What to do (and not do) when you’re unemployed, part 1: Volunteer

In the six months that I was unemployed, it often seemed that I was as busy when I was out of work as when I had a full-time job. I spent up to 30 hours a week volunteering for two nonprofits where I offered free counseling, lead a fundraising drive, became involved in staff meetings and did everything from stuffing envelopes to writing grant proposals.

Whatever connotations being unemployed might hold, I can guarantee you that I was not lazy.

One of the agencies where I volunteered I had been at for more than two years already, and had gotten myself on to the board of directors. So it made no sense to quit. But the other place was a new organization that I became involved with after being laid off. I took on more and more work at both places as the months went on, and while I weighed two job offers, I was told that some people dreaded me going back to work.

There were a lot of reasons why I chose to become more active in my volunteer work after being laid off.

Volunteering for job leads

On the most pragmatic level, volunteering can do wonders for a job search.

In the half year I was out of work, I had interviews with four different potential employers. I know for a fact that three of those interviews came about specifically because of my volunteer work.

One of those places was looking to hire someone who had been doing the very same kind of volunteer work I had been doing for more than a year. The interview went smoothly. We spoke the same language. I had a solid idea of what sort of work they needed done, and many of the qualities they needed in a worker. When I didn’t get the job it was a stinging disappointment, but my volunteer work was strong enough to get me into a round-two interview.

The second place was not as good a fit. I think that both the interviewer and I became aware of that a few minutes into the discussion, but still. I don’t believe they would have called me for an interview if that volunteer experience weren’t on my resume.

The third employer I know for a fact contacted me because of my volunteer work. He said so. And that interview did result in a job offer, albeit one I couldn’t accept because it was only part-time and I had a full-time offer come my way the same week.

Volunteering does a lot of things employers like. For one, it shows that you are not lazy. It shows that you are active and involved. It demonstrates that you continue to build and improve skills even when you are not getting paid. It demonstrates that you are ambitious, and that your ambition is not tied to a paycheck. It shows that you are hard-working, and that your hard work is intrinsically motivated.

Safety network

Volunteering also broadens the network of people with whom you speak to on a regular basis. Make sure these people know you are looking for work, and know what kind of work you are interested in.

I had several people at my volunteer organizations let me know of job openings at different places around town. Many job openings are never publicly listed, and your only hope of getting a shot at them is knowing someone who knows someone. They will quite literally open doors for you that did not exist there for anyone else.

Best of all, these people are usually very willing to lend their name as a professional reference. These kinds of references are like gold to someone who may be shy of asking a reference from the boss who just cut you loose.

Do it for yourself

But most importantly, volunteering fended off despair as month dragged into month of unemployment.

I believe that it’s harder to feel despair if you believe your life has purpose. If your volunteering means that hungry people get food, or that animals get a second shot at finding a loving home and staying alive, or that someone who is desperate for help knows that someone cares, it becomes a lot harder for you to feel your own life is meaningless.

There were times when I felt so beat down because I was turned down for a job, or because I’d heard some idiot talking about the lazy unemployed looking for a handout, or because I’d seen a few of my former coworkers together out at lunch. But then I’d remember that the night before, perhaps, I’d been on the hotline with someone who was about to commit suicide but decided not to after talking with me. Or that a few days ago, I had met with someone who felt they had no one else who would listen to them and who thanked me over and over for my kindness. And then I didn’t feel as bad.

In fact, while I can count many times I came in to the crisis center for a shift of work hating the fact that I would be there for the next four hours, I cannot remember a single time I left that place feeling worse than when I went in. Without exception, I have always left a volunteer shift feeling better about myself, my life and my situation than when I started.

And when you’re out of work for months, it can become harder and harder to find a reason to feel good about yourself.

Most anytime I meet someone who is unemployed and looking for help or hope, I ask them if they are volunteering. It’s disappointing how few times I hear a “yes” to that, and more disappointing still when so few seem interested in the idea. But as far as I am concerned, being an active volunteer is one of the very best things you can do for yourself when you are out of work.

I don’t think it really matters what you do, or where you do it. Just get involved. Look here for ideas on how to get started: http://www.1-800-volunteer.org

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