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How volunteering helps your career goals and overall wellbeing

Giving back should come from the heart, but it can also help your career—and your health.

How volunteering helps your career goals and overall wellbeing
[Photo: Joel Muniz/Unsplash]

The evidence is in, and it’s probably not surprising: Volunteering is good for you.

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  • A 2020 Harvard University study found that older adults who volunteer 100 or more hours per year reduce their chance of early death and better levels of optimism and purpose in life than those who did not volunteer as much or at all.
  • A 2020 UK study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that the volunteers studied became happier over time.
  • Another study even found that volunteers are, on average, as healthy as people five years younger than they are.

And those are just a few pieces of the growing body of research about the positive benefits of giving back. Here’s another: Volunteering can help your career, too.

Of course, volunteering shouldn’t be transactional. In an ideal world, people donate their time, skills, and talent to help causes that are important to them or to contribute to the greater good, says Vicki Salemi, a career expert with job search website Monster. “You want to [find] an organization where your values are in alignment and you enjoy the people that you’re working with, similar to a job where you make sure the culture is in alignment with yours,” she says.

But as you work to make the world—or, at least, your corner of it—better, you could also be getting a professional boost. Here are four ways that giving back can help your career, and how to find opportunities to do so:

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Learn something new

While nonprofits often need help with initiatives like events, fundraisers, and programs, there are often skills-based and leadership opportunities available, too, says leadership consultant Shanna Hocking, creator and host of the One Bold Move a Day podcast. And they’re more likely to let you try your hand at something new to you.

“So many nonprofits need extra hands and will be more willing to take a chance on someone trying something they don’t have experience in yet,” she says. So, whether you want to get better at graphic design or need to flex your leadership muscles with a committee or board position, you may be able to gain that experience through volunteerism with a nonprofit that needs help in those areas, giving you the opportunity to take on stretch projects. This could be particularly valuable if you have career advancement or change in mind.

Build leadership and other skills

Taking what you know to your volunteer opportunity could help you get the experience you need to advance in your career. Food products manufacturer Kellogg Company has developed a skills-based volunteering pilot initiative with The United Way. When employees participate in the program, they’re matched with a nonprofit that could use the skills they wish to volunteer. The pandemic made these opportunities popular because many virtual volunteering opportunities were skills-based, says Stephanie Slingerland, Kellogg’s senior director of global philanthropy and social impact. And it helps the company, too. “Employees want to work for companies that care about issues that they care about,” she says.

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Food designer Matt Reid, a self-described “natural introvert,” volunteered for an opportunity to help a local diaper bank develop job profiles and an evaluation process. As he taught the team how to plan for growth and identify the skills employees needed as the organization grew, he also achieved some of his professional development goals. He led a team to a successful outcome and gained experience in employee evaluations—skills he will need to eventually lead a team at Kellogg’s.

Grow your network

As you get involved with an organization, you’re going to naturally meet new people and build your network, Salemi says. If you’re effective and hard-working, those around you will remember. “You can network all you want, but if you don’t have a positive attitude, and those around you can’t vouch for you and endorse you, then the networking won’t lead you anywhere,” she says.

You may also have the opportunity to meet other professionals or accomplished members of your community or industry who can end up being valuable contacts, especially for young professionals who may find potential mentors or sponsors, Hocking says. So, as you volunteer, get to know the people around you. You never know who you might meet. And you may be able to help those individuals, as well.

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Show your values

Having volunteer roles on your résumé may say good things about your values to employers. “It says they care about their community,” Hocking says. “That that reflects on who people are as individuals, not just as job candidates.” In fact, Deloitte’s 216 Impact Survey found that 82% of employers were more likely to hire candidates with volunteer experience.

Volunteerism may also signal to prospective employers that you’ll be a good culture fit, Salemi says. If the company is committed to giving back as one of its core values, and you’ve shown that you are passionate about helping the community in similar ways, she says. “That can go a long way,” she says. Just be sure that you’re not overextending yourself, which could backfire, she warns.

Find opportunities

If you’re looking for opportunities to put your skills to work for worthy causes, you may start with your employer. Companies like Kellogg’s have initiatives that can help you find opportunities that are a good match for your skills. These programs can also be a win for employers, Slingerland says. “[Volunteer opportunities are] a great way to build culture within your team, get to know people, all while, giving back and helping to contribute to the [company’s philanthropy goals],” she says.

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To find the right volunteering options on your own, check out websites like CatchaFire, Create the Good®, or Idealist, which list nonprofit opportunities that may align with your skills and interests while supporting the causes that matter to you.

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About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites

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