Volunteer Work: The Ultimate Interview

by Barbara Safani

If you think doing volunteer work is just “filler to pad the resume” while you are looking for a “real job,” then think again. It can make or break you during a job search.

Pro bono work can include anything from nonprofit projects to community service and even religious or alumni events.

No matter what you invest your time in, its all a lot like an extended behavioral interview. These experiences are a great way to shine, build credibility in professional circles and get your name out there – if you have the right attitude.

The bottom line is: People talk. And people are more likely to refer someone based on past successes. In other words, your volunteer resume should be just as outstanding as your professional one.

Here are some tenets to remember during your pro bono work. I’ve seen them all, and I know that people who demonstrate these behaviors end up on the “short list” when organizations are looking for people to fill paid positions.

1. Have the attitude you would have at the office.
Yes, we know they don’t pay you to do this; that’s why it’s called volunteering. Go in with the attitude that, for the short term, you will give more than you receive. Nevertheless, you are volunteering to give back to your community, and this will build long-term trusting relationships.

2. Lead, even if you’re not the team leader.
Volunteer appointments are a great way to showcase your leadership, organization and communication skills. If you can help take some of the burden off the team leader, your efforts will be noticed. If the decision that needs to be made falls within the responsibilities of your role, make it and keep the team leader informed. Don’t send 200 e-mails a day asking for guidance or permission. Doing so makes you appear indecisive and unsure of yourself. These are not great qualities to display in front of people who may be in a position to refer you somewhere down the line.

3. Showcase your management style.

It is equally damaging to make decisions that are not within your role of responsibilities, which could potentially damage or muddy the relationship you have with the team leader. There’s a fine line between being supportive and being power hungry, so make sure you don’t cross it. Your actions will reflect how you might go about managing a team or staff in the business world, so treat volunteer teams as such.

4. Endure as you would in a real-world role.
Sometimes volunteers make commitments to projects with the best of intentions and then “stuff happens,” and they fall off the face of the earth. This puts an extra burden on teammates and causes resentment. And if that’s not enough, it damages your professional reputation. It is unlikely that you will be trusted with a paid role if you can’t deliver on a volunteer project. Stick it out as you would a turn in the market or an unanticipated business need. If you volunteer for a project, stick with it to the end – even if it means doing some juggling.

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[TaxMama note: Volunteering is one of TaxMama’s favorite suggestions. Pick something you’re passionate about. Not only will you do something important to you – you’ll make great contacts and friends, too. Incidentally, for singles – volunteering surely beats online dating and singles bars or even coffee bars. ]