Working Strategies: How to give work away

I talked with a job seeker recently who has an advanced degree, marketable expertise and years of experience in his profession. He’s smart, articulate and writes a good letter. But still, he struck out.

At job search? No, at landing a volunteer gig. “I can’t even give my services away,” he commented.

Non-response from nonprofits has become a common theme in conversations I’ve had with potential volunteers.

Working Strategies by Amy Lindgren

Working Strategies by Amy Lindgren

What’s a volunteer to do? The first step is psychological: Remember that those who need your help the most will likely have the worst hiring processes. The other steps are strategic. Nonprofits, like every other employer, have criteria for their workers. You’ll need to tackle the problem as you would a job search:

  • Do your research to understand the agency’s mission and services.
  • Decide why you want to volunteer: To get or use specific skills? To support a specific cause? To be part of a work community?
  • Prepare a résumé or letter that shows your strengths.
  • Either contact the organization directly or work with a volunteer matching system. One online resource you might enjoy using is Volunteer Match.
  • Don’t expect one contact to be enough. If you’ve sent a letter and nothing is happening, pick up the phone.
  • Be clear about your goals and limits. If you want mindless work but a sense of community, say so. If you want to use your expertise, make that clear.
  • Be absolutely reliable.
  • Have fun. Volunteer work can give structure and meaning to your time while you’re unemployed, and may even lead to a job.
  • Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn. She can be reached at or at 626 Armstrong Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102.

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