Should I volunteer or start a job?

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Images by Ron Mader and Sean MacEnteeCC BY 2.0
I am on my last semester of college, majoring in Art History and Pre-Law. My hope is to work in the non-profit field, specifically with grant-writing and fundraising. The problem is that this is a recent realization and I have little experience with grant-writing and volunteering.

I know that volunteering would be an amazing way to gain the experience that I need, but with graduation quickly coming and all my debt looming in the distance, I worry if I can afford it and if it’s worth the risk. Then again, I have had a few professors tell me that I should get a job instead of volunteering or interning, but I worry that no one will hire me due to lack of experience.

I want so much to make a real and lasting difference, I just worry that I don’t have the skills and experience to actually do it.

So my question is: should I volunteer or should I begin my job search? -Sara

Ah, one of the questions for the ages. Homies, who else has been here — tottering between volunteering or working? Who has experiences they can share?

Comments on Should I volunteer or start a job?

  1. As someone who is also going to be graduating soon (May, with my second bachelor’s- yay!), I’ve been asking similar questions. All of the advice I’ve been given says essentially this: you are unlikely to have a job lined up upon graduation, though that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start applying as early as you can. However, once you’re all graduated and still looking, you should most definitely volunteer during your search. Volunteering is great for lots of things: you gain experience, it breaks up the boredom and stress of job-hunting, and most importantly, you get to know people and build your network, which is hands-down the most useful thing you can do for your career. Hope this helps!

  2. It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. My recommendation would be to volunteer while you are searching for a job. You don’t have to commit yourself to not being paid. When I was fresh out of grad school in a tight job market, I started volunteering for an organization that I would have been happy to work for, eventually picking up a part-time job with a for-profit (in my field but not in my passion). The organization for which I was volunteering eventually offered me a part-time paid position there, so although working two part-time jobs was not ideal, I was building the experience I would eventually need to move to the job I wanted.

  3. For many years, my mom was president of a small non-profit; I got involved with their work some as a teenager. Mostly, I know things from the point of view of the nonprofit organization, not of the prospective volunteer. That being said, I believe there are some volunteer programs that help out with your student debt. There are also some programs, generally year-long, where you get a stipend for housing and food, or live in a program-owned house with other people who are volunteering with the same program — Brethren Voluntary Service (BVS) and Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) both fall into that category — with BVS you’ll generally live with a local family/household, while MVS has dedicated houses where VS-ers stay. If you’re hoping to volunteer full-time for a limited period of time, then one of these programs might be a good fit.

    Alternatively, you might be able to have your cake and eat it too — get a job that pays the bills (hopefully even in your field, but at minimum something that allows you to eat, have a roof over your head, and start paying off your loans), and then volunteer part-time with a local organization. Most non-profits have a fairly large base of part-time volunteers, and are more than happy to work with whatever you can give. Fundraising and grant-writing are essential parts of running a non-profit, and it’s often very difficult to find people who want to do that.

    Good luck in your search!

  4. My advice is to split it 50/50; volunteer part-time and spend the rest job searching. Be up-front with whatever organization you volunteer with that you’re looking to gain experience for resume-boosting while you’re actively job searching. You get the practice and the networking you need, and the nonprofit gets free labor! For me, there was a huge bonus in actually seeing people every day (applying for hospital jobs meant I never got so much as a “this position has been filled” email after spending hours filling out their online applications) and it helped me to hone in on what I actually want to do.

    In my experience, though, you’re less likely to be hired somewhere if they have it in their heads that you’ll work for free, so don’t get hung up on getting a paying job at the nonprofit you’re volunteering with (like I did). Once I got over that and started really utilizing them for networking, I was able to get a great job at another local nonprofit that I love.

  5. Luckily- you can do both! After college I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I enrolled into a year of national service- Americorps VISTA, specifically. You don’t get paid much, but you do get your loans deferred while you do it, and an educational stipend at the end to pay off past debt or put towards future school (masters degree, etc) if you want. My VISTA experience was such a pivotal point for me in my life, and gave me amazing introductory experience on all kinds of nonprofit work- fundraising, volunteer management, program development, etc. I now have a Masters in Social Work and work in a nonprofit resource center, advising area nonprofits to help them do their work better. Love it. 🙂

