How to Build a Solid Professional Network by Volunteering

by Sharon Elber

Volunteering Creates Opportunities

Sure, volunteering looks great as a line or two on your resume. However, if that is all you are getting from your charity work, then you are missing the boat.

In fact, working with a nonprofit to impact the lives of people in your community is a tremendous chance to showcase your professional skills, establish meaningful relationships across diverse business sectors, and cultivate meaningful connections that can translate into significant business contacts.

Whether you are currently in the job search, want to boost exposure for your business, or are driven to shift career paths down the road, volunteering is an excellent choice to bolster your chances for success.

Here are 10 practical tips to leverage volunteering to advance your career goals and expand your professional network along the way:

1. Explore Your Passions

Volunteering offers you the opportunity to be very picky about the issues you choose to put your energy towards. When you are passionate about the work you do, it shows. The people you meet and interact with as a result of your volunteer work are going to see you at your most engaged, maximizing the impression you will make on them.

When those same people become aware of a job opening that suits your skills, you are sure to come to mind!

2. Corporate Citizenship

If you are already working for a company that you love, there may be an opportunity to dovetail your volunteer work with your current career ambitions from within. Many businesses these days, both large and small, have learned that giving back is a way to build customer loyalty and build the reputation of the brand.

Be sure to investigate any opportunities to get involved at your current place of employment to maximize the visibility of your efforts and to meet well located people in your organization that you may not have had the chance to meet otherwise.

If your company does not currently have a program, consider pitching one and offering to take on some responsibility putting together a project that will engage the community and improve the reputation of your organization at the same time.

3. Aim for the Future

Even if you have a job, is it your dream job? If not, volunteering may offer you a chance to leverage towards a different career trajectory that is more in line with your deepest hopes for your ambitions.

If you are not quite sure where you want to go with your career, look for chances to try on something new to see if it is something that you enjoy and excel at.

4. Take on Responsibility

Look for chances to make use of and expand your professional skill set in your volunteer work. Not only will this boost your resume, it allows people to see you showing off your knowledge, experience and expertise in ways that relate directly to your career ambitions.

Volunteering offers unique opportunities to develop valuable leadership skills as well. It is a chance to take on a leadership role in an environment that can be less risky than at work. Be ready to learn from your mistakes and ask for help when you need it.

5. Manage Your Time

One of the biggest challenges of charitable work is that it can be so mentally and emotionally rewarding that it can become a distraction from other priorities. Making the most of volunteering requires that you balance it with other responsibilities including family, education, career and your personal needs.

Be ready to say “No thank you!” to additional responsibilities when you sense that your commitments are already stretched to the max. You aren’t helping anyone when you bite off more than you can chew.

6. Take a Risk

Sometimes, it can be dangerous to take on a new project that requires you to step out of your comfort zone at work. Fear of failure, pressure to produce results, and a competitive environment can make it extremely difficult to “jump in” to an area where you lack experience.

However, non-profit organizations tend to have a different culture. They tend to be more supportive of a “learn as you go” style of personal development, with plenty of experienced people around who are more than happy to step in and help you learn the ropes.

7. Be Visible at Public Events

Most volunteer organizations have public events such as information booths at local fairs, fundraisers, or other ways to raise awareness about the cause. These events offer a tremendous opportunity to meet new people, further expanding your professional network.

Bring some business cards to these events but wait until you have a good reason to give one out. For example, if in the course of a conversation about the cause, you learn that someone is a consultant in a business area that you have a special interest in. Be genuine in expressing your interest in that area of work, then offer to exchange contact information to keep in touch about any future opportunities.

8. Seek Meaningful Relationships

One of the advantages of volunteering is that it gives you exposure to people of all walks of life and career levels in industries and sectors you might otherwise have not access to. Look for chances to make the most of these opportunities by forging meaningful relationships around shared passions.

Be sure to be on the lookout for chances to contribute to the careers of others by making them aware of opportunities that are relevant to their vocational ambitions. This not only demonstrates that you are a team player, it cultivates a great deal of loyalty from the people you are able to help in this way.

9. Get the Word Out

If you are looking for a job or are interested in a career move, make sure that gets on people’s radar in a natural way. There is no shame in getting the word out about your career ambitions as long as you do not come off as desperate.

Your network is strongest if people are aware to put your name out there when the right career opportunities open up.

10. Keep That Chin Up

Finally, one of the biggest returns on volunteering your time is the payback in terms of keeping you purposeful and solutions oriented during a long job search. This can play a critical role in helping you maintain a positive attitude that can translate to stronger interviews along the way as you continue to look for the right paid position.

In addition to building your professional network, you will also be developing a social network that will be an important support system throughout the job search and beyond. Again, these significant relationships are much stronger and lasting than trading business cards at other networking events such as career fairs or meetings of professional organizations.

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