So you’re gainfully employed; why volunteer? There are the obvious reasons—you can do good in the world, there are so many worthy organizations that can use your help, etc. But did you know that volunteering can also enhance your career? Mary Blegen, executive vice president and director of employee engagement and leadership development at U.S. Bank, is a passionate advocate for volunteering. She shares her thoughts on volunteerism as a career booster.
Valuable for All Involved
“Volunteering has a lot of benefits for you and for the community,” she says. “You get to make an important contribution to your society. You meet new people and encounter new perspectives. And the community is strengthened by virtue of your volunteer hours and commitment.”
But volunteering can also be great for the volunteer’s career. “At every step, you’re building your resume,” says Blegen. “In an economic time when businesses are holding back on hiring or promoting people, volunteering gives you a way to continue adding to your list of skills and competencies. That, in turn, can be valuable in a conversation with your employer, in performance reviews, coaching sessions, or just in casual hallway chats.”
Volunteering makes you better-rounded, which is a marketable asset. In fact, LinkedIn reported that 40% of recruiters think volunteer experience is just as important as paid work experience in landing an interview. What’s more, LinkedIn profiles that have volunteer experience are more likely to be reviewed in the first place.
Good for Business
Blegen notes that it’s also good for business. “When employees go out and volunteer in the community, they’re helping build the company’s brand,” she says. “When you volunteer and give it your all, it reflects well on you—and on your employer.”
It can have the additional benefit of networking opportunities as well. “In volunteering, you’re building new relationships that have the potential to help you or your company in the future.” This can unfold in multiple ways—it can introduce you to new people and opportunities within your current workplace; it can extend your outreach into other potential employers; and it can allow you to develop partnerships that can benefit your workplace in the future.
Starting a Volunteer Journey
There are numerous ways to volunteer, but Blegen has specific recommendations for a path to follow. She points out that there are basically three tiers of volunteering:
- Tier 1: Entry-level You help the organization do whatever it needs to support its mission, whether it’s painting houses for Habitat for Humanity, filling boxes of food for Feed My Starving Children, or helping the local animal shelter walk dogs and clean kennels. It’s not always glamorous, but it is hugely valuable to the organization.
- Tier 2: This is where you become more involved with the organization or agency You sign up to do something that takes more of a commitment than an occasional visit—you might volunteer to work on a committee or plan an event. “This is the level where you’re beginning to grow your skills,” says Blegen. “You can learn anything from finance to teaching to event planning.”
- Tier 3: This is the highest level of volunteering and requires a more strenuous commitment: Joining the board of an organization. Many nonprofits have minimum board terms, and there may be a financial commitment as But you’ll be part of the governance of the organization, you’ll work with the finances, and have an impact on the community.
Follow the Tiers in Order
If you’re looking at volunteering as a way to help your career, it might be tempting to leap right into tier 3. But Blegen cautions against it for several reasons. “You want to get to know the organization from the ground up,” she says. “Being experienced in how the organization operates at its foundation will make you much better prepared to govern eventually, if that’s what you choose to do.”
She notes that starting at the ground level also gives you the chance to discern how the organization is structured from the inside. While many nonprofits are strongly committed to doing things legally and ethically, there are some that fall short of their promises. Working your way up, you may learn that the organization doesn’t actually have a mission you can support, or it may not be handling its finances properly. If you leap in at the top, you may find yourself with a two-year commitment and a financial obligation to an organization you aren’t proud to serve.
Pick Your Passion
Finally, Blegen explains that you don’t have to choose a volunteer opportunity based on your career path. Instead, she strongly urges potential volunteers to pick something they’re passionate about. “The position may not look like it’s aligned to your career, but the skills you gain will cross boundaries,” she notes.
An example: Perhaps you work in IT, but you’re passionate about abandoned animals. Does volunteering at a shelter to walk dogs and clean kennels align with IT? Not at first glance. But there may be opportunities for you to assist the shelter with its website.
Also, situations that arise may help you develop skills that cross any career path. If the volunteer work causes you to work on your empathy and stress management skills, that’s certainly something you can put to work in your place of employment.
In fact, Blegen, who has an extensive volunteer history, says: “Coping skills are stretched far more in volunteering than they are in the workplace. All of that is valuable to the workplace.”
Let Your Employer Know
Make your boss aware of the value you gain from volunteering. “Let them know what you’re doing, and let them know specifics,” says Blegen. “Tell them, ‘I handled this stressful situation this way, and now I bring better coping skills to work.’”
No wonder potential employers are fond of volunteers.
All Capella students and alumni have the opportunity to participate in the Inspire Giving program, which provides financial donations to public schools and select nonprofits.