Sure, I’ll work for free

Volunteering. Some of us have it in our blood, or have been raised to view it as not just a civic duty, but a humanitarian one. Some schools even give credit now for volunteering hours, I suspect in an attempt to instil the idea that volunteering has value. Others see it as a nice thing for other people to do, but are willing, when able, to dip into their pockets for money to support various causes.

I’ll place myself firmly in the latter category. I did some volunteering as a kid, when organizations I was attached to (Guides, 4-H) did it, but it wasn’t a thing when I was growing up, and my parents, who went on to be recognized by the province for their volunteer work in retirement, were too busy working to do it themselves and set the example. Later, when I became a journalist, I was given to understand that people in my profession didn’t attach themselves to causes — they had to avoid the appearance of bias. I probably took that to extremes, but I didn’t want to give prospective employers any reason not to hire me.

Nowadays, particularly for younger job-seekers, employers will often look for volunteering experience on the CV as a way of separating the wheat from the chaff. And volunteering itself is, in a tight job market, seen as a way to gain valuable experience, credentials which can be used to your advantage in the job search — Concordia University calls it strategic volunteering.

I started thinking about this recently while talking to a guy in his early 40s whose chosen career hasn’t turned out the way he wanted, and the McJobs he’s done to support that career choice, never something he’s enjoyed, are becoming less and less attractive. He’s discovered something he really likes to do and is quite good at — something that could be not only a valid career choice but a much-needed creative outlet. The catch is that so far he’s self-taught. Even if he could afford to go back to school to learn to do it as a trade, he’d be approaching 50 — and competing with 20-somethings — when he finished.

So I suggested that he volunteer. The opportunity exists. He could learn the skill in its commercial application from the ground up, along with various peripheral skills. His hands-on experience, plus the soft skills he already has, should make him attractive to an employer — or could allow him to start his own business.

Volunteering can give you valuable experience dealing with people; organizing; leadership skills if that’s your bag. It can give you a creative outlet, an chance to use skills that your own employer doesn’t use. In fact, even if you’re not unemployed volunteering can be a way to add to your skill set and make your CV more attractive to prospective employers, or just make you a more fulfilled, better-rounded person by giving you an opportunity to tap into abilities that are lying fallow. As  many a housewife can tell you, just because it’s not paid for doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable work.

It sounds kind of ruthless, and antithetical to the whole idea of volunteering, to leverage that supposedly charitable impulse into paying work, but look at it this way: not all volunteering opportunities are with charities. And, if it makes you feel better, the rich and powerful often do it the other way around — use their charitable work to soften their images, give themselves a rosy tinge of altrusim. Either way, the place  where you’re volunteering wins.