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How to Shop for a Volunteer Job
by Nan Hawthorne
Yes, I said "shop" and yes, I said "job." Work is work, and structured work is a "job." If you are counting on convincing an employer to hire you based on, among other things, volunteer work listed on your résumé, then the sooner you see your volunteer work as a job the better. That recognition will help you find a volunteer project right for you and translate it into terms equable to paid employment.
First, you need to do two things: decide what you need to look for, and then how to find it. How much do you know about the day-to-day tasks of a typical entry-level job in your field? Two ways to learn what any given career uses in the way of skills and knowledge are the OCCUPATIONAL OUTLOOK HANDBOOK and people who are already doing the work. For the latter, find people in just the sort of job you want as the starting point for your career. Ask if you can buy them coffee and do an "informational interview" where you quiz them on what tasks are part of their jobs, where they developed their skills and how they got their first job in the field. The OCCUPATIONAL OUTLOOK HANDBOOK, www.bls.gov/oco/ , is published by the U.S. Department of Labor and addresses what qualifications one needs to enter each field, what the variations are on jobs in each occupation, what the work itself comprises and whether the prospects for growth of the field are good.
For example, the OCCUPATIONAL OUTLOOK HANDBOOK breaks sales into several related careers: advertising and marketing, cashiers, product demonstrators and models, rental agents, real estate agents, travel agents, sales engineers as well as retail sales. Basic tasks in retail sales include: ability to work with the public; excellent communication skills, and in particular sales skills; recordkeeping ability; knowledge of products or services; problem-solving; conflict resolution; and organizational skills. When you break it down like this, you see what you most need to develop to qualify for an entry-level job, that is, what you have to get out of the volunteer experience to support your career goals.
It is time to start shopping. How difficult this is will depend in large part on where you live. You will have more choices in a large city. You will find fewer in a small town and practically none in a rural area. Do not despair however for there is a wonderful thing called Virtual Volunteering or volunteering via the Internet.
You won't find any one resource that has all the volunteer jobs in your area listed. There are some databases that cover a lot of them, but you will need to be resourceful in finding the full range of possibilities, giving you more options to find exactly what you need. In a large city there are literally thousands of volunteer projects in areas like human services, health, the arts, public safety, community and political organizations, the environment, faith-based organizations of all kinds, education and many more. You can find jobs as diverse as counseling on a crisis line, leading tours of a community garden, researching the history of a neighborhood, working in information technology for a small senior program, mentoring at-risk children, moderating a listserv for a club, providing security at a parade, filing papers for a drop-in free clinic, caring for children during services at a place of worship, serving food at a shelter, walking dogs for an animal rescue organization, or acting as an advisory member of a board of a museum. Even in a smaller area you will find many more volunteer opportunities than you probably imagine. Here are some of the ways you can find volunteer opportunities.
Contact the organizations that raise funds for a wide variety of nonprofits, such as United Way, Volunteers of America, your local arts council, Youth Volunteer Corps, Catholic Community Services, and the Corporation for National Service. You can find any one of these through a search on the name and your city or by calling directory assistance. Ask people you know where they have volunteered. For that matter, ask everyone, including other people in line at the grocery store. Contact your elected representatives who love to help voters! Check in your local newspaper, online, on the NFB Newsline, or ask someone to help you go through the want ads on a weekly basis. Check online volunteer listing organizations like VolunteerMatch and Idealist, which have opportunities listed for many locations. If you are outside the United States, you may find just as many opportunities on these sites or your own equivalent. If you need help finding groups, just contact one of the organizations I mentioned above to request a referral.
Now here are the two strategies you must employ to make this extended search a success. Ask every single person you talk to for two more places or people to contact. Keep records on who you contacted and what you learned. If nothing else, you may have amassed so valuable a directory you can add it to your portfolio.
In the class I used to do called "Get the Most Out of Volunteering," I emphasized two things: to find work you enjoy in a cause meaningful to you. That is not what you want to do however. You want to find work that builds and demonstrates your work skills and knowledge. When you volunteer job hunt, ignore the cause and look for work that matches your needs. You can throw yourself into volunteering where your heart is after you have a paying job.
The Internet is a tool beyond equal not only for finding volunteer projects but for volunteering as well. The online volunteer opportunity lists, VolunteerMatch, www.volunteermatch.org , and Idealist, www.idealist.org , both have sections on virtual volunteer opportunities. Obviously the virtue of virtual volunteering is that the people you work with don't even need to know you are blind, there is no transportation issue, you have your own accommodations at home, and you can usually work when you want. The point is to develop job skills and a track record of hard and dependable work. Just be sure when you pursue virtual volunteering that you have ways to prove the work fits these requirements.
Next time we will look at how to talk to a volunteer resources manager about what you want to do and how you will overcome any barriers, including your visual disability.
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