In a Google+ Hangout I hosted last week on transitioning to a career in international development, I talked about the benefits of volunteering to kickstart a degree in international development. Since most jobs require previous — often overseas — experience, sometimes the only way to get that experience is to do it as a volunteer.
There are many volunteer programs that do not require previous experience and will give you training on the ground and skills to help meet that “previous experience” qualification you see on so many job ads. (See this list of 10 non-paid volunteer programs to kickstart your development career).
But what do you do once your volunteer program is over? How do you turn this experience into a paying job? Here are seven tips for leveraging your volunteer gig into a full time job.
1. Tap into your volunteer alumni network
Most volunteer programs have a network of former volunteers, which gives you a prime network to tap. For example, the U.S. Peace Corps has such an active alumni network that they even have an acronym to help identify each other: RPCV, or returned Peace Corps volunteer. Look at what the alumni have done with their careers for inspiration. Reach out to them to request informational interviews. Ask them how they got their first jobs. Most returned volunteers think fondly of their time abroad and will welcome a chance to connect with people who have been through the same experience. And no one will be able to commiserate like someone who has been there. If your volunteer program does not have resources to help you connect with alumni volunteers, use online networks like Devex and LinkedIn and search for people with the volunteer program in their profile. (Check out nine tips for networking from the field).
2. Leverage your contacts from the volunteer experience
Chances are you worked with many professionals during your volunteer gig. From full time staff to stakeholders to partners at NGOs, consulting firms or donor agencies. Hopefully you focused on building relationships with these people and making yourself known as a competent hard worker. Reach out to these folks and let them know you are looking and ask them if there is anyone they think you should talk to. It helps if you can narrow in on the kinds of opportunities you seek to better help them brainstorm ideas. For example, saying you want to work on health care delivery issues in East Africa may help spur ideas on who they should connect you with.
3. Quantify your experience
You will need to translate your volunteer experience into skills, expertise and accomplishments that will speak to international development hiring organizations. And often that means showing results. Even if you yourself were not responsible for the overall impact of a project, you likely played a role, so explain how you contributed to the bottom line. Also, aid organizations’ work is often about capacity building, training, project design, management and evaluation and less about handing out blankets or planting trees (which is typically done by local volunteers or staff). While planting 100 trees yourself would likely be a fun and rewarding experience, it won’t be as impressive to a recruiter as say, training local volunteers on best planting and watering practices or organizing a group of local stakeholders to implement a new sustainable tree planting program.
4. Leverage language/regional experience
If you volunteered overseas for at least a year or more, you have likely developed a good understanding of the local culture and maybe even language. Market these assets and focus on positions that are either based in or work on supporting programs in the same country or region. Your recent experience on the ground will be valuable and may make up for lack of years of experience in other areas.
5. Identify your key value proposition
Perhaps it is your language or regional expertise. Or your experience in a specific sector or function. The more you can focus your experience around a few defined areas of expertise, the more you will be able to brand yourself as an expert and help recruiters, hiring managers, and the network you are likely relying on to match you to specific roles. You want to remain open and flexible to new opportunities, but being too open can make it hard for people to see where you fit in. I recommend focusing on those strengths that you see as the most marketable or most in demand – and that you truly enjoy.
6. Be realistic with your expectations
While volunteering is a great way to enter the field of international development, it is not a silver bullet. It can still be a long slog to finding a full-time job that matches your skills and interests. And you may still be starting at the bottom. So while you may have been running a program and managing people as a volunteer, you are unlikely to have that level of responsibility in your early career. The same goes with working abroad. Many development organizations do not equate two years volunteering overseas with two years working full time. It is better than nothing, but chances are you will need to work in a home office environment first before being put onto a project in the field.
7. Don’t ignore your non volunteer experience
Oftentimes those looking to work in global development dismiss the valuable administrative and office skills they may have from other experiences, skills that are often just as valuable as volunteering abroad. A lot of development work is desk work and many recruiters I talk to value the skills just as much — sometimes even more — than volunteering abroad.
For more advice on how volunteering can kickstart your career, watch this exclusive webinar on volunteering abroad, featuring an industry veteran with the volunteer group VSO.
Have any advice on how to transition to a career in global development? Please leave them as comments below. You can check out our Career Matters blog for more tips and tricks or subscribe to our YouTube channel for more career videos.