How to Use Volunteer Work to Make a Career Change

My career change from tech to career counseling started with a volunteer experience. At the beginning of my career change, I had no relevant job experience and I had taken only one undergraduate class that was even slightly relevant to counseling (it was Introductory Psychology).

Volunteering for Career Change

Doing volunteer work is an excellent way to gain experience in a new career field. Here are some strategies to use volunteer work to make a career change:

Career Assessment

Before you begin looking for volunteer work, spend some time thinking about your interests, values, strengths, and personality so that you can seek volunteer opportunities that are in alignment with your career goals. It is okay if you don’t have everything all figured out. You just have to know enough about yourself to have an idea what you might like to try and what you definitely do not want to do.

At a minimum, do a reality check with how your mind and body feel when you consider a specific possibility. It is normal to feel a bit anxious if you are learning new skills so you are out of your comfort zone, but it is probably a bad sign if you feel nothing but dread about a particular assignment. You don’t have to be open to everything; take a bit of time to figure out a small number of possibilities that you want to explore.

Katie Thomson worked as a counselor in residential care for foster children recovering from sexual trauma. She wanted to make a career change into a different niche within the helping professions but she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. To explore different options, she worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa, cycling through volunteer opportunities as an HIV educator, English teacher, librarian, and soccer coach. Then she began volunteering with Volunteers of America and discovered a niche working with military veterans with PTSD. She started graduate work in military social work and is on track to become a military social worker. She plans to complete clinical certification and specialty training in EMDR. Katie says,

“My biggest advice to career changers is to take some time to really think about what you want to do as well as what you enjoy. Life is too short to do a job you aren’t enjoying but it is long enough to change careers.”

Value Your Contribution

Some organizations take advantage of career changers by trying to convince you that since you don’t already have a strong track record in an area in which you are trying to gain experience, you need to pay your dues by making copies and fetching coffee for a period of time. It is debatable whether this type of volunteer work will ever lead to anything better or whether the organization is simply exploiting the good intentions of volunteers. I usually advise against accepting a volunteer opportunity that doesn’t clearly offer an opportunity to gain experiences that will build your resume.

The best volunteer experiences are ones that have some measurable outcome where you can clearly articulate the role you played in facilitating an accomplishment. Don’t be afraid to ask the organization for specific assignments that will be a win-win for you and for them when you succeed.

Networking By Volunteering

Learning new skills is important. Meeting new people in a professional community is equally so. One of the best things about volunteering is that it brings you into a circle of people who are insiders in the new career field you are considering. Cultivate these relationships because they might be the bridge to your new job.

Carla Hegeman Crim was a scientist with an academic background in plant molecular biology. The first part of her career was in research. After her son was born, she decided to stay home with him. When he was in second grade, he joined 4-H and Carla became a 4-H leader. While volunteering, Carla remembered that she loves sharing knowledge with others. Her volunteer work gave her the opportunity to meet many of the staff at Cornell Cooperative Education. Carla landed work as a Horticulture and Natural Resources Educator. Carla says,

“Volunteering is a great opportunity to make connections. Be sure to choose something you really enjoy so that you naturally want to participate and shine as a volunteer. Even if the organization isn’t hiring when you start, you are building a network for when they do. When my job of Horticulture Educator was posted, I had connections who knew I was a responsible, innovative teacher.”

Where to Look for Volunteer Opportunities

Here are some resources to explore finding the right volunteer opportunity for you:

LinkedIn Volunteer Marketplace

Points of Light HandsOn Network


Be Strategic

As a career coach, I can help clients to plan and implement a career change by using volunteer work. Please contact me if you’d like to explore working with me.

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