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Outline: Volunteer experiences can be great for professional development. You develop new skills, meet new people, work with different organizations. However, when your only recent experience is unpaid – say, you’ve left the workforce to raise a family, or you’re in-between jobs – is volunteer experience still as valuable? Do companies really care about volunteer experiences? Can volunteers compete against paid professionals? Do employers care as much about what you accomplished if you were unpaid?


Related: other relevant experiences to include on your CV:

Quite Hard To Land A Paid Job

Increasingly, corporate bosses are taking note of job candidates’ volunteer efforts. They recognize that in the recent recession, talented students are having a hard time getting paid work. A recent LinkedIn survey found that 41% of hiring managers consider volunteer experience equally valuable as paid work. But a lot of people still feel nervous about what experience to include and how to be honest while also presenting in the best light. LinkedIn also found that 89% of professionals surveyed had volunteer experience, but only 45% included it on their CV. People are wondering whether it’s considered as legitimate as paid work experience.

Too often, talented people find a hard time landing a paid position. You need to have a certain set of skills and experience to get a job. Employers hire people because they are convinced those hires already have the skills and experience to do a job well. No matter the circumstance, you need to be able to demonstrate how those volunteer experiences are relevant skills upon which a hiring manager can predict your success.

From an employer’s standpoint, the hiring process is about much more than matching candidate skills and experience with a job opening’s stated requirements. They also carefully consider their perception of your personality, temperament and career progression, in order to get a sense of how good fit to the company you would be, and not only some other types of skills like problem solving.

Related: Do companies still care about Erasmus experiences?

Competitive Experience?

A recent LinkedIn survey found that 41% of hiring managers consider volunteer experience equally valuable as paid work. A volunteer experience can be a competitive experience if your role and results match what the prospective employer needs. At the end of the day, companies care about what you will do for them, not what you did. If you say you were able to conciliate your academic life with volunteer experiences, and these experiences helped you develop useful skills, how can this be a bad thing?

Many candidates are too modest, especially with unpaid experience. To be competitive, you have to value the experience, unpaid or not, and outline exactly why it translates to your new employer so they value you. You should share the details of how you came to play such an important role in the organization. So don’t forget: when including relevant unpaid work on your CV, be sure to be specific and quantify your accomplishments.

Just put yourself in the shoes of an employer and imagine this situation for a minute. Two job candidates with identical backgrounds. However, one of the candidates has a relevant volunteer (unpaid, obviously) experience – an experience that allowed the student to harvest relevant skills to the job he is applying. On the other hand, the other candidate has a paid irrelevant paid position. Which one would you choose?

Volunteer work can make you stand out from other people if you enhance certain details of your experience like the amount of responsibility you had to take. Quite often on job interviews you have just a five-second window to say something that is going to grab the attention of the interviewer. So if you say something like “I was responsible for managing a team of five that raised 2000€ to a charity event with zero resources” you will stand out and cement your value on the interviewers’ mind, for sure.

So… Is It Good Or Not?

Sometimes, experience outside your field can be included to demonstrate commitment and character. Some volunteer experience at well-known organizations can instantly signal your ability to execute efficiently and effectively on a certain job. However, you should not start loading your CV with every single good deed. You don’t want to have a list that hides your true accomplishments or ends up embarrassing you if the interviewer asks about something and you can’t speak about it in-depth. You don’t want to just put something to say you’ve done volunteer work – anything that was a one-time thing, or twice a year, it may not be significant.

Some argue that job applicants should think twice about including volunteer experience related to the often-touchy subjects of religion, politics, and sexual orientation. Moreover, if your volunteer work demonstrates something important about you and your life — whether it’s your children, sexual orientation, or religion — would you want to work for an employer that would discriminate against you because of it? All those things help paint a better picture of you as an individual – you wouldn’t want to work for an organization where you’d have to hide it.

So, yes, volunteers can compete with paid professionals and land jobs, when the volunteer experience is valuable and can be used as evidence of abilities and accomplishments. However, volunteer experience is easiest to sell as a complement to other paid experience. When using volunteer experience as your standalone experience, then you need to effectively raise its importance to paid status by showing how mission-critical it was to the organization. If your volunteer experience is substantive and if an organization would have paid for it but for a very good reason that you address, then volunteer experience can be cited competitively in your job hunt. In sum: if it is relevant to your career goals and the position you are applying, include it!

Related: Should you take electives in college?

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