Volunteer work is great to include on your résumé, if done properly. It can show your commitment to bettering yourself and your community, it can show a little about your personality without being over the top, and it’s perfect to fill in a gap in your employment history.
“I tell people who have gaps to highlight volunteer work on their résumé,” says Mary Faulkner, head of talent acquisition at a public utility in Denver. “One of the stigmas against people who’ve been unemployed is that they’re out of the loop. Volunteering shows you’re still out there using your skills and experience. It can show leadership, teamwork on committees and that you have an interest in maintaining your skill set.”
Faulkner shared some more tips for getting the most impact from volunteer work on your résumé. Here’s her advice.
Listing volunteer work is especially helpful for new graduates, because it can demonstrate skills desired in the professional world before you’ve earned similar experience on the job, Faulkner says. Showing the work you did on your sorority committee can demonstrate teamwork, leadership, budgeting and other skills. This is good.
But including sorority information 15 years later? This is bad. It’s no longer timely and you should be able to demonstrate these same skills in job experience by now, she says. And if you include information about volunteering long ago and no volunteer work now, it may highlight that you don’t volunteer anymore, she says.
The listed volunteer work also needs to be relevant to the job for which you’re applying. If you managed a budget in your sorority work, this is relevant if you’re trying to apply for a financial position. If you volunteered as a dog walker at a local shelter, that’s not relevant for that same financial job. “You’re not being hired because you’re a good person. You’re being hired to be good at this job,” Faulkner says. “Dog walking isn’t helpful unless you’re applying for an animal-related job, or you also helped with scheduling or budget, or you’re applying for some type of community outreach work and can show your community involvement.”
The exception to both of these guidelines would be something truly spectacular, like if you were chosen to be a White House intern, because that’s a big deal even if it’s not timely or exactly relevant. Faulkner recommends including things like this in a separate “Additional Info” section of your résumé.
There’s no law that says you have to put the same information on each résumé you send out. The whole point is to show off your best self, and different companies want different things. Know your audience and tailor your résumé to each one, Faulkner says. You can leave things off or be a little vague, if needed, while continuing to make sure your information is timely and relevant.
For example, Faulkner recently worked with an internal candidate revamping his résumé for a promotion to a different division. He included information about volunteering at his church. He showed how he led youth groups, handled interpersonal conflicts on committees and had developed his leadership skills with this volunteer work. “It showed additional skills he has that happened to come from somewhere besides work,” Faulkner says. But he did it in a way that was very matter-of-fact. He knew the culture and knew it was fine to include religious work as long as it was pertinent, she says.
Researching the culture of an organization beforehand can help you understand if they will appreciate faith-based volunteering or are more secular. The same goes for any political activism. This is great to include if you’re applying for a political job, but if you merely want to highlight your experience managing phone bank volunteers or soliciting donations, you might just mention you worked for a “local political candidate” or organization and not be too specific, she says. Otherwise you risk alienating your hiring manager if they don’t agree with your religion, your politics or the organizations you support.
The flip side of this? If you only want to work for organizations that share your values, put it all out there and be very specific, she says.
Figuring out where to list volunteer work can be tricky, Faulkner says. If you’re including it to fill in a gap in your job history, put it with the jobs. If you’re not filling in a gap and just using it for extra information about your skills and community involvement, she recommends putting volunteer work in its own section.
Wherever you put it, “format it like a real job,” Faulkner says. “You need to list the skills you used and results you achieved just like a paid position. If you can’t do that, don’t include it,” she says.
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