    • vista is a pretty great program (i would think of it as a paid internship – you get money, not much, you work full-time, and -hopefully- get some solid job experience in a field you’re interested in). plus, there’s the education money. another thing to keep in mind (although it may be hard to know this on the front end) is that some organizations use vista positions as an on-the-job training opportunity with the intent of grooming new staff (i’m 7 years into a job i started as a vista), others definitely use them as temporary positions to fill a hands-on need (especially smaller orgs that can’t afford a staff position).

      anyhow, i think volunteering is grand – it’s the lifeline of many, many great organizations, and it can be wonderful work – but if you’re looking for a non-profit career, i would lean heavily toward interning (or, of course, a job) over volunteering. by virtue of being more structured, typically more hours, and viewed as a (semi-)staff position, interning will generally get you a lot more real responsibility and a lot more insight into how the organization actually works. basically, from the organization’s point of view volunteers are (awesome, as mentioned, but also) unreliable. even reliable, wonderful volunteers don’t have a contract with you, etc., so there are things the organization really can’t afford to trust to volunteers, even if they would like to (stuff like databases and grant-writing – i’ve worked with an org whose mailing list was stolen by a volunteer and used to solicit for something else…that’s not you, i’m sure, but the nonprofit folks you’re working with have likely heard stories like that, so they’re liable to be skittish). this is less true at tinier orgs that *need* volunteer help to run.

      obviously, volunteer positions are easier to find, and you might need to be making money, so by all means volunteer in the interim as well. and, also, if you aren’t working or are working part-time, you can absolutely take it upon yourself to turn your volunteer opportunity into an internship, but you need to be direct – ask the organization for an internship, be clear you’re willing to work for free (also be clear that you’d take some money if they wanted), and give them your schedule. if it’s not going to cost them money they can’t afford, they may well jump on the opportunity to have more reliable, constant and in-depth help. (supervising is also really hard work, so they might not have the capacity to have you as an intern).
      p.s. if you’ve been volunteering for a while, you may look into board positions with a non-profit (if that’s your thing) – they can’t hire you if you’re on the board, but it will give you some very different experience, and will look good to other nonprofits.

      and one last thing – all jobs are job experience. it doesn’t have to be in the field you are passionate about to help you get that perfect nonprofit job later. i worked in a video store for a year, not much to brag on, but it did prove that i could show up for work every day and keep a job for a year, which is actually something to an employer. better, though, would be to get a boring paper-pusher-type job, because larger non-profits have those positions just like companies do, so you’ll be qualified for that change in the future, and smaller non-profits tend to be fairly desperate for someone who can do *some* of that boring officey shit on the side of your real job (social justice is full of big thinkers who do great work, but in my experience organization and detail are not their thing. my ocd tendencies have served me very well in being found useful.)

      sorry for the book – i hope some of it helps.

    • I totally agree with the AmeriCorps idea! I did it after my BA, while I was still figuring out what to do. I served on a HealthCorps team and was paired in a non-profit. Because I was living at home my parents deferred any rent needed, and I was able to use that year of service to leverage me into a Master’s program that wouldn’t normally accept someone without their undergrad in a particular field. Plus, the educational stipend at the end was really helpful!

      I liked that it felt like a ‘real job,’ but was still considered volunteer work. I learned so many valuable think while doing Americorps!

    • While it wasn’t my personal experience, I have a good friend who did something like this after her teaching job was cut. Her City Year eventually turned in to a “real” job where she spent her year.

    • It really matters where you do your AmeriCorps (or any volunteer service really). Any non-profit can apply to have a VISTA, and they are not all equal in quality. I was VISTA, and I got hired on afterwards, but the whole experience was massively negative for me because it was a poorly managed non-profit that did not support its staff.

      Whether you are interviewing to volunteer or work, it’s a good idea to try to talk to other employees about what their typical day is like, see how happy/stressed they are, etc. Also be clear about what you want to receive in exchange for your efforts, whether it is specific skills/money/etc. It’s so easy to get roped into extra crap in the non-profit world when you are the enthusiastic fresh face. If you want to do grant writing, don’t let anyone sway you to also manage volunteers or the clean up day or summer camp or whatever. The road to burn out can be swift when you don’t have strong boundaries.

      You are smart, educated and offering your time and energy–do not let inexperience make you feel insecure and undervalue yourself. I would say, always try to get paid. But if you must volunteer, please choose wisely! Best of luck.

