Whenever someone tells me how amazing it is that I’m a counselor, the first thing I think of is how amazing it is to learn so much from the people I work with.
As a career coach at the New York Public Library, I had the pleasure of working with a range of amazing people. With respect to volunteering, one young woman comes to mind. Unlike many of the people who came to see me, she had a steady job with decent pay and good benefits. She had even been promoted a few times, and seemed a bit concerned that she might be promoted again.
Initially, I thought this seemed odd. My appointment calendar was full of people who were unemployed for the first time in decades and would be grateful for seemingly any job. Here, I had someone whose biggest fear was getting a promotion.
As it turned out, this woman had started out working as a bank teller, and her most recent promotion had landed her in the department responsible for garnishing account holders’ funds based on court orders. She found the work morally repugnant, but didn’t see a way out.
As I spoke to her and found out more about her background and what she was doing in her spare time, I realized that, without even knowing it, she had hit on an effective coping strategy: she volunteered for local nonprofits during the bulk of her free time, and she found it incredibly energizing and fulfilling. For some people, a schedule packed with work followed by volunteer hours would seem daunting, but for her those hours were keeping her grounded.
Another person used his free time between jobs to teach computer classes for seniors. Not only did he get the satisfaction of helping others, but he appreciated that those classes added some structure to his otherwise unscheduled days. Going to the senior center forced him to get out of his apartment and into the world at regular intervals.
It appears that giving back may have some value in clinical treatment for depression and anxiety, as well, because it fosters a connection between people and their communities.
Even if the moral/spiritual fulfillment, structure, and sense of connection leave you cold, volunteering can be beneficial for other reasons.
First, every nonprofit organization exists because someone loves it. You never know if that someone will be sitting across from you at an interview for a job you want. As a college student, I walked dogs for a popular animal shelter in Santa Barbara. When I interviewed for my first job as a new graduate, several prospective employers commented on how wonderful it was that I had volunteered for that organization.
Second, if you are unemployed, a volunteer role can give you the opportunity to learn something new—or at least continue to use marketable skills. When it comes to software and other things that take practice, if you don’t use the skills, you often lose them. If you are agreeing to give away time and expertise, most organizations will be happy to match you to a role that enables you to do what you need to do. When you encounter an organization that is totally inflexible, that’s probably not a place you want to invest a lot of time.
Third, volunteering gives you the opportunity to network. Many Fortune 500 companies allow employees to volunteer at local charities during work hours. If you do some research, you can probably find out if a company you are interested in tends to spend time at a nonprofit near you. That can provide you with the opportunity to connect with people who could become valuable contacts.
If you are interested in volunteering, start with causes and organizations that are important to you. Volunteer opportunities are also posted on VolunteerMatch and Idealist. While giving away time won’t fill a hole in the bank account, sometimes it can fill a hole in your life—and that can make a big difference.
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