Cara Swetsky is a recent graduate and communications coordinator at a large university. In this article, Cara discusses the personal and professional benefits she's gained through her volunteer work.
I’ve been volunteering for as long as I can remember. In elementary and middle school, it was the local church’s pancake breakfast. In high school, my teacher Mrs. Mason helped me get involved in aiding the homeless and becoming an advocate for the less fortunate. She drove me to nearby Philadelphia to hand out food on summertime afternoons. In college, it was veterans, animals, clean water causes, children’s shelters, Thanksgiving food drives, and Christmas donations.
After moving to Philadelphia, my roommate and I quickly learned that you can’t walk a block without passing a few homeless men, women, children, and veterans. Our desire to help and our past experience as volunteers led us to start our own independent non-profit -- The Give Back Granola Project -- to provide nutritious food to Philadelphia's homeless.
In past job interviews, after experience, the thing employers wanted to hear most about was my volunteer work. Why do I do it? What was I passionate about? And most importantly, what have I learned from it?
I understood why they asked. After all, “volunteer” on your resume screams “well-rounded.” But I never thought too much into why volunteer work was an important activity, not only for my personal life, but in the professional realm as well. Not until I recently took a development course offered by my company.
The topic was personal branding and the name of the game was “What makes you, you?” More significantly, how do you use who you are to grow in your career? We were asked to participate in a number of activities, most of which included telling our colleagues about ourselves; personality traits, hobbies, interests, and the like. We would then work to connect them back to our careers; what we take from these things, how they help to develop us into the kinds of employees we are.
I made a comment about my volunteer work making me “well-versed.” After all, that’s what I considered the biggest benefit when it came to applying it to my career. Essentially, I thought it was why employers were interested in me; a young professional who did something besides suffer from a hangover on Sundays.
It wasn’t until the class instructor noted that volunteer work is much more than that that I realized its deeper benefits. “It also makes you a team player,” he said.
“And an innovator,” another member of the classroom followed.
“It also probably means you excel in communication and problem solving,” added someone in the back.
I left class that afternoon with these ideas stuck in my head, wondering whether it does mean all of these things. I pulled out my notebook and started to write down other features of volunteer work that I use in my workplace, daily, without even realizing it.
Here's what I came up with:
Through every volunteer opportunity, I’ve had the chance to work with and work for various people of different age, social status, race, and more. It’s opened my eyes not only to the world around me, but also to how to interact with people who fluctuate from what is my “norm.” It’s allowed me the ability to work effectively with the many dramatically different people I've met throughout my career.
In most of my volunteer experience, we’re strapped for funding and outlets to reach the community for the help we need. Without this, we have less to work with when we try to help the needy. As a result, we need to be open to solving a big problem with fewer resources, usually within a short amount of time. If this sounds familiar, it's because it's something you find happening in the work place in more ways than one. Volunteer work helps you learn to think creatively and do the most you can with what you have.
We seek rewards for our hard work, and for most professionals, our hard work is usually within our career fields. When you volunteer, you’re given the chance to understand what it’s like to work solely for the reward of knowing you helped someone that day. When you know what it’s like to work for nothing in return, you begin to effortlessly combine that feeling with the work you put into your profession. You focus more on the results you put together and less on how those results will be rewarded.
Volunteer work typically means you’re an advocate for some sort of cause and/or group of individuals. Though most volunteer work is done in groups, each member becomes a leader in their own way. They might help to spread the word about a cause through canvassing or by conducting an information session. Maybe it’s as simple as standing in the soup kitchen line, aiding the homeless in receiving their food or assisting them to their tables. Whatever the duty, volunteers begin to understand leadership because in those moments they are the activist for something larger than themselves – a skill that is never lost on one’s professional career.
Becoming a volunteer means you’re devoted towards something beyond your own world. You decide to become a key aspect of someone else’s life, as well as a group who counts on you to show up and do your part. When you pledge yourself to helping others in these situations, you start to realize how much credibility there is behind showing up daily to your office job; physically and mentally. It helps you understand your impact and judge your potential.
When you care about a cause, it strikes a passion within you. It gives you a hunger to be a part of something that you are happy to work on. Combine that hunger with your professionalism and the result is nothing short of extraordinary. You'll begin looking for roles where that same passion shines through, and your work and job satisfaction will benefit from it.
Overall, volunteer work allows you to continue to learn new and transferable skills that are simply unattainable anywhere else. Take a moment to think about causes you care about and how you might be able to help. And if you’re not sure where to start, check out VolunteerMatch.
Volunteer work is more than just a resume builder. Grow your personal brand and develop your career through volunteer work. It is, after all, the easiest way to get by giving.