Can A Volunteer Beat A Paid Professional For A Job?

This post originally appears in my Work In Progress blog for Forbes.com:

One job seeker asked: I’m going for an ED position interview tomorrow. My experience is over 10 years in that capacity, but as a non-paid volunteer on a part time basis. Nonetheless, we had great accomplishments in those organizations, but how do I compete with other applicants who have full-time, paid experience?

Volunteer experience (altruism aside) can be great for professional development – you develop new skills, you meet new people, you 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? Can volunteers compete against paid professionals? Do employers care as much about what you accomplished if you were unpaid?

On the plus side, volunteer experience can be 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. Your past experience is a proxy for what you will do, so you want to match your skills, expertise and accomplishments to what the employer needs. Volunteer experience can absolutely do this, but many candidates are overly modest especially with unpaid experience – it was “just” a volunteer position. 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. The job seeker above needs to provide specific examples that show she has performed Executive Director-level activities with positive, substantive results that are relevant to the prospective employer.

On the down side, employers will wonder why the position was unpaid if it was truly important to the organization. Why not set aside a portion of the budget to get these key activities done rather than leave the organization to the mercy of volunteers? You need to answer this question whether or not it is asked. You need to share the details of how you came to play such an important role to the organization, how budget was allocated elsewhere (perhaps all labor was unpaid or this was an unusual turnaround situation), and why you stayed in a volunteer capacity rather than seek paid work. The job seeker above needs to be clear about how her role fit within the rest of the organization – if there was a paid Executive Director, it would be harder to believe that she really filled that role.

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. People equate price with value, and employers are no different. 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.

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