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You’re probably not doing this one activity that can help your career

Volunteering is personally rewarding and fulfilling, but it can also help you get ahead at work. A sociologist shares how.

You’re probably not doing this one activity that can help your career
[Photo: Daniel Funes Fuentes/Unsplash]

You want to get ahead at work, so you work hard, build your relationship with your boss, and perform brilliantly. But did you know one of the best things you can do for your career is away from the office? Volunteering is linked to higher wages, a greater likelihood of employment, and more fulfillment.

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In 2018, a study published in Social Science Research found that those who volunteer tend to see a bump in their salary. A 2013 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research also found positive correlations between volunteering and higher wages and between volunteering and the likelihood of employment. Volunteering can also contribute to more happiness and fulfillment, and the perception of having more time.

Why volunteering is good for you

Volunteering has a positive impact on your career for four reasons:

  • It’s a great way to build skills. In volunteer pursuits, you can take a leadership role or contribute to tasks where you haven’t tested your skills before.
  • It expands your social networks. Often, job growth comes through shifting to new positions or new companies. A network you build through volunteering can be instrumental in discovering these opportunities.
  • Others view the activity positively. When you’re applying for a new job (inside or outside your company) or reaching for a new, desirable project, leaders will likely see volunteer efforts as evidence of motivation, reliability, and a desire to contribute to your greater community.
  • It can contribute to your sense of self-worth and provide for well-being and meaning outside of work. When you’re fulfilled in your work-life as a whole, you’re more likely to be happy and to give your best to your job.

But if you have a full schedule (because who doesn’t?) or you’re already burning the candle at both ends, how can you find the time to volunteer? It’s important to know that when you volunteer, you’ll actually perceive you have more time. It may seem counterintuitive, but a 2012 study found that giving time selflessly—compared with wasting time or spending time on oneself—increased people’s perceptions of how much time they had.

So how do you make the most of volunteer experiences? Here are six tips to help others and help yourself.

1. Leverage your skills

Select volunteer opportunities based on where you can make the most impact with your existing skills. If you’re brilliant at organizing and project management, apply those skills to the local Habitat for Humanity build. If you’re a great reader, volunteer to help youth develop literacy through a program at your town’s library. You’ll feel good when you can use your skills well, and you’re contributing.

2. Build new skills

In addition to leveraging the talents you have, use volunteer opportunities to develop the skills where you might not yet be proficient. Perhaps you don’t get the chance to lead at work, but you can provide formal leadership to others outside of work. Manage the volunteer team on Tuesday nights at your school’s secondhand store or take accountability for the financials at the not-for-profit where you’re on the board. Leadership is a skill that’s transferable to any field, so when you develop it, the benefits for your paid work will be significant.

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3. Choose visibility

You might also want to look out for volunteer opportunities within your company. Can you put your hand up to lead your company’s United Way campaign or start a “young professionals” group at the office? These additional opportunities are a great way to showcase your skills while giving back to the broader community.

4. Get outside your comfort zone

Because of the rate of change in our world today, every career benefits from flexibility. You can build your ability to adapt, flex, and stretch by volunteering beyond your typical experience. If your work keeps you in an office all day, consider volunteering at a nature center where you’re learning new things about the ecosystem. Expanding your knowledge outside your areas of expertise is good for your general adaptability, and it can contribute to your ability to solve problems. Often, the challenge you’re facing at work can benefit from insights that come from making unlikely connections with lessons that you get from outside of the office.

5. Build your network and your relationships

Volunteering helps you grow your network, which can benefit your career path. In addition to considering needs and how you can help, also engage in volunteer roles that connect you with people in your community. If you join the board of the local women’s shelter, you may meet other business leaders who you can learn from. Also, consider volunteering with teammates. Getting away from the office together to plant the community garden or paint the common room of the mission builds connections in ways that work at the office cannot.

6. Make it work with your life

Of course, you’ll want to volunteer when it’s convenient for you, but also consider your family and friends. If your best friend is part of a Saturday morning soccer club, use that time for your own volunteering so you don’t detract from your time together. Consider ways to create opportunities to volunteer with your family. Showing up with your spouse and kids to make suppers for food-insecure school children makes a significant contribution and is a fulfilling way to spend time together.

Volunteering is good for your community, but it’s also good for you. It lets you leverage your existing skills while you build new ones. At the same time, it allows you to create visibility, adaptability, and new relationships. It’s the one thing you can do to advance your career that is as unexpected as it is impactful.


Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.

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