4 tips for using volunteering experience to boost your career

A Peace Corps volunteer helps her student with his class assignment in Guatemala. Photo by: Peace Corps

Volunteers in aid programs can take six months to two years out of their lives to live and work within developing communities. But what happens when the journey is over?

Reintegrating into the professional workforce or switching careers can be a challenge — and also an opportunity — after an experience abroad.

At the inaugural conference of Australia’s returned volunteers in Melbourne on Dec. 3 and 4, Devex spoke with recruitment experts and developments professionals for their advice on making the most of your volunteer experience. Here are four takeaways from those conversations.

1. Be careful how you use the ‘V’ word on your CV.

The most effective CVs explain a volunteer experience in detail — but often leave out the word “volunteer.” Instead, job seekers should explain what role they played, what they accomplished, and the remit, size, and success of the organization they worked for. This is particularly true for development roles, as the host organization is likely to be small and unknown to larger businesses.

“In explaining a volunteer experience in development on a CV, assume the potential employer has no idea what you are talking about,” Kathy Townsend, chair or volunteer program partner organization AVI, explained to Devex. She said volunteer programs are not generally well-known or understood in the corporate world. “Explain the organization worked for, how many staff they had, their annual revenue, the job you had and what you did.”

Carly Sheehan, humanitarian coordinator with Oxfam, echoed that advice, urging particularly young job seekers to think carefully about how to frame their experience.

“If you are just starting out, are quite young and just started your volunteer year, I think it can work against you to say you were a volunteer,” she told Devex. “Rightly or wrongly, mainly wrongly, people misunderstand what volunteering is and there may be negativity associated with the concept. It can work against you.”

Despite the possible risks for early-career job applicants, midcareer professionals returning from a volunteer stint can be more appealing to recruiters.

“If you are midcareer or later on in your professional life, highlighting volunteer experience does show that you care about something other than yourself,” Sheehan said. “It can really work in your favor to say you took time out of your life to volunteer.”

2. Volunteering may inspire a career change. Seek out employers with shared values.

Volunteers often return inspired to seek out new opportunities, turning their careers in new directions. “It’s almost like doing an MBA,” Townsend said of volunteering in development. “You should never pay your staff to do an MBA because they will always want to leave.”

How can returned volunteers reshape their careers? To start with, Samy Mounir, talent acquisition adviser for RedR Australia, advised job seekers to avoid applying to organizations that looks down on volunteering.

“Some will be of the old mindset that this is just volunteering and you worked for nothing,” he explained to Devex. “Stay away from these organizations. They are not people who you want to be working for.” Instead, he says to look for organizations and individuals that understand the volunteer experience and have a need for that experience.

In the development sector, any U.N. agency will treat volunteering positively, he said. In the corporate sector, Mounir suggested organizations with international programs or an international reach would value the unique skills and experience a volunteer can contribute.

“If someone has volunteered in Indonesia and a large corporation has just landed a big contract in that country, the skills learned from the program would be very valuable,” he said. “You may not speak the language but relating from the cultural aspect.”

3. Volunteering gives job seekers an edge in the increasingly competitive development sector.

Working in humanitarian aid, emergency response and overseas development is increasingly competitive, Sheehan told Devex. Volunteer experience can give applicants a leg up.

”A lot of people want to work overseas,” she said. “It is a very attractive idea. If you are applying for work with Oxfam and have experience as a volunteer, that would be looked upon favourably.”

In his role in recruiting and deploying staff to emergency responses, Mounir also said volunteering experience is critical. “We usually recommend to someone who has not done humanitarian or development work to volunteer,” he said. “It's a great way to acquire six months or a year of experience in a completely different context.”

Mounir said volunteers is valuable to organizations because it builds skills and competencies that are important for working in developing countries and creating local connections. “One is exposure to cultures and working in a different context than your usual 9 to 5 job,” he told Devex. “Second is working with different languages and sometimes in remote areas, places where you may have limited or no internet connection or electricity. And third is being exposed to the humanitarian and development sector internationally connects you with local communities, local governments and different actors in response.”

4. Corporations are increasingly seeing the benefit of giving back.

While volunteering in development is generally associated with government-run programs, Townsend said the private sector is increasingly interested in getting involved in volunteer programs.

“In the corporate world, there are a lot of people who like the idea of doing something else and giving back,” Townsend said. “It’s part of why so many people are interested in programs that allow you to take time out of your normal job and go and volunteer.”

The Australian aid program’s growing engagement with the private sector could also improve corporate awareness and interest in volunteering. AVI is working to leverage of this corporate interest through new partnerships, and says it is easy to explain the value of volunteer experience to an employer.

“I explain that these people have had highly skilled jobs in challenging environments and in very difficult circumstances,” she said. “It means this person is very resilient because they’ve had the guts to go and do it, and they have a strong value set. People come back more well-rounded with a better attitude as to what the world is about.”

Devex is a media partner for the Returned Australian Volunteer Network conference.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.