Re-thinking volunteer on a resume

Q: I look at my resume and it has volunteer this and volunteer that. It doesn’t look like I have held a real job for years. How do I fix that? Or am I destined to just be a long-term volunteer?

A: You have raised a hot issue with me! Let me explain. I feel that volunteers should not state that they are volunteers but instead include the role that they fulfilled as a volunteer. If you were chair of fundraising, why not include that title? If you served on the compensation committee of a non-profit, why wouldn’t you state that? I think volunteers undersell their experiences by stating that some of the roles they held were voluntary positions. Think about it. On a resume where a candidate lists that they were head of finance for a biotech company, they don’t specify that the position was paid! They list the role, the employer, the dates of employment and then provide some information about the position and responsibilities.

You are not destined to become “just a long-term volunteer” unless you choose that as your path. You hit another hot topic with me. You, and only you, are the CEO of your career. Do not rely on your spouse, career coach, placement agency, family member or even your employer. You should actively choose what you want to do within realistic limitations. Don’t expect someone else to find you a job. Your search and your career rest squarely on your shoulders. Your realistic limitations may be skill-based (no experience in accounting), geography-based (only south shore) or pay-based (must make $50K). When job seekers tell me that they their next job will come from a friend, a spouse, a parent, a search firm or other source, I get nervous. It is the job seeker’s role to pursue every path and every job lead.


Think about my suggested approach. Often volunteer positions are just as relevant as paid roles. If asked, you should always be candid and respond if a role was paid or unpaid. Volunteer does not mean less valuable however.

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