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3 Ways Volunteering Establishes Careers in Service

Charlotte Wiltse, NeighborWorks VISTA Leader | 1/17/2019 8:53:45 AM

A young woman wearing black clothes and a blue hat picks up trash around the Potomac in Washington, D.C."Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'" This quote is often associated with the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service — the only federal holiday designed specifically to encourage Americans to volunteer in their communities.

The answer to Dr. King's question, to me and to many of the people I've met since joining NeighborWorks America, is a career in public service. 

I recently discovered that my hometown, Rochester, New York, has the second-highest volunteer rate (45.6 percent) of every city in the United States, according to the 2018 Volunteering in America report. Reading this statistic made me think back to the 18 years I spent in Rochester and the ways that a culture of service and my early volunteer experiences led me to where I am today. 

As the AmeriCorps VISTA leader for NeighborWorks America's VISTA program, I have the unique privilege of working with 47 volunteers at 32 NeighborWorks organizations across the nation. AmeriCorps VISTA is a national service program designed to help alleviate poverty. Founded as Volunteers in Service to America in 1965, it was incorporated into the AmeriCorps network of programs in 1993. 

Before I came to NeighborWorks, I served a yearlong term as an AmeriCorps VISTA member in central office of the District of Columbia Public Schools. The satisfaction I felt from my volunteer experiences in Rochester — including Habitat for Humanity youth build week, interfaith homeless housing projects, meal preparation and distribution at local food pantries, and more — influenced my decision to become a national service member. This chain reaction solidified in my mind the idea that volunteering is often a life-long commitment. I got hooked!

A black young man wearing jeans and a gray shirt stands in a classroom with boxes and stands for his volunteer service

There are many factors that contribute to the appeal of volunteering. For one, volunteering feels good. It's rewarding to give back to the community, and to see your work play into a larger effort to make the world a better, safer, more equitable place. Through my own experiences and by witnessing the professional growth of my fellow VISTA members and other volunteers, I have come to believe that another reason people return to service work again and again is that volunteering shapes and enhances careers that serve vulnerable communities. 

Here are three ways volunteering can help establish a career in service:

Volunteering builds knowledge.

Learning is at the core of the volunteer experience, and it is one of the most valuable benefits of service work. Volunteering is an excellent opportunity to try new things and get to know communities outside of your own. Volunteers also get an inside look into the organizations that they serve. 

Curious about a field you don't have experience in? Want to learn more about an organization that does work you admire? Service work allows for flexibility in ways that other vocations may not, while providing similar types of learning opportunities for professional growth. Volunteering is a low-risk, rewarding way to get outside of your comfort zone.

Volunteering provides experience. 

A VISTA member stands next to a member of the community on the porch outside of his manufactured homeNot only does volunteering afford learning opportunities, it offers space to put that new knowledge to use. Whether you're providing hands-on direct service or helping to build an organization's capacity through fundraising or community outreach, volunteering builds and hones skills. 

For young people just entering the professional world, volunteering is the perfect way to develop transferrable skills like communication, leadership and collaboration. People with more professional experience are often able to use volunteering as an avenue to learn entirely new skill sets that either benefit their current work or prepare them to work in new capacities. 

No matter what type of skills a person develops through volunteer work, having real experience putting those skills to use makes them more valuable to their career. 

Volunteering grows your network. 

Volunteering is a great way to meet new people. Service work can widen your social circle, but it also builds your professional network. Potential connections can form between fellow volunteers who serve because of their shared values or between volunteers and the staff/leadership at the organizations they serve. Volunteer projects are also often collaborative in nature, so serving one organization can turn into an opportunity to connect with other organizations and their leadership. The commitment that volunteering entails makes a good impression on individuals and organizations alike. 

NeighborWorks America VISTA members hold up a VISTA member at the DC training institute

These three aspects of volunteering could benefit any career, but when people get hooked and make that lifelong commitment to volunteering, they tend to gravitate toward careers in service (community development, education, public health, etc.). 

By building knowledge and experience through service work, volunteers are better suited to serving communities in professional settings. In fact, The Corporation for National & Community Service found that in 2018, volunteers had 27 percent higher odds of being employed after being out of work than non-volunteers. Since the NeighborWorks America VISTA program's start in 2009, 27 percent of AmeriCorps volunteers have been hired by their host site after completing their year of service. These statistics show that the knowledge, experience and connections that result from volunteering make job applicants more attractive in the hiring process. 

Volunteering provides one answer to: "What are you doing for others?" And it's also a win-win: you get satisfaction, knowledge, experience and networking opportunities, and the organization you serve gets the help they need. Even if your career is in service to others, there is always something to be gained and something to be given through volunteer work. 

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