  6. I agree with the above posters about volunteering while you look for a job.

    I don’t know if this is a helpful suggestion or not (since I know nothing about grant-writing) but could you work on fake grant-writing? By that I mean, could you research grants for X organization and write up grants proposals for them just for the practice? Then when you start applying for jobs, you can show them a portfolio of your work, just like you would if you were applying for any writing/arts job. I have to think that a company would be more likely to hire someone so invested in their career that they’re working on tedious activities in their spare time in order to be better at them.

  7. Do both!

    When I was finishing up my BA I was in a similar place as you seem to be in. I was tired (post-secondary is a LOT of work!), I needed to pay rent (and student loans), I didn’t want to work at grocery stores or coffee shops anymore, and I was yearning to DO something that mattered.

    My solution:

    I took on two part-time jobs. My first was an administrative role with a local charity. If you’re hoping to work in not-for-profits/charities, then TRUST ME – administrative experience is your friend. My second job was as a relief worker at a local shelter. This gave me the front-line, true to life experience I needed (and served as a stepping stone to another much more excellent job).

    I also chose two areas I wanted to volunteer in. For me it was working along-side Toronto’s sex workers and teaching. Admin and shelter positions (in my town) are a dime a dozen. They often don’t require a lot of training and since they were part time, the turn-over rate was high, which means LOTS of opportunities. But working along-side sex workers and teaching require a lot of experience and a lot of education. Since I didn’t have either, I knew that to gain experience in those areas I’d have to volunteer.

    Also, working part-time opened up my schedule a lot, which allowed me to balance four different commitments AND pay rent and student-loans.

    Good luck!

  8. All of the above!

    I know that answer may be somewhat stress-inducing as you’re wrapping up your last semester, but hear me out. Graduating will be amazing and fulfilling and exciting, and then you’ll be left wondering – what’s next? If you start volunteering somewhere now, even on a very limited basis with a promise to ramp up after you graduate, you’ll have something to keep working on and keep you busy while you job search. It’s good for the resume (non-profits will like to see that you’ve been involved with non-profits before), but perhaps more importantly, good for your mental state to have something to focus on outside of the job hunt.

    I’d go ahead and start applying for positions at non-profits that are related to arts administration. Until you start getting at least a little grant-writing experience under your belt, though, you’re unlikely to get hired for that specifically. Grants are hugely important to the functioning of so many non-profits, and even though I know you’re awesome and would be great, many non-profits literally cannot afford to take a chance on someone without experience.

    You might also consider AmeriCorps. You won’t get paid a lot, but your loans will be deferred and you’ll get an award at the end to apply to your loans. I did a six-month stint working with energy education, energy efficiency, and green construction and learned so much. I could have easily made writing grants part of my job description while I was there.

    In short, start volunteering (non-profits love skilled help!) and look for unconventional options.

  9. As someone who has been in this situation (though it was when I got out of grad school for art history and museum studies), it can be tough. Student loans (sadly) don’t pay themselves, and most volunteer/intern positions that would help you to advance in your career don’t really give you any benefits toward your loan debt (or at least, I didn’t find where they would).

    Having said that, there are a lot of paid internships and fellowships that open up around now, in addition to jobs. Depending on what you want to do with your degree and your location (or willingness to move to another place), you may have a lot more options than you realize.

    I know a few years ago, at least, it seemed the only museum jobs that were opening were in development, and with the job market improving (or so it seems, based on the number of listings I see coming out every day for my line of museum work), it might not be as tough as it was to find a job.

    In the meantime, volunteering/interning–even part time–at a place you think you might want to work isn’t a bad idea, if you can afford it. A lot of places hire from within/are more likely to hire someone they already know, so if you’re there and they know your skill set, you could have a massive advantage over someone who has to start from scratch on paper.

    I don’t know if any of this helps, but I wish you the best of luck! It’s tough starting out–and believe me, I spent a long time working other jobs, some time volunteering, and a lot of time being unemployed before I got where I am, now. (And it was thanks to a bunch of wonderful but unforeseeable circumstances that I have the job I do have.)

  10. I started volunteering at a local domestic violence shelter about half way through my last year of college. It lead to me getting hired there (before I even finished my degree) and turned into my career path. (Of course, I was one of those people who had no idea what I was going to do with myself once I finished college.)
    I definitely recommend volunteering; it’s rewarding, you are (usually) easily able to meet people and network, you gain relevant experience, and it can lead to a great job! Plus, if you don’t like the work you’re doing as a volunteer, you can just ask to do something else or go somewhere else, there’s less obligation to “stick it out” until you find something else like there would be with a job.
    Congratulations on your graduation and good luck!

