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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.
Never Send a Naked Executive Resume
or, Why Write Cover Letters?
Cover letters are those documents that typically accompany the executive resume you send out to prospective hiring teams. If we assume that the audience for your executive resume are humans (feel free to ask me about why applying online is 100% time wasted), then cover letters have two audiences: one is people who read cover letters, and one is people who don’t read cover letters. Read on to learn how to write a cover letter that gets your resume noticed.
What does this principle of having two audiences for your cover letter really mean? It means you have to have a cover letter, because you should never send a naked resume. But the truth is, you don’t know if your audience is going to read it, so if there is even a small chance they might read your cover letter, then you should have a good one.
What makes a good cover letter? First, a good cover letter to start out is not a generic “here I am, and I’m ready to apply for this job. I read it in an online job that there’s this job available and you could consider me.” That message is impersonal and bland. To get more personal and to ensure that your cover letter resonates with your audience, you have to start thinking about what the job specifically is asking for and infuse some of your background with respect to your audience’s expectations in this cover letter.
As you mention relevant points from your executive career history, highlight the key achievements that you think are going to be relevant to this particular audience — in the context of what this company is expecting. So don’t even start to put pen to paper until you have done some research on the company and the role as well as have thought about culture fit, language choice, and all the factors that are going to appeal to your audience.
Quite recently, I was writing a cover letter for an outside sales leader. The job posting was truly revealing. The language was something like this: “Have tattoos? Great! Show off your ink. Like to come in with pink hair? Great! We love color.” Clearly, this audience is a little bit looser, friendlier, less buttoned-up than say a company that merely says “Please submit your salary requirements.” You can learn more about the company culture, beyond how the job posting reads, on the company website, specifically the “about us” section.
One other key element you need to include in your cover letter, typically after you describe your expertise, is the two “asks.” In other words, your cover letter is meant to introduce your resume so you want to invite your reader a) to look at your resume for additional information, and b) to ask for the interview. You don’t ask for the interview because it’s expected; you asked for it because it matters to you, and you want your audience to connect with the fact that you care about getting this interview.
In conclusion, you have to have a cover letter because you don’t know if your audience is going to read it or not, you know not to send a naked resume. As you prepare your letter, always let them know you are passionate about what you are asking for, because your enthusiasm for the role will be critical to their interpretation of your candidacy.
Your Executive Resume: Measuring Your Outcomes with Hard Numbers and Visuals
Using Numbers and Metrics in Your Resume to Prove You’re Really “That Good”
Normally, when we think about resumes, or historically what they looked like, we think of an HR job description—a colorless description, or “This is what I did.” It’s bland, it reads like HR-speak, and often includes the dreaded “responsible for.” Your executive resume needs more than this.
Wouldn’t it be better to prove in your executive resume that you’re good at what you do by showing results? There’s no guessing when you can prove to your future hiring executive that you have succeeded in exactly the kind of ambiguity that their company is facing.
The best way to prove that you can deliver results is by providing measurements of your success—literally quantifiable numbers, metrics, KPIs (key performance indicators), or measurements of ROI (return on investment). Additional fairly simple avenues to explore include:
- The number the things that you wanted to and completed
- The number of people you recruited and onboarded (and maybe promoted)
- The number of new customers you drove to the business
- The total dollar amount of revenues, or their percentage increase quarter over quarter or year over year.
So these kinds of counts or measurements of change show a couple of things in your resume. The first is that you’ve accomplished the goal that you set out to, and you can benchmark those numbers against company expectations or industry standards. The second is that it shows that what you are presenting is incontrovertible evidence of your success. This is really important, because a hiring manager might read your resume decide that your strategies are not what their company needs right now, but they can’t argue with the veracity of your claims to success. They can’t look at that number and believe that you’re not telling the truth.
Because you’re always telling the truth in your resume (cardinal rule of resume strategy—don’t eve lie), then you are leveling with your audience. You’re saying to your audience, “I did this thing, and here’s the proof. Right here is the number that says I did what I was supposed to do.” If you’re targeting your resume appropriately, your audience is going to love what you have demonstrated, and if they need someone like you, you’re the ideal candidate for them to reach out to.
So, in your resume now that you have these numbers, how do you present them effectively in your resume? These metrics become the “results” in your “challenge – action – results” bullet points. Furthermore, you can present them visually. The first way to do this is to present your data in a table of figures. A well-constructed table, with labels, grids, and colors, can help your audience interpret the data the way you need them to understand your message.
Another way to present a series of data is to visually represent those numbers in a graph. It’s so easy for someone to look at a chart and understand that the numbers “go up.” Of course, your chart is going to be detailed, so a savvy reader who wants to drill down into the data will be able to do that, but even a cursory look at the chart will give a great high-level message.
You might be thinking that these are unorthodox approaches–I promise you they are not. Visual representations of sales figures that started out low and then went high, or operation costs that started out higher and then wet low, are going to hit your audience right in the gut. These images are plugging into exactly what your audience expects to know about their ideal candidate. So give them what they want and show them what they want in multiple modalities, not just in the text but as a visual representation as well.