by Ellen Mehling, Career Development Consultant, METRO
Many people see volunteering as a situation that benefits workplaces much more than volunteers. That is not the only way to think about volunteering, though. If done wisely and in the right spirit, volunteering can and should be an arrangement that benefits the site and has multiple career-enhancing rewards for the volunteer too.
Volunteering can be a way of trying something new to see if it is right for you. It is a smart and valuable thing for student to do when choosing what kind of information work they want to focus on, and it can help those switching from one kind of work to another to decide what their next move will be. If it becomes clear after a period of time that this kind of work is not right for you, you can simply discontinue volunteering at that location. If you do like it, you have already gained some practical, insider information about that kind of work.
Experience and Skills
Having the right experience, and the right amount of experience, is crucial to job hunting and career success, and volunteering can be an opportunity to add more of it to your resume and LinkedIn profile. Depending on the site’s willingness to train volunteers, it may also be a way to acquire new professional skills, which is a big plus as all info pros need to keep their skills up-to-date.
This is probably the biggest career benefit, and one that does not have to end when the volunteering ends. If you make a good impression on those you work with, you’ll expand and strengthen your connections and gain the advantages and boost to your professional reputation that come with a large flourishing network: tips, assistance, references, recommendations, and possibly advance notice or insider advice about a job or another opportunity. You should take your assignments seriously and behave professionally at all times when volunteering: be punctual and reliable, dress appropriately, and give your full attention and effort to the task at hand.
It is very important when volunteering to give your time and effort with no strings attached. Unspoken, unrealistic expectations may lead you to feel resentful, which can poison the experience of volunteering both for you and for those you work with. While it does happen that volunteers are sometimes offered paid work, expecting a job offer is not in your best interests. You cannot obligate an employer to hire you by volunteering, and you may end up losing a chance at making useful connections with others if they regard you as having a hidden agenda. (If they are hiring though, and you have already proven yourself to be a dedicated and valuable contributor, then you’ll have a foot in the door.)
It may seem counterintuitive, but the less you think about what you can get out of volunteering, the more you are likely to get. If you focus on contributing as much as you can, you’ll enjoy the experience more and you’re likely to do better in the performance of your assigned tasks – both of these things increase the chance that you will build strong professional alliances.
If You Are Unemployed
Another big plus is for those who are actively seeking work: volunteering can help to fill what would otherwise be a gap in your employment history. You’ll have current projects and work to talk about when meeting other info pros and in a job interview, and it’s a way to stay active and contribute professionally, which can help to keep your spirits up during the job search.
Volunteering shows dedication and service to the profession; it is contributing above and beyond the minimum which is something employers like to see. Recent work in different venues also demonstrates adaptability, a soft skill greatly valued by employers.
Other Reasons to Volunteer
Volunteering can provide additional perks, including benefits to your physical health, and does not require a big investment of time. Even just a few hours a week can be worthwhile for the both the volunteer site and the volunteer.
Volunteers are usually treated well, too. Workplaces that want to keep their volunteers appreciate the time and effort that is being donated and are very conscious of the fact that they might lose a good volunteer if s/he is unhappy. They will often be as accommodating as possible re: scheduling and assignments for a valued volunteer.
Finding a Volunteer Site
First, give some thought to the kind(s) of skills and experience you want to add to your resume. To identify a suitable site, a good place to start is with those in your network. Think of people and organizations you are already familiar with and how you could be of service to them. Look at local libraries and organizations that host interns; they may also be willing to have volunteers. Keep trying if the first (or the first few) places you contact don’t need volunteers; it may take some time to find a venue that is a good fit for you. You may find other opportunities or organizations on websites such as VolunteerMatch and Idealist. While it is logical that library-related volunteering would be your first choice, keep in mind that a volunteer site does not have to be a library in order to provide experience valuable to an information professional’s career.
Library-related professional organizations are a great option for volunteering. There are many to choose from, including local, regional, and national ones, and many ways to contribute. Options for getting involved include serving on a committee or task force, writing for a blog or newsletter, helping to plan events, and holding an office. Such service looks good on a resume and is a very effective way of staying connected and informed.
Ellen Mehling received her MSLIS from LIU and works as a librarian, instructor, writer and job search/career advisor in and around NYC. Her professional experience includes work in special, public, and academic libraries, as well as archives. She has been METRO’s Job Bank Manager and Career Development Consultant since 2009.