Why work without being paid? It’s a good question.
In this article, we explore the enormous benefits volunteering can bring and provide you with tips so that you can make the most out of the experience, especially in terms of your future career.
There are various ways in which you can volunteer; it doesn’t have to be regular work. You could do the odd day, or volunteer during school, college or university holidays, or as part of a gap year. Other opportunities require more of a commitment – perhaps an evening each week or one day each weekend.
Apart from the obvious satisfaction you can get from helping others, championing a cause or improving the environment, there are lots of benefits associated with volunteering. Here we’ll examine a few of these.
1. Volunteering allows you to explore career ideas
If, like many people, you’re not sure what you want to do, volunteering can give you an insight into different careers.
Spending time doing tasks in a ‘work’ environment – even if your role is unpaid – will give you a chance to see how things operate in the real world, and you may come across people doing a range of jobs, some of which you may not have heard of before.
Working in an area such as healthcare or education, or doing practical tasks, like gardening or cooking, might confirm that you’d like to work in a particular job, setting or sector. On the other hand, you might decide that that sort of work really isn’t for you.
Either way, you will learn more about what you want in life.
- Chat to people about their jobs. You could find out how they got started, what their work entails, what they like and dislike, what routes their career can take and the challenges they face. You’ll find that most people like talking about their careers.
- Similarly, talk to other volunteers who may have permanent jobs in completely different areas.
- Although there may be limitations on what you can do as a volunteer, if there’s something you’d like to have a go at, just ask.
2. Volunteering can enhance your applications
Whether you’re already in paid work or not, volunteering can broaden your experience and help with your future applications.
Not only will volunteering look good on your CV and on your job, course or apprenticeship applications, it’ll give you something to talk about in interviews. This is particularly important if you don’t have much, if any, paid work experience to offer.
Admissions tutors and recruiters are always impressed by someone who has made the effort to use their time productively. And if you want to apply for training in careers where there is a lot of competition (as in the case of media or nature conservation roles, for instance) or you need to demonstrate that you understand the challenges involved and are fully committed (for medicine, social work, veterinary science and so on), gaining some relevant experience – paid or unpaid – is essential.
Even if your primary reason to volunteer is to help other people or contribute to a cause, there’s no harm in making the most of it.
- If you enjoy your volunteering and have made a good impression, look out for paid jobs or training opportunities that may become available within the organisation. You’ll be in a good position to apply.
- Remember, it’s not just the experience itself that’s valuable, it’s how you present it. When mentioning your volunteering on your CV, in applications or at interviews, try to relate what you have done and the skills you have developed (see below) to the opportunities for which you are applying.
3. Volunteering develops your skills
Volunteering is likely to give you the chance to work on your transferrable skills – these are the skills needed in all sorts of jobs (and other areas of life), such as your ability to:
- Communicate with others
- Organise and plan
- Solve problems
- Work well within a team
Depending on what you do, you may also learn more specific job-related skills, such as:
- First aid
- Sports coaching
- Practical skills like decorating or carpentry
- When applying for jobs, courses or training opportunities, make sure that the potential employer or learning provider is aware of the skills you have developed. Mention what you have done and the skills you’ve used on your CV, in applications and at interviews.
- Use the ‘STAR’ technique to answer ‘competence-based questions’ on application forms or at interviews. These ask you to draw on ways you have used certain skills, aptitudes or behaviours in the past as an indication of how you would perform in the role for which you are applying. They may want to know how you have coped with a problem or worked in a team, for example. Using the STAR technique you would:
- S – Situation – State the context of the situation/task you faced and explain what you were you doing and when
- T – Task – Describe the nature of the challenge, task or problem
- A – Action – Explain what you did, why and how, and what skills you had to use
- R – Result – Mention what happened in the end
Here’s a brief example of a competence-based question and a STAR response. You would obviously try to give more detail.
Question: Tell me about a time when you had to manage your time effectively.
S – When I was at college last year, I volunteered each weekend at a local hospital.
T – As my A level mock and actual exams approached, I had to spend more time studying.
A – I decided to produce a revision timetable so that I could be sure to cover all the necessary topics. I also spoke with my volunteer coordinator and we agreed that I would temporarily reduce my hospital hours for a few weeks when revising.
R – This way I managed to juggle my time effectively whilst carrying on with the volunteering, which I really enjoyed.
4. Volunteering can help you develop as a person
Volunteering often means taking on some responsibility, being faced with unfamiliar situations and meeting all sorts of people of different ages and backgrounds. By gradually moving out of your comfort zone, you’ll find that your confidence will improve.
Depending on your volunteer role, you may come across people with disabilities, long-term health conditions or who face disadvantage in other ways. This will help you develop empathy and understanding for others.
Committing to volunteering also demonstrates that you are a reliable person. It shows that you have the initiative to do something productive with your time and that you’re not frightened to work hard and (possibly) juggle different commitments.
- Before you start, set yourself some objectives. Although your main aim might be to help others, it doesn’t’ hurt to think about what you would like to get out of the experience.
- Jot down what you have done. You can refer to your notes when you come to apply for other opportunities.
- To help you identify your strengths and weaknesses, ask for feedback.
- Review what you have and haven’t enjoyed, what challenges you’ve faced and how you’ve coped. Has the experience altered your career aspirations or firmed up your career goal?
5. Volunteering gives you the opportunity to make contacts
You may come across a range of people including:
- Those who work for the charity or other organisation where you are volunteering
- Professionals, such as social workers, teachers, healthcare staff, nature wardens…
- Other volunteers
- Clients, patients, pupils, service users – anyone who you may support
Not only might you make like-minded friends, mixing with a range of people widens your outlook and may give you the opportunity to connect with people who could support you in the future.
- Be polite and professional with everyone you meet.
- Ask your volunteer supervisor or other key people whether you can stay in touch and if they'd be prepared to be a referee for you in the future.
- When your volunteering comes to an end, make sure that you thank everyone. Even though you have given up your time, many of the people you will have come across may also be volunteers or have worked hard for you to have a positive experience.
Do some research on available opportunities. Check whether you have the initial skills they are seeking and meet any other requirements. Some roles are not suitable if you are under a certain age or if you don’t have the necessary training or experience.
Also bear in mind the practicalities; although you may get expenses, you may not want to spend a lot of time travelling. Make sure that you are aware of your time and other commitments, and find out what support and training will be available.
If you are at school, college or university – or even in employment – they may have links with organisations that need volunteers.
If you have something specific in mind, you could make direct contact with the relevant charity or organisation. If you want to volunteer as part of a gap year, various organisations offer volunteer projects abroad; make sure the organisation you choose has a good reputation.
Volunteering can be a really positive and rewarding experience. It may be something you never forget and it can have a big impact on your future choices. If you pick an opportunity that interests you, you’ll get more out of it. Even better if you are able to find something relevant to a career you are considering.
Whether your interests lie in sports, art, media, heritage, the environment, animals, practical work, or behind-the-scenes roles in administration or fundraising, for example, there’s bound to be something to suit you.
Debbie Steel, February 2023
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.