Does it Pay to Volunteer?

If this is what your volunteer position looks like… STOP.

Update: Just a quick update based on some important feedback I received. This post speaks only to volunteering while you are in school – if you have the time, without impacting your studies (as I did). In no way am I suggesting, or do I support, that you should work for free once you have graduated. You’ve worked hard for that degree and should be compensated fairly.

When I was writing my thesis, this was how my typical day went:

  • Wake up and shower
  • Sit in my office all morning researching
  • Wander out briefly at lunch seeking any kind of human interaction
  • Return to my office and write until my eyes bled

It was the same in my second year, except I lost my office, and we got a puppy, so I worked mostly from home (and had to get up every 5 minutes to take said puppy to pee).

Needless to say, this was a bit of a dull routine , so I decided to volunteer for a couple of days a week. After asking a few Prof’s to recommend some companies, I made contact, had an interview, and was a working man shortly thereafter.

This might have been the best career move I’ve made, and is an approach that I’ve recommended to all of the students I speak with.

Because I was working for free, I don’t think I was expected to be an ace. However, in the year that I volunteered, I was able to learn all of the software mentioned here, and become familiar with all of the policies mentioned here. More importantly, I was able to work on real-world projects, and see how this differs from what I was learning in school (spoiler alert – it’s very different).

For many of you, your program may offer a co-op position. In this case, you’ll get the same benefits mentioned above. Otherwise, volunteer – you won’t regret it.

Some tips:

  • Be consistent. Regardless of how many days you can volunteer, pick consecutive days. This will allow you to dig into projects more thoroughly.
  • Be flexible. Notwithstanding the above, let your coworkers know if you can work different days/times. This will allow you to participate in evening workshops, business trips, etc.
  • Be a sponge. You will likely be working with some great and experienced people. Soak it up. Ask lots of questions, and learn as much as you can from them.
  • Be a go-getter. Make a good impression. Show lots of initiative. Take on as much responsibility as you can handle (and maybe a little more).
  • Be adventurous. Don’t shy away from tasks that require programs you don’t know how to use, or skills you don’t necessarily have. If you are working for free, most companies will be happy to spend a little extra time teaching you the basics.
  • Be outgoing. One of the best things about working in an office is interacting with your coworkers.
  • Be honest. Clearly state your goals and objectives for volunteering. Unless you plan to run a print company, photocopying all day is time well wasted. Let the company know if you are not getting the experience you expected (they are busy, it’s possible you just got lost in the shuffle and they will appreciate your initiative).

When I finished school, the company I worked for hired me full time (and has kept me around ever since). While this might not always be the case, if your company is looking for new employees, it’s a lot easier to hire you (now that you are ingrained in the office) than to train someone new from scratch.

If your company is not in a position to hire you, all is not lost. Provided you made a good impression, they’ll be happy to provide you with a shining reference letter, and maybe even reach out to some contacts on your behalf.

One thought on “Does it Pay to Volunteer?

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I got into the field I’m in now (Ecology) because I was genuinely interested and passionate about it. I do it because I enjoy it and it makes a difference. I jump at any chance I can get to become more experienced at it, if that opportunity comes without pay then so be it. I got my first two contract jobs after school through the connections I made volunteering. I now have a permanent, well paying job because I put the effort in to make the opportunities come to me rather than waiting to get paid for them.


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