May 27, 2015; Guardian

The Guardian’s piece on how to start your career in the nonprofit or charity sector is refreshingly clear. The first point the article makes, and the one point we will spend the most time on, is that volunteering is still an important way to get your foot in the door of many nonprofits. Volunteering can, if handled properly, set you on the path you want rather than simply slotting you into whatever paid role might be open and available. In the right organization, it provides the opportunity to network with others in the field and, to some extent, to design one’s own course. Even if you lack formal credentials, it gives you a chance to distinguish yourself and highlight your real skillsets.

Are you one of those people who always think three steps ahead? Can you see where hidden resources lie? Are you unembarrassed to ask for money in support of a cause you deeply care about? You can prove yourself in all of these kinds of things as a volunteer, and in a way that’s quite distinct from a line on your resume saying you are “highly organized” or “a people person” or “detail oriented yet attentive to the big picture.” 

By the way, the trick is to keep your mind on mission and results and not on a possible job. Even if you circulate through a number of volunteer roles, it is all valuable education in the right organization—which can be described as “an organization that is open to using your skills and talents as serious resources.”

In some cases, signs of agility, self-motivation, and an orientation toward learning/action orientation, as shown by a volunteer, are way more convincing than a resume. “You need to stand out from the crowd. This means finding time to volunteer with a charity or community-based organization,” says Ola Fajobi, global head of human resources at Christian Aid. And for Henrietta Blyth of Tearfund, volunteering may outweigh postgraduate qualifications:

“Having relevant experience and skills is more valuable than lots of qualifications. Pick a few charities you fancy working for and write to the relevant member of staff to ask them if you can shadow them for a few days. If they say yes, you have an ideal way of building relationships in the sector.”

This last point is important because even if you ultimately have your eye on another type of organization, if you volunteer to establish a well-researched social media policy at your local food bank, it establishes a track record of a useful job, fully organized, that engaged your organizational skills, creative thinking, and research ability.

This brings us to the second-to-last point made in the article and that is to create your own role. Not only is this easy to do when you start as a volunteer, but it can also be done as an entry-level employee. Carla Miller, managing director of Charity People, says it is useful to look for organizational gaps: “I have created my own new job that way at a few different charities.” And if you’re looking for promotion, Miller adds, “Sit down with your manager and discuss how you need to develop in order to operate at a higher level—then work towards that.”

This newswire writer would never suggest such a thing if she had not, herself, made herself indispensable as a volunteer at places where she later ended up on staff—and if she had not, on a number of occasions, offered a job to a volunteer after watching them look for the gaps, figure out what was needed, and get it done in ways that she would never have been able to suss out.

We’d love to hear your own stories of starting as a volunteer.—Ruth McCambridge