A reader writes:
I've just starting reading your blog (obsessively) and completely love it. I'm about to graduate, completely terrified, and the advice you provide has made me feel infinitely more confident that I might not end up living in a cardboard box clutching my Bachelor's Degrees and sobbing into my UMass sweatshirt.
My question is this: There's a non-profit company in Boston that I really would love to work for. Their mission is in line with my own passions, I think that working for them would make my work feel truly valuable, and there are a lot of things that I could do there that I think I would enjoy. As a new grad however, I don't know that I have the experience to get hired for them, but I do have the option of volunteering. They have a lot of positions for volunteering, including some office positions to help with things like mailings and filing. I feel as though that might be an excellent way to get a foot in the door; I could meet people at the company and prove my enthusiasm and work ethic first hand. However, I worry that this is pointless either because volunteers are never really considered for paying positions, or because it might even be seen as underhanded because essentially I would be volunteering my time with an ulterior motive.
What do you think? Should I forget it entirely? Give it a chance but be upfront about hoping to land a job? Just go be the best volunteer they've ever had until they're begging to hire me? I should note that I completely understand that volunteering would in no way entitle me to a job, and I would be happy to give my time to a great company even if it didn't work out as I hoped.
Thank you so much for doing what you do! It really makes a difference. Reading your blog makes me feel that I might have a shot at getting to show someone what I am capable of. It's so frustrating to know that on paper you are someone that will just be tossed in the trash, and your advice gives me hope that I might be able to get someone to take a second look. Thank you.
I normally edit out compliments out of some weird sense of ... propriety? But what the hell -- these are so nice that I left them in. I enjoy lavish praise.
Absolutely you should volunteer! And you should tell them that you're hoping to be considered for a paying job at some point. People do this all the time; it's completely normal and you will not look underhanded in the least. To the contrary, they'll welcome this evidence of your engagement in their work.
If you want to work for a particular nonprofit, volunteering is a great, great way to get a foot in the door. You get to meet inside players and form relationships, get early leads on upcoming openings, and you get to demonstrate that you are reliable, talented, organized, efficient, skilled, and all the other things people look for in new hires.
Here's the most important part: By volunteering, you become a known quantity. If I have a candidate who's qualified for a job and she's a known quantity -- meaning that I know from direct experience with her that she's reliable, competent, sane, etc. -- I will almost always go with the known quantity over a marginally more qualified candidate who is a stranger to me. The reason for this is that you simply can never get to know someone as well in interviews as you can by actually working with them. The candidate who seems great in interviews can end up being flaky, disorganized, difficult to work with, all sorts of problematic things that someone can manage to hide during the hiring process. But someone you've actually worked with? You know what you're getting. And volunteering lets you become that known quantity.
(Of course, you have to be a good known quantity. That means you should treat your volunteer work as seriously as you would a paying job.)
By the way, I got one of my first jobs by volunteering. I'd been volunteering in a nonprofit's office for a few months when someone suddenly quit. They knew me and my work, and they plugged me right into the position without ever advertising it. In fact, that job led me on the path that put me in the job that I'm in today.
Go for it. Worst case scenario is that you don't end up being offered a paying job there but you've spent time helping a charity you feel good about, you've made new contacts, and you have additional work to put on your resume (because yes, volunteer work should absolutely go on your resume). Good luck!