any causes.
“Those can be good clues for helping to get you into an environment where you might meet potential employers or career mentors, or maybe just get a better understanding of what’s happening in the industry.”
Volunteering at industry events can also be beneficial. “When I first started volunteering, I wanted to be the person handing out name badges at events,” says Clarke. “I was quite shy, and it was a great way to meet people, because I had a legitimate reason to do so.”
If you’re new to the workforce, volunteering can be a good stepping stone, says Clarke. “In some cases the criteria can be less stringent than in the recruitment process for a job, so it can give you a softer introduction to preparing for the formal job application process.”
If you don’t have a history of employment, it also gives you an opportunity to recruit referees for your CV. Don’t feel that volunteering experience needs to be hidden at the bottom of your CV either – it can go alongside paid employment experience, says Clarke. “Employers want to know what people are interested in and the value they can contribute.”
Volunteering can also be beneficial for people re-entering the workforce after a period away, such as those returning from parental leave. “It’s a good way to figure out how much capacity you have and if you’re ready to move into a full-time role,” says Clarke. “You can see what’s realistic.”
Time management is another skill that volunteering helps develop, says Han. “It does require you to be efficient with your time, especially as a full-time uni student,” she says.
Clarke agrees. “Your time is valuable. Think about how much capacity you’ve got for volunteering – maybe it’s a couple hours a week, maybe you want to do a day every quarter.
“Have a bit of a plan for what you can realistically give and what you want to get out of it. The worst thing is if people are relying on you and you’re not able to commit – that could harm your career prospects in the longer term.”
Clarke points out that these days, volunteers don’t always have to be physically available and can often work virtually, helping with social media posts, research, marketing or phone calls.
Do your research before signing on, however. “Make sure that it’s a legit organisation and people are not taking advantage. Google them, look them up on Facebook, ask your network. Know the criteria in terms of what’s going to be involved.”