How to Promote Volunteerism on Your Executive Resume
Updated May 27, 2018
I received an interesting question that actually mirrors a question I get from my private clients quite a lot: Can I use volunteer work on a resume? This individual wanted to know whether hiring managers like what she has done, or will they consider it fluff? Her story is much like those of many who have experienced a gap in their career histories, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. This person has all the hallmarks of a top hire: She’s a college graduate, super smart, well-read, is a true knowledge seeker and seeker of truth, and has led major organizations with multiple reporting layers. Unsurprisingly, she sounds like many of the executives with whom I have worked over the years. How can she promote her career history on her resume, even though the majority of her work has been in volunteer roles?
First and foremost, it’s important to recognize as an article of faith that work is work, even if it’s unpaid. Never lose sight of the fact that what you do every day has relevance for your job search strategy, because you’re doing something important and valuable. And exploring what you like about the various volunteer roles you have had can help you narrow down your career target as well.
Examples of this type of volunteer work from which your resume can benefit can include:
- Sitting on the board of a non-profit institution.
- Volunteering at a church or synagogue.
- Leading programs as part of your child’s PTA.
- Organizing an event, such as a food drive or fun run.
- Serving as a Boy Scout or Girl Scout guide.
- Coaching a sports team.
There are, of course, many other types of volunteerism that can bolster your job application process. The crucial thing to remember is that you must couch your leadership contributions and your accomplishments in the same way that you account for them with your regular paid positions. Remember, work is work, even if it’s unpaid.
Let’s look at a few possibilities in which volunteerism can amplify your executive resume and your executive job search strategy overall.
Volunteerism that Supports Your Return to the Workforce
The first possibility is that you have been out of the workforce for a while, whether for family obligations, layoff, sabbatical, travel, or any other reason you’ve chosen to take yourself away from your career for some extended period of time. Now that it’s time to go back to paid work, you need to capture and organize your volunteer work to showcase its value.
To execute on this well, you should include volunteer roles as actual in-line work experience, and you’re not obligated to reveal the exact amount you were paid or not paid to do the work. The process of describing what you did every day and the successes you created are just as valuable – if you can prove that your expertise parallels the knowledge and experience that your career target requires.
Write down all of your volunteer work and the ways in which you improved or added to the organization. The categories of expertise can be leadership and management, financial responsibility, operational expertise, sales of ideas / services / goods, marketing, and more. These are exactly the types of knowledge and proven ability that your future audience needs to know you have, and they are subject to the challenge-action-result strategy that you’ve heard me talk about before in many other podcasts on this show. I’m not going to go in to the CAR strategy here, but rest assured that you can use the challenge-action-result method even when the work you have done is unpaid.
Each of these volunteer roles, and the promotions to leadership you might have experienced as well, become “jobs” in your resume, and they should be listed exactly the same way as your paid work is detailed. You make absolutely no distinction between your former paid work and your volunteer work, because they both are strongly reflective of the expertise your future hiring executive needs you to have to be successful in the role to which you’re applying.
Volunteerism that Supplements Your Ongoing Paid Work
A second flavor of using volunteerism on your resume is useful when you have had a largely intact career timeline but want to add to your career history some skills and expertise that your paid work doesn’t demonstrate.
Including volunteer work on a professional resume can be a critical way of ensuring that a hiring manager understands the full flavor of your experience. For example, your professional career might be a greased rail to success, but it might lack a specific dimension that you need to promote. By highlighting your volunteer experience, you can show that you have many types of expertise, not just the kind that you get paid for day to day.
Let’s say that you are a senior vice president of finance, and you want to demonstrate your expertise in operations and team leadership, so that you can move into a broader role, perhaps a chief financial officer position. You might offer up your recent work as the chair of a committee for a local nonprofit, a role you’ve held for several years. You then describe the scope and value of that work, for example, how you fulfilled the mission of the organization through the role, how many people you guided to that goal, and how you overcame multiple challenges along the way.
Volunteer Work as the Basis for Your References
Last, your volunteer roles can serve as a source of references for you. If you had any type of reporting relationship with leaders of a volunteer organization, it’s a good idea to ask them to write you a letter of recommendation on the organization’s letterhead commenting on your contributions. These people can also become excellent sources of references when you need to give names and numbers to interviewers of people who can vouch for your excellent work ethic, ability to organize projects and teams, and so on. These leaders likely will know you well and be able to describe your success and contributions to their organizations, and, because you have done an incredible job, they are going to be willing to share a few words with your future hiring executive as well.
Examples of the types of individuals who might serve as excellent references from your volunteer work include:
- The executive team of the group to which you donated your time and expertise.
- Event leaders, when you directed a portion of the event.
- Co-organizers, who can comment on your excellent team spirit and ability to motivate the group.
- Your direct report team.
- A beneficiary of a nonprofit event.
To conclude, your professional paid work history is not the only type of work that belongs on your resume. By putting your volunteer work on a resume, you can expand on and elaborate on what makes you special and what makes you unique and the only one who can do what you do in the way that you do it. In short, volunteer work on your professional resume enhances your brand.