Career Center Blog

September 11, 2013

Volunteer for your career -- but make it relevant


The more seasoned I become in my career, the more I'm known as a "go-to" person for recruiting and writing. Not coincidentally, my volunteer activities closely mirror these two aspects of my life, which is a piece of advice I give friends and clients when they are unemployed -- either by choice (e.g., stay-at-home caregiver) or through business changes.

We all choose to do different things with our free time. That's healthy. But the key to using volunteer activities on your resume or in your professional profile is to make sure you are highlighting those that are relevant to the job you are pursuing.

As a recruiter, I see a lot of younger workers who have a ton of interesting volunteer experience on their resumes. Granted, new college graduates often need to put more volunteer and social experiences on their resumes to bulk up their experience -- but it's best if these things are related to the job they are seeking. Anyone who has two or more years of work experience should have an employment history that will stand up and speak for itself.

It's vital to understand what recruiters and hiring managers are looking for when going through a stack of resumes. Some volunteer activities are almost always applicable; others really shouldn't be included.

Good to list on a resume:
• Sports (shows that you are a team player with a healthy competitive nature)
• Artistic pursuits (demonstrates discipline and creativity)
• Leadership positions in civic organizations or well-recognized nonprofits
• Board of director/officer positions in mainstream special-interest groups
• Professional organizations in your field that are relevant to your career goals

Avoid including personal, political, lifestyle or religious organizations or roles unless they are highly germane to the job you are seeking. If you are applying for a music teacher position, for example, volunteering as a children's choir director at church is something you would want to mention. But being the treasurer for a swinger's club should probably stay in your private circles, even if you are applying for an accounting position.

You spent your vacation in Costa Rica working on a Habitat for Humanity project? Fantastic. If you are applying for a job as a bartender, though, it doesn't really mean much, unless you were the project lead or in charge of feeding the crew. I'd rather see that you volunteered for FareStart, managed a food-collection drive for Hopelink or helped in the office of the local Al-Anon chapter a few hours a month.

If you are taking time off from your career for more than six months, it is vital that you pursue activities that keep you in the loop, industry-wise, if you anticipate returning at any point -- even if you decide on a different career track later. Taking classes/certifications, teaching others, writing/speaking about the industry for a blog or a podcast, occasional consulting or volunteering with professional organizations all fit this bill.

The keys are being consistent and showing potential employers that you are well-rounded and focused on furthering your career goals and aspirations.

Kristen Fife is a Seattle-area recruiter, mentor and blogger. Email her at

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Karen Burns Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.

Kristen Fife Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.

Lisa Quast Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.

Randy Woods Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.

Former contributors

Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.

Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.

Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."


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