Build Your Communications Career – Volunteer!

Volunteer

By Joyce Davis
— Especially for those entering the communications field

There are so many worthy causes. And because you’re a communications professional, they could probably all use your skills and experience! Besides enlisting your talents to change the world, volunteering can advance your chances for finding your next great job or client. My largest client, and longest-paying gig, came from a connection I made by offering my pro bono graphic design skills to a well-established nonprofit in need.

I can’t promise you’ll always have the good luck I did, but I can promise you will gain experience, skills and good feelings about the philanthropic work you’re contributing to, if you do it right. Here are some tips I believe will help you make the most of your volunteering.

Be choosy about your volunteer work – it should be a win for you and the nonprofit

If you are new to the job search, don’t immediately fill your days with volunteer work for free. After all, until you’re paying your bills, finding your next job is your #1 priority. Otherwise, nonprofit work has a way of filling up your time and shrinking your checking account!

Finding income-producing work is your first priority. However, while you’re job searching, you can fit in a bit of research identifying one nonprofit you’d like to work with – only one! The secret is going “deep” with one, not wide with many. Select one organization thoughtfully and carefully, not just because the organization needs you but because you feel passionate about its work and have the most affinity for it – out of all the local possibilities you’ve researched. That will narrow your prospects.

Look for an organization with deep roots

And always choose a well-established, sustainable nonprofit over an “all-volunteer” or start-up organization. The larger organizations can offer you greater opportunity and will probably be able to derive the highest value from your contributed time and talents.

Don’t immediately accept offers to join nonprofit boards simply because they think you have skills they need. That is a major commitment, and remember, you should be spending the majority of your time looking for paying work, not helping to manage a nonprofit for free – no matter how noble the cause or how much the organization needs you!

You can look for worthy causes online by going to sites such as LinkedIn.com/jobs, selecting your geographic area, and doing a keyword search on “volunteer work”. You can also go to Craigslist.org –> Community –> Volunteers. After identifying and speaking with the group’s contacts, be sure to go visit them; talk to their director, staff, other volunteers, and even others in the nonprofit field about them, before making your decision and a commitment.

Be specific about the support you’re willing to provide

Describe the specific skills you have that will benefit the organization. If you just show up to volunteer, you’ll be stuffing envelopes or doing event clean-up instead of higher-value skill-building tasks. You have valuable skills you can offer to the right nonprofit, so don’t settle for menial work, especially if you are a communications professional. If you need to build experience in a specific skill that will ultimately make you more employable, offer to help your nonprofit prospects with these skills. Go with the one that says “yes.”

Incorporate your volunteer work into your job search

Once you are working as a volunteer, don’t forget the value of expanding your professional and personal network. Building relationships is what counts – both with the organization and with individual contacts you’ll be working with. And never treat your pro bono duties any less professionally than if they were paid work! After all, it is a professional commitment, and you may be able to ask your new colleagues for references for your job search.

Look for opportunities to ask for “informational interviews” with the director, the staff, and even with fellow volunteers (who may work at companies who could hire you). Once you have completed the specific volunteer assignment, ask if there are paid positions or paid freelance work you can do for them – even if it’s at a discounted “nonprofit” rate.

You’ll learn that the nonprofit world is very different from the business world. It is inspiring to work with people focused on a cause, not just a profit motive. You now have nonprofit experience to add your resume and LinkedIn profile. There may be other nonprofits who will value your expertise enough to pay for your time, especially if they are working in the same area of focus.

Here are just a few resources to further your research of the nonprofit world:

  • IdealistCareers.org
  • LinkedIn.com/jobs/nonprofit-jobs
  • Nonprofit.linkedin.com
  • FoundationCenter.org
  • PhilanthropyNewsDigest.org/jobs

Wishing you luck in finding work that matters!

In her more than 20 years in advertising, marketing and communications, Joyce Davis has served as an award-winning art director, graphic designer, writer and creative director. She established her own design firm in the San Francisco Bay Area, Square One Creative, which has served a wide variety of business and nonprofit clients for the past 13 years.

Comments

  1. What a great article, Joyce! Very solid advice for every communications professional wanting to volunteer some time and also find great paid work. I particularly like your counsel that the volunteer work should be a win for you and the nonprofit.

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