Of all the different things that professionals today are looking for in their careers, the chance to do “meaningful work” is right up there near the top of the list.  Time after time, I’ve had individuals from the for-profit sector express the desire to take their careers in a new direction that would allow them to give back, make the world a better place, and take more pride in their accomplishments.

Many new graduates and folks from the younger set are wired this same way, as well.  Their greatest fear is to get sucked into a career path that involves earning a paycheck without any real attachment to their passions, or even worse, involves supporting a business model that is in direct contradiction to their values.

For the majority of folks feeling this way, the non-profit sector is the most obvious target.  And should such people struggle to immediately land a paying position within the philanthropic arena, they’ll often start wondering whether volunteering for such organizations is a good way to get a foot in the door.

My answer?  While there are certainly cases where one may be willing to support a worthwhile cause with no strings attached, I think some more serious thought has to be given to situations where the emphasis is going to be on volunteering for formal career advancement purposes.  Without a bit of advance caution and contemplation, one might encounter the situation described below in a client note I recently received:

Hi Matt: I have just completed an expert volunteer project assignment for a local non-profit, focused on researching the potential market impact of a new technology in Washington State. I had contacted the organization about volunteer opportunities and they asked if I’d be willing to channel my expertise into a whitepaper on the subject, followed by the development and delivery of a presentation that would present specific data involving the economic impact of the new technology. 

To date, I have invested over 100 hours on the project, based on the expectation that in return I would:

  • Receive feedback, good, bad, or indifferent on my work, to improve my work product (In fact, I received none)
  • Be thanked for my work, regardless the above (I received no thanks other than a pro forma acknowledgement that my out of pocket data purchase expenses could be counted as a donation)
  • Be given the opportunity to have more involvement with the initiative (which hasn’t happened).  In fact, my contact told me yesterday that the organization has convened a working group of federal, state and local agencies and universities to study this matter — a group I would have been highly interested in participating in — but to which I wasn’t invited.  I am now left to believe that all my efforts to date, sadly, have simply served to make my CONTACT look smart and help THEM advance their own career interests.

I’m a little abashed to admit feeling ripped off, hurt, and angry about this situation. Should I have known better?  Did I present myself as someone so experienced that substantive feedback, thanks, and some degree of ongoing project involvement seemed unnecessary?  Was my contact so overworked and self-absorbed that some or all of the foregoing never occurred to him?  Should I have been more explicit about what I wanted from the deal?  

I raise this issue because in all likelihood, with a sizable part of the professional workforce approaching retirement age, the effective management – and reward – of skilled volunteers will become increasingly important to our society.  Individuals such as myself may not be looking for a great deal of money at this point, but some feeling of involvement and encouragement is always welcome.  So my advice to others is that just because you’re talking with a not-for-profit organization, doing good works in the community, you shouldn’t necessarily assume your efforts will be suitably recognized and rewarded.  Let the buyer beware.

Now in fairness, the experience expressed above may be an isolated incident.  Perhaps this individual ran into a particularly distracted and over-committed non-profit leader, whereas the same volunteer effort in another organization would have opened all the right doors and led to many positive developments.  And yet, I’d still encourage people thinking along these lines to carefully weigh the pros and cons of a potential volunteer engagement — and to clarify their expectations with the organization up front and ensure they’ll be receiving suitable “quid pro quo” (of either a tangible or intangible sort) from the time they invest in the process.

Coincidentally, I just wrote an article along these lines for University of Washington Professional & Continuing Education (UWPCE) — so for those interested in this particular facet of the modern market, I’d encourage you to check out the link below for further tips on the subject of volunteerism — and how to approach it!

Volunteering for Career Advancement (UWPCE Newsletter)