October 15, 2010
Volunteer your way to a job: Unpaid nonprofit work can give you an inside edge
New York Times News Service
Three years ago, Analie Medero was working as an auditor for a financial-services firm in Houston. She wanted to get to know the city better and meet some new people, so she volunteered at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, lending a hand during special events.
Medero enjoyed the volunteer duties so much that when she was laid off last year from her accounting job, she opted for more unpaid museum duties. Today, she is a paid volunteer-services coordinator at the museum.
Like other volunteers at nonprofits, Medero parlayed her unpaid duties into a job that pays the bills.
“They’re seeing you every day,” says Medero, who initially believed her non-artistic background would be an insurmountable hurdle to a paid position. “They know that you can produce.”
Most job-search strategies focus on how to find a corporate job. The formula is fairly typical: a good cover letter, a well-crafted résumé, networking skills and strong references.
Finding a nonprofit job is a little different. A good résumé is still crucial, but other, less-obvious skills are also required.
One is passion for the group’s mission — or at least for volunteer work in general.
That’s something Eric Nielsen seeks out when he’s searching for a candidate.
Heather Krasna, author of “Jobs That Matter,” has these tips for volunteering your way to a job:
Think about timing. Carefully consider how much time you can commit, and communicate that to your chosen organization.
Maximize your experience. Look for networking opportunities within the organization. Once you’ve proven yourself to be a reliable asset, ask for more complex work. If you’re seeking employment, make sure to communicate that.
“I really look for volunteerism on a résumé — and years of it,” says Nielsen, managing director of Korn/Ferry International in Houston, which does pro bono job searches for nonprofit organizations. It not only demonstrates interest, but people who are involved in a nonprofit’s day-to-day activities are more realistic about the job.
Someone who doesn’t have a history of nonprofit volunteer work often is motivated by idealism or thinks the job doesn’t require as much effort, he says, an attitude that comes across in a job interview.
“Nothing is further from the truth,” Nielsen says, because a nonprofit typically has fewer employees and significant development demands that require a lot of after-hours networking. “They have to know it’s not a vacation.”
It’s also important to learn the lingo of the nonprofit world and use it, says Heather Krasna, author of “Jobs That Matter: Find a Stable, Fulfilling Career in Public Service.”
Don’t talk about meeting sales goals, she says. Instead, refer to fundraising goals. Customer service — a staple in the corporate world — is often called member services or client services in the nonprofit world.
Outreach and “building partnerships” are other important terms for nonprofit-focused résumés, says Krasna, director of career services at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs in Seattle.
Many nonprofits hire from the ranks of their volunteers. At the Houston Zoo, volunteers have the inside edge, says Sheri Lytle, vice president of human resources. They have access to online staff job postings, and they know the hiring managers and know their way around the zoo.
Volunteering also can help people develop a new passion. “I couldn’t have named a Texas artist,” Medero says, laughing as she recalled her first days as a volunteer at the museum. Now she can rattle off the names of several. One of them is her boyfriend.
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