  11. I see it’s been mentioned above, but I’m mentioning it again: AmeriCorps! Through AmeriCorps, you can volunteer in just about any field that interests you, gain valuable experience, get paid a living stipend, have your loans deferred and get an educational stipend at the end of your term of service. Its been called the domestic Peace Corps, and while your mileage may vary, I found it to be a truly wonderful experience.

    When I graduated from college, I moved across the country (from NY to CA) to serve with AmeriCorps, tutoring and running an after school program for high-needs youth. I volunteered for 2 years, and met some of the most amazing people: in the program that I chose, there were about 20 other recent college grads who came from all over the country and started at the same time as I did. This built in social network was great for me, as I didn’t know anyone in CA: AmeriCorps was really the safety net that made my cross-country move easy and fun while still being a great adventure. Plus, I found that I have a real passion for working in youth development, and I still work in that field – now I run my own after school program at a local elementary school.

    I think the hardest thing for me about graduating was narrowing down allll the options, picking a plan, and just running with it. Good luck and have fun in your last semester!

  12. I echo the suggestions for Americorps or other FT volunteer programs (I did Lutheran Volunteer Corps). If you can afford to do it, it’s a great way to start a career. Most of my peers who did FT volunteer programs found themselves in higher-level jobs than they would have gotten as a “traditional” employee, because an organization paying a full salary would have found someone more experienced for that job. I felt like I finished my year with really solid experience that has helped me a lot in my career. (Finding a job afterwards was a struggle because the economy was so, so bad at the time, but it was still better than it would have been as a fresh grad.) My friends have moved into both for-profit and non-profit sectors after finishing their program.

    Otherwise, there is plenty of demand out there for part-time volunteers to help with grantwriting and fundraising, especially at small nonprofits. If you decide to look for a job, even a job outside of your field, you might be able to use volunteer experience to help you move into grantwriting later. Many organizations (again, especially small ones) will accept volunteer experience as some work experience for entry-level positions once you have some volunteer accomplishments under your belt.

    Good luck!

  13. As someone who has worked in non-profit for a few years and works with volunteers I just want to throw this out there for anyone and everyone considering volunteering: Please make sure you are doing it for the right reasons.

    Please remember that volunteer opportunities are not there to provide people with work experience or anything else. This isn’t about what benefits you as the volunteer will receive.

    Volunteer positions exist because the organization needs help in order to fulfill its mission. I cannot tell you how often I have encounter volunteers who cared more about the kind of “volunteer experience” they were receiving than about what the organization being served needed.
    I’ve had people who volunteer at an animal shelter because they want to play with puppies, and who were unwilling to fold towels or scoop poop.
    I have had a parade of graduate students who want access to sexual assault victims so that they can practice their counseling skills and pad their resume (hugely unethical).
    I’ve had employers demand a volunteer project that will take place from 10am to 2pm on a Saturday and occupy exactly 15 people, regardless of whether such a project actually benefited the organization.
    The list of people who treat volunteer opportunities as a service to themselves is endless. And ultimately, those people can end up being a burden instead of a help, sucking up time and energy it takes to keep them happy instead of contributing to the mission.

    Unless you are prepared to do the jobs that are needed, regardless of whether those jobs are boring or whether they will make your resume look better, unless you are there to give without expectation of receiving, please think very carefully about becoming a volunteer.

  14. I know the OP is just graduating & the prospect of more school prob. seems crazy, but there are short (like, weekend-long) classes & seminars out there on grant-writing. Look for them under continuing education & professional education offerings, perhaps even from your current school or the alumni org. The courses don’t tend to be hugely expensive, a couple hundred bucks, one time only.

    • My library offers free programs on grant research, proposal writing, and other topics that would be relevant to what the OP wants to do, and I would think that a lot of other libraries do, too. (These also include networking programs, which might also help with the job search.) We’re part of the Foundation Center’s Funding Information Network, made up of libraries and other partners that supply their publications and databases, and if there’s a library partner in your area, that would probably be a good place to check for free classes near you. You can search the partners here:

  15. I didn’t volunteer after college, and wish I had. It’s much harder to find the time for great volunteer opportunities (like AmeriCorps!) once you have a full time job. I’ve been working for almost three years, and I wish I had spent more time pursuing non job related interests, like AmeriCorps, PeaceCorps, or any form of travel.

