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Volunteer Work When Unemployed: Should You Work for Free?

You know the job market is bad when you can't even work for free.

An automated phone message at City of Hope, a leading cancer research and treatment center outside of Los Angeles, offers this rejection to would-be volunteers: “We are currently at capacity and will not be conducting any more orientations this year. Please call in mid-January.” Ouch.

Thanks to the recession, 250 volunteers are already helping out, and that’s plenty for Jason Cresswell, the volunteer coordinator at City of Hope. “I would say that 3 out of 10 calls I receive are from people who want to volunteer because they’ve been laid off or they’ve been unable to find work and are hoping they might be able to find something here,” he says.

And City of Hope is far from alone. Across the country, organizations from Boston Cares in the East to the Taproot Foundation in San Francisco are being inundated with newly laid-off volunteers. “There are countless skilled, talented professionals who are out of a job right now, and many of them want to keep their skills fresh, add to their resumes, and network with others in their field,” says Melanie Damm, recruitment manager for Taproot, which places executives with charities as pro bono consultants. The number of volunteer applicants there has more than doubled since 2007.

But while the right volunteer gig can help your job search, there are no guarantees. And in some cases, volunteer duties can actually get in the way. Here are six tips for getting the most out of pro bono work, and making sure it doesn’t take you out of the hunt.

1. Choose the Right Jobs

To make useful contacts and showcase your skills through volunteer work, you need to do two things: Take on big jobs, and showcase your skills while doing them. There’s nothing wrong with handing out a few flyers or making phone calls, but don’t stop there. Try helping a group to organize a fund-raising event, revamp its Web site, or serve on its board. “Only at that level will you make the kind of contacts that can make a difference,” notes Mark Brostoff, associate dean and director of the Weston Career Center at Washington University in St. Louis.

After Bonnie Johnson was laid off from her job in admissions for an online college last February, she immediately stepped up her volunteering efforts with the We Care Foundation, a women’s recovery house in Las Vegas. When Johnson was asked to join the Foundation’s board, giving her more visibility, she jumped at the chance. Four months later, when Seven Hills Behavioral Institute, a local rehabilitation hospital, was looking for a paid outreach director, a colleague at We Care recommended her, and she started her new job in July.

2. Hone Your Skills

By continuing to write press releases, balance the books, make speeches, or do whatever it is you do, even in a volunteer capacity, you’re keeping your skills sharp. And you should also try to learn new ones, such as mastering new software or honing your presentation skills. And be ready to describe those skills in detail during a job interview.

At the very least, volunteering should give you a couple of great talking points. When the interviewer asks what you’ve been doing since your last job, you want to be able to pinpoint your contribution. For example, “I used my accounting skills to balance the budget for the Conservation Society.” You don’t need to note on your resume that a project was unpaid, says executive consultant Jennifer Winn, president of Winn Performance Partners.

3. Watch Your Self-Esteem

Volunteering is supposed to make you feel good about yourself — I taught a kid to read! — but the search for a good gig can wind up making you feel worse, given the competition. “Charities can afford to cherry-pick like never before,” says Caroline Ceniza-Levine, a coach with, who adds that multiple interviews for volunteer positions are not unusual. Career coach Ronald Katz recalls one client who, after being turned away at a charity with an overflow of volunteers, moaned, “I can’t even get a job for no pay.” The takeaway: If your priority is a job that will pay the mortgage, don’t invest too much personal capital in the hunt for a volunteer position. Offer your services, then move on. Better to save your energy — and resilience — for your real job search.

4. Stay Focused on Your Real Job Search

Volunteering can feel like work did on a good day — busy, productive, and social. In fact, given your solitary unemployed state, volunteering can feel so good that you don’t notice what you’re avoiding, which is the hard work of finding your next job. Getting to know a company well enough to get inside and ace an interview takes tons of preparation, and spending lots of time on volunteer work can detract from that. It’s also important to avoid “time creep,” allowing volunteer work to take up more and more of your day. A proactive job search takes 20 to 40 hours a week, says Ceniza-Levine. That’s why she and others agree that 10 hours a week is the maximum amount of time you should spend volunteering. “Anything more than that, and there is a significant opportunity cost if you’re looking for a lucrative next step,” says Sabrina Zook, who teaches at New York University’s Leadership and Human Capital Management Department. Zook points out that time spent volunteering is time not spent attending meetings of professional associations, keeping your LinkedIn account active, learning from webinars, and so on.

5. Temper Your Expectations

All too often, people go into volunteer work thinking it can be a direct path to a job at the organization itself. “I’ve seen it happen, but not often,” Ceniza-Levine says. There’s no guarantee the organization will ever have the budget, and even if they do, you may get a lower offer because you’ve been working for free.”

Tom McKee, co-author of The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer, agrees. “The biggest misapprehension people have is that in three weeks or three months you have a job,” he says. “This is not a quick fix.”

6. Target Your Approach

Career changers and new grads have the most to gain from volunteering, but should be looking for different things. If you’re a recent grad and you find a volunteer job in your targeted field, you’re getting valuable experience. But you should make sure the position adds some specific skill to your resume — or badger your new boss until she gives you a task that will.

Career changers also have something to prove to prospective employers, and volunteering can help. Kim Crawford of San Diego, Calif., was making a leap from entertainment production to the environmental industry. Crawford chose California Resource Recovery Association, an environmental advocacy group, and by helping to produce the group’s annual trade show, she got a quick education in her new field. Afterward, she held onto her role as the go-to promotion person. Her first paid job in the field came six months later after a fellow volunteer put her in touch with an environmental engineering firm.

“The only way I was going to convince people I could provide value was through volunteer work,” Crawford says.

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