Away with thee, bake sales! Begone, badly-designed t-shirts! This is the 2Ks. It’s time to come out of the mothball-scented closet. Volunteering has gotten a bad rap as a purely “selfless” activity, where “selfless” equals “dreary” and “boring.” But servitude doesn’t need to be “selfless”, or even selfless — in fact, it can be gloriously self-serving…in a righteous, career-boosting, soul-enhancing, horizon-expanding kinda way. In short, when you volunteer, everyone wins. And I’mma lay it out for you lavishly, here. “Greater good,” meet “good times.”
If your work history has more holes than a moth-eaten camisole, fill the gaps with meaningful, relevant volunteer work. If you’re itching to acquire some new skills — event planning, communications, project management, cheese-mongering — start building credibility with a volunteer position. Remember: it’s still legitimate career experience, even if you’re not getting paid big bucks. (Or small ones.)
If your professional network feels a little flimsy, solidify relationships with like-minded volunteer comrades. Pick their brains, pitch ideas, strut your stuff. The lady stuffing envelopes next to you could provide the glowing testimonial that secures your next paid position.
Before you dive headfirst into a career in, say, nursing, why not spend a few hours volunteering in a hospital to double-check that the sight of blood doesn’t make you swoon onto the nearest fainting couch? Volunteering lets you test the waters before committing to an intensive — and expensive — academic program.
It sounds glib and goody-two-shoes, but it’s true: doing good feels good. According to a 2010 study conducted by UnitedHealthcare & VolunteerMatch, 78% of Americans who volunteer at least one hour a week report an “optimistic” outlook on life — compared to 67% of Americans who don’t volunteer as much.
Volunteering is good for the CV, the contact list, the bank account and the psyche. But sometimes, even with all the goodness stacked in your favor, you need a little agave nectar to sweeten the pot. How about a volunteer gig that pays you back, while you’re paying it forward? Now we’re talking. Here are but a few:
What you do: Volunteer for an average of 5-6 hours per day on an organic farm (take your pick — there are host farms in nearly 100 countries). Bone up on sustainability and eco-conscious capitalism. Get muddy. Make friends.
What you get: Free room and board. Sometimes a small weekly stipend.
Rad factor: No binding contracts. If agrarian life isn’t to your liking, you can politely extricate yourself from the cornfield. No harm, no foul — no lawsuits.
What you do: Volunteer as a data entry specialist, resume writer, social media & SEO assistant, publicity rep or video producer. Help down-and-out job hunters get back on track — from the comfort of your Internet-enabled home.
What you get: Earn 500 American Express bonus reward points for every hour of service — up to 10,000 points per year.
Rad factor: Help My Resume’s volunteers have revamped over 135,000 documents since January 2009. Serious efforts. Serious progress.
What you do: Whip out your painting, puppetry, sculpting or sketching skills to “support the environmental, public health and human rights initiatives of Central American organizations.”
What you get: Room and board, health insurance, a personal stipend and a budget for art materials.
Rad factor: Volunteers receive advanced advocacy training (using ArtCorps’ Art for Social Action model) during their one- and two-year placements. Hot stuff.
What you do: Lend your techy noggin to a needy community in a developing nation. Optimize a floundering business, clean up financial services, or implement a functional IT system.
What you get: Airfare to your overseas assignment, immunizations, visas and a daily per diem to cover meals and accommodation.
Rad factor: If your project extends past 28 days, GeekCorps will pay for your spouse to join you. One catch: they gotta buck up and volunteer, too.
What you do: Whatever the hell you want. It’s a luscious, little-known fact: many employers offer paid Volunteer Time Off (VTO) — somewhere between 8 to 25 hours per fiscal year.
Payback: Um, money. Like a paycheck.
Rad factor: CIGNA, Pepsi Co. and Bank of America are outspoken supporters of VTO incentives. Check with your supervisor (or HR department) to see if your company is on board. (And if not? Nudge ‘em in the right direction.)
All juiced up and ready to volunteer like a mofo? All For Good, Idealist, VolunteerMatch, Serve.gov and VolunteerAbroad.com are pretty swell portals to start your search.
Go knock ‘em dead, Mother Teresa.
Alexandra Franzen has been lauded as “Spock, but with a sense of humor. And better hair.” As a writer + editor + organization freak, she pens shimmering webcopy, wrangles communications for pro-bloggers and teaches wallflowers how to hustle likea gangsta’. Find her blogging up a storm at Unicorns for Socialism and tweeting away @Alex_Franzen.