Volunteering for Career Skills

There are many good reasons for volunteering, such as meeting new people, learning about various issues, or making a difference in the lives of others. What about volunteering to make a difference in your own career path?

Volunteering in addition to work and school, has always been a worthwhile activity for personal growth. I volunteered for many years while I was still studying and the habit continued into my adult years. At some point, I overcame an extreme case of writer’s block by simply being useful to others while volunteering at a hospice for terminal cancer patients.

We often don’t think about volunteering as the first local experience in a foreign country, because we focus too much on lining up job interviews. If we know how to better find skill-based volunteering opportunities, then volunteering could also help get new job opportunities by way of developing a network as well as relevant job skills. Even if we find a job instantly, volunteering could benefit us in gaining local know-how.


Personal Time for Professional Development

A career post, a temporary wage job, or an internship, this is what we often go after when we move abroad. These types of employment advance our careers in obvious ways: They promote hard skill development and signal network leverage with great certainty. Some are lucky enough to make a smooth and quick entry into the labor market.

Let’s not forget that it takes someone a well-defined path and great determination to match the labor market needs upon arrival. Some of us, just don’t have that kind of straight path. That’s why personal free-time activities are also powerful in building up our professional competencies – whether or not you get paid.


From Simple to More Complicated Tasks

Volunteering remains to be one of the most personally-rewarding activities that I engage in. The simplest tasks include stacking chairs at events to online marketing posts on Facebook. But volunteering could get a lot more complicated, if you wish to get out of your comfort zone.

At the height of the refugee crisis in Europe (2014/2015), many expats rushed to National Asylum Centers to “help.” Whenever we take on a humanitarian responsibility like that, we begin to develop professional growth through a highly marketable set of new personal skills. First skill that comes to mind from my experiences at the Danish Red Cross is people skills.

All in all, I volunteered at Danish Asylum for no more than 12 months in 2015 – mingling with a small group of recently arrived refugees (including minors). The migrants had no idea who I was, why I was there, and knew well we may never see each other again. That kind of interaction makes for a precarious, highly sensitive team environment. Taking a customer approach then makes sense even when there is no product exchanged. The volunteer position was all about creating activities that simply celebrate the shared moment –spending an indefinite amount of time with a vulnerable group and making connections however temporary.

A few months into this type of volunteering, it became obvious that “customer-oriented” attitude was essential to setting the right expectations: Be warm and kind without being personal. As my co-volunteer Amanda once put it: “How far can we go into personal stories of others?” This experience was always a trial for all volunteers: We lacked the background, the guidelines and proper behavioral training. But we managed to shift from the “do good” mentality to learning together.


Transition from Free-Time Work to Business Model

I have recently started to also think about how to transform such small volunteer commitments into project ideas, possibly even for self-employment.

Whatever training is available to locals in Denmark (probably not much), is definitely not available to expats as of yet. At least, I didn’t go through any training or clearance to spend time with people on a forced move. Amanda and I have since kept in touch and we’ve been talking about developing a Volunteer Training Program that provides basic Guidelines for volunteer interaction with people in distress. This is a project that will empower mission-focused volunteers to purposeful skill developers. It’s somewhat along the lines of Talent Development (we are proposing to empower the volunteers with team leadership and “customer” relationship skills).


Volunteering with a Purpose

What I choose to get out of my volunteering experiences is first and foremost the human experience. (I have yet to serve as the number-crunching Treasurer on my network Board!)

I prefer to be out there assisting and engaging others to overcome my lack of network. Lately, I also prefer to create my own volunteer opportunities by identifying needs in my community It’s always a good excuse to start a conversation about surrounding issues, asking others if a project you plan is relevant, or even appropriate. This type of self-initiative is a very long-term investment into building a network (and it can sometimes lead nowhere if not managed well).

Some people, however, chose exclusively to volunteer with what’s available in the local market. In such a case, feel comfortable asking your targeted volunteer organization for clear task-to-skill matching; and whether or not they assist volunteers in better developing a personal vision and skill set. It’s not always a given that well-established organizations will support their volunteers with skills.

As long as we are talking about volunteering for career development, you can always justify volunteering as a networking tool. Therefore, definitely try to enjoy the experience of volunteering above all! The fun, of course, will not directly help you in your career path, unless you focus on gaining a business perspective for your activities. So find, if you can, organizations with an established placement process, volunteer program philosophy, volunteer job descriptions, corresponding time commitments, and paths to leadership.

Here we are member Petek Jinkins is a Technical Writer, copy writer and HR professional currently located in Copenhagen Denmark. For more inspiration on how to build new skills abroad, please also read Petek’s blogpost Managing Career Transitions – and public speaking – at TEDx

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