The Art of Volunteering

by Elizabeth Wilcox

“Don’t tell me I don’t work. I was up until midnight last night, doing things for the family, doing all my volunteer work. I just don’t get paid.”

It’s a familiar refrain. Among women who don’t work for pay, many consider their volunteer work, work. And for many, it is. They dedicate substantial amounts of time to charities, non-profits, informal volunteer groups. In so doing, they aim to help their communities, their schools, people less fortunate than themselves. But is volunteering a dying art, a relic of past years when women did not work?

Contrary to popular perception, volunteering is very much alive. According to a recent report in the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 1 in every 4 individuals performed volunteer activities between September 2001 and September 2002. And while women still out-volunteered men, the percentage of men volunteering was 23.8% as opposed to 31.1% for women. Among parents with children aged 18 or younger, 39.8% of women and 32.3% of men volunteered, said the “Volunteerism in the United States” report that was derived from a special supplement to the September 2002 current population survey.

The fact that women still out volunteer men is not a surprise. But perhaps what is surprising is the fact that volunteer work is not the domain of non-working women alone. Quite the contrary. Working women are in fact more likely to volunteer than non-working with 34.4% of employed women volunteering as compared to 30.6% of unemployed and 26.7% of women not in the workforce. So despite what we may hear, it’s apparently not just the stay-at-home moms staying up until 12:00 at night doing that volunteer work.

But can volunteer work help support one’s professional life? I recently spoke to the former chairperson of a large bank, a woman in her 60s now and a trailblazer in her field. Asked how difficult it was to segue from full-time volunteer to paid work, she responded that it was much harder now to make that transition into Corporate America than it was in the 1970s when volunteering was the entry route so many women had to take.

Volunteering no doubt can help strengthen and grow one’s network, a key asset in finding work. The affiliation also may help you advance, particularly if its professionally oriented, by inspiring more people to pound the table for you. It can also help how you’re perceived, depending how and to what extent you volunteer and the culture of the organization for which you work. But there’s no doubt that volunteering can conflict with paid work. In fact, among working women who volunteered, part-timers volunteered at a rate of 40.2% as opposed to 32.3% of women working full-time, suggesting that women are making tradeoffs to volunteer.

And no matter what the trends, I still maintain that volunteering can help one transition from unpaid work to paid. Only last week, I came across a full-time working woman who said that her same job is often done by people who don’t get paid. In a tight job market, college graduates often will work “unpaid” at first to get their foot in the door. And picked well, a volunteer job can still help one maintain and even learn new skills. So what if that experience on your resume was not paid. Unless someone asks, who needs to know?