    That said, don’t get into financial trouble because you decided to volunteer instead of look for a job! If possible, do both, or work with a program that offers student loan forbearance (like AmeriCorps!)

  16. Do you have any skills that you could use to tutor other students? This was something I did that looked good on my resume, and sometimes paid me. I loved tutoring, so I did some volunteer tutoring, but then that experience helped me land paid gigs, too. And it’s something you can start while you’re still in school.

  17. I know a lot of people have made excellent recommendations already, but since you’re specializing in grant-writing and fundraising, I would focus on volunteering/interning with development professionals with whom you can develop a mentor-like relationship and who can help you succeed in your particular field of emphasis.

    Fundraising is hard work, which I’m sure you know, and it takes a very particular demeanor to do it full-time for the rest of your life. Learning the interpersonal skills of fundraising from someone you respect and who excels at their work will help you not only succeed in your future career, but also give you peace when you have to emotionally grapple with the often-soul-sucking job of soliciting people for money (even in a non-profit setting). Best of luck!

  18. I’ve worked for a couple of non-profits over the past 5 years. While volunteering is all well and good, I think that the hope that it will turn into a paid position is sometimes unlikely. Volunteers are often used for jobs that don’t really give great experience or show you to your full potential. Unpaid internships would be a better way to go to gain resume worthy experience.

    I started working in a part time position. I used the opportunity to get to know a lot of the people who worked there and volunteered to help with any special projects. As a result, I got experience working in pretty much every aspect of the organization from mass marketing to digital archiving. I also got a lot of really positive exposure so that when jobs opened up, I was at the front of their mind. It helped me to focus and eventually led to the experience to being hired as full time.

  19. I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector for a while and have a few suggestions.

    First, consider volunteering for one of the trade associations in your area. AFP (Association of Fundraising Professionals) is an international organization with local affiliate chapters. All of those chapters have volunteer opportunities which will put you in direct contact with fundraisers in your community. These are the folks who are best equipped to help you get a job. Also, many of the associations have scholarships that you can apply for to attend conferences for free or take part in other programming.

    Second, program people are great but many are quite removed from the development teams and don’t know how (or don’t think of) helping make recommendations for jobs. I also second the idea of volunteering within the development department of an organization. We RARELY get folks who want to help us out and are reliable. I will admit that stuffing envelopes or researching donors can be boring but if you stick with it you WILL make an impression with the folks who hire. In my experience we’ve hired several people who volunteered in our department as they already know the ropes and we are comfortable with their work stills.

    Third, find a mentor. Especially if you can find a mentor in the sector. This goes back to getting involved with the associations. I’ve mentored several young professionals and love it. They can introduce you to the people you need to know and help you fill holes in your training.

    Last thought regarding Americorp and similar programs. If you go this route find nonprofits who have had others in the program before so you are not the person they are learning on. You’ll get less out of the experience that way. Ditto with internships.

    The fundraising community is small and close knit. Find a way in and network and with hard work you will find that jobs will come your way! If you’re in the Seattle area let me know and I can help you out.

  20. Hey there is lots of great advice here already but just want to add that you should check out canvassing as well since you’re interested in fundraising. It’s a great way to gain experience asking people for money, getting rejected and helping with an issue you care about. It’s not for everyone but usually your first week is a trial period anyway so you should at least check it out. With a degree if you like it I bet most groups would ask you to direct an office as well which is a great crash course in lots of skills- recruitment, staff management, payroll. Also you will likely be paid on commission so you can make some decent money if you are good at it too!

    I’m sure there are people reading who canvassed and had bad experiences but I really learned a ton and thought it was great experience. You can check out the fund for the public interest, grassroots campaigns inc, green peace, save the children to name a few. Smaller groups will have lots of summer offices outside of the big cities too. Good luck!

  21. I think that jobs look best on a resume. My volunteer experience (with The Olympics) hasn’t impressed employers nearly as much as my 5 years of substitute teaching, and I’m not even in the education field anymore. I think there are a number of reasons for this. First, jobs are harder to come by. Or at least that’s how it’s perceived. Second, jobs usually imply more hours than volunteer work. Someone can, for example, put volunteering on a resume when they only do it one afternoon a week, or even one day a month. So a job for 5 years is more impressive than volunteering for 5 years, because, really, did you have to show up every day? Probably not. Of course, getting the right organization on your resume is great any way it comes. But I’d put jobs ahead of volunteer work when doing both isn’t an option.

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