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Careers Café

The volunteer quagmire

Know what to reasonably expect if you decide to pursue a volunteer opportunity.


For the past semester, I’ve been watching the students in my career course struggle with some questions that can take years to answer – all on a 12-week schedule, of course. Many of their questions have been around compromise and when to pursue an option that might be less than ideal. Just as many have been about how to tell that one is making a compromise in the first place. When has Plan A ceased to be useful? What counts as settling?

These questions aren’t easily answered – in class or in a blog. But there are strategies that can help people distinguish between settling and getting somewhere they want to go. The distinction can feel particularly tricky when it comes to choosing between unemployment (with an expiry date we can’t predict) and unpaid or underpaid experience.

With volunteer work, your pay might not even amount to stale coffee and cookies. Yet I’m not going to contradict accepted wisdom: volunteering helps you meet people, and gain experience and credibility in a new area of work. Keep your focus on the word “new,” though. For some, there’s a real risk of becoming a perpetual volunteer.

There’s no universal expiry date, however. If volunteering is a way in, find out what people in the field say is a reasonable range of time to spend volunteering for someone with your experiences and skills. And ask what paid roles you could reasonably compete for right now. If the unpaid opportunities are more interesting and offer greater learning than paid opportunities, they may be worthwhile. However, the opposite may be true. It may still be that you choose volunteering, particularly if it offers a way to control the number of hours you take on while transitioning from one career to another. But don’t assume volunteering is essential; find out from people who know – and from more than one person.

If you can’t get paid at this point for what you want to do, you can ask volunteer employers for other things that are useful – the opportunity to work on a project of interest, introductions down the road to others who might need your skills (especially those who are willing to pay), and a good word on your behalf to those connections.

You can get specific about this. For example, if you’re going to take on a volunteer consulting project for free, before you even start, you can graciously pave the way to future help. Say something like, “I’m delighted to work with you on this, and I’m happy to do so for free. Of course, I’m also building my career. If you’re pleased with the final product, would you be willing to recommend my work to at least three people who you think would benefit from it and might be willing to pay? I know their decision whether or not to hire me is not in your control, but I would appreciate the referrals.”

Lest I’ve overstated the case, volunteering is often extremely valuable and is a great way to take off the blinders – both about the realities of work of interest, and about the skills gaps you may have. But it’s also a potential quagmire for the unconfident. Doing your research, knowing what you can reasonably expect in terms of entry into a new area of work, and being respectfully open about your hopes for help can get you to the sweet spot of loving what you do and being paid for doing it.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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