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When to put volunteer work on your resume — and how

A volunteer works with a group of Pathfinders (girls ages 12-14). (Photo: Girl Guides of Canada)

Volunteering for a worthy cause can be more than just personally fulfilling; it can help you stand out from the competition when applying for a job. But does it help when job searching? It depends on how you use it.

“Volunteer work does benefit your resume, but it depends on your career level and career track,” says Sheryl Boswell, Director of Marketing for job search website Monster Canada.

Boswell says there are two scenarios where it’s appropriate to prominently feature your volunteer work: if you’re looking at changing careers and want to showcase relevant experience, or if you’re a new graduate seeking an entry-level position and don’t have enough paid work experience to make that the focus of your resume.

“Just because you weren’t financially compensated for a skill, doesn’t mean you don’t have talent in it,” says Boswell, and points to volunteer experience as one way of showing a potential employer that you could do the job you’re interested in.

For university student Madeleine Deschenes, current Chair of the National Youth Council of Girl Guides of Canada, volunteering with the organization is a very valuable way to show she’s responsible and a natural leader.

“I’m able to demonstrate that I have leadership skills, problem-solving skills and maturity,” says Deschenes, who also sits on the Board of Directors for Girl Guides of Canada and volunteers as a unit leader for a Sparks group (girls ages 5 to 6). “As a 20-year-old, [maturity] can come into question.”

Deschenes’ work with Girl Guides of Canada has opened up conversations with potential employers, allowing her to highlight experiences in conflict resolution, collaboration, risk management and strategic thinking. She says it also demonstrates her character.

“[It shows] I have a very long-term commitment, but it also shows that I’m giving back to my community,” says Deschenes.

When to skip the volunteer work

Boswell points out that it’s a very personal choice to include volunteer work on your resume, and is by no means mandatory.

If your volunteer work was with a political or religious organization, Boswell advises not to include it on your resume (unless you’re applying to work in a related field) as it may bring out some unintended bias in the potential employer.

“It’s not that it’s not relevant, but you don’t want to build in any prejudices,” says Boswell.

It’s also not necessary to include if you’re applying for a job in a career path that is already well established in your field. Unless the skills you gained through the volunteer work have a direct impact on your career path, like volunteering at an after-school program when you’re applying to become a teacher, it may not be wise to include your volunteer work on the resume.

“A resume is supposed to tell a story, and you want it to be as relevant to the job as possible,” says Boswell.

“The idea is that you want to draw out what the transferable skills are that you got through the work.”

Find out what’s important to the company

A good guide as to whether it’s worth including volunteer experience on your resume is by looking into the company before you apply for the job and seeing what their causes of choice are. If an employer puts a lot of emphasis on philanthropy and community involvement, chances are it will be worthwhile to include your own volunteer experience that is well-aligned with their causes.

“If they’re a very green company, you could tailor your volunteer experience to match what that company believes in,” says Boswell.

Likewise, if you’re looking to develop a particular set of skills, most volunteer organizations have positions that can make use of a specific skill set. While a group like Girl Guides of Canada appears on the surface to be predominantly about working with children, there are many roles that the organization has which don’t have volunteers in a Girl Guide unit.

“Any field that you’re in, there’s a role in Girl Guides of Canada we can make for you,” says Deschenes, explaining that specific roles at the community, provincial and national levels can make use of risk management skills, STEM backgrounds, event planning and just about any other skill set a willing volunteer brings to the table.

Is volunteering for you?

Regardless of whether the volunteer work is a good fit on your resume or not, it only makes sense to volunteer for causes you are personally passionate about. Even if the volunteer work doesn’t make its way onto your resume, it can help maintain a work-life balance and provide a change from the 9-to-5 grind.

“Being a Sparks leader is a big stress relief,” says Deschenes. “You go in and they’ve got all sorts of stories, and all sorts of smiles.”

“You feel like you’re making an impact.”