January 31, 2011

The Value of Volunteering

How do you place a value on something you’re supposed to do out of the goodness of your own heart?

When it comes to volunteering, doesn’t it feel a little wrong to ask, "What’s in it for me?"

These days, unemployed job seekers are being encouraged more than ever to use their time to help others. I’m part of that chorus and have been for years. One reason I’m so keen on volunteering is that I’m really a Calvinist at heart. I might not say that idle hands are the devil’s workshop, as the old adage goes, but I don’t think they do you any good either. If you’ve got time, why shouldn’t you be doing something productive with it?

But I’m also a pragmatist. If a job seeker isn’t careful, he or she could fill the day with mindless volunteer tasks, where any pair of hands could have filled the bill. That’s how accountants and teachers end up folding sheets at the community hospital or serving soup at the homeless shelter. Yes, these things need to be done and yes, they make the accountant and teacher feel needed. But do they return a value in terms of contacts that these professionals can use to find the next job? Will they provide skills or knowledge they can leverage to make a career change? If the answer is no, then I have to ask: Are these the right volunteer jobs at this point in these peoples’ lives?

That’s not to say that they should never serve the soup. Rather, I don’t want soup-serving to be the only volunteering they do. Or else, I’d rather it was reserved for Saturday afternoons after they find their next job.

So which volunteer gig would pass my self-interest test? To find out, ask yourself what you’d like to do next in your career. Suppose you want an international assignment – then maybe you should be looking into opportunities to volunteer abroad. Or maybe you’re planning to work in earth sciences – would you consider being a volunteer archeologist for a few weeks? At the very least, the accountant might join the finance committee for a nonprofit and the teacher might volunteer to tutor at an after-school program.

Bottom line? Your time does have value, even when you’re not being paid. Make sure there’s something in it for you when you sign up as a volunteer.

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