July 13, 2013

How to Leverage Volunteer Experience in Your Career

Volunteering your time is a win-win.  For the organization with which you volunteer, your efforts and time, no matter how small, add up to support their cause.  But for you, in every volunteer experience, there is something you can learn or take away from it.  And this helped me in ways I could never have imagined.  
I started my first “real” job with a small software company in Atlanta.  Each day was filled with new challenges that stretched my brain, but more importantly tested my confidence as a leader. However, I found that I spent my day interacting with people exactly like me - and people even more analytical and less social than me. It seemed like advancing my career would require me to gain more confidence, project management, and team management skills and experience - but where would I get real-life opportunities?   

At about the same time, I started volunteering for Alpha Phi.  A woman from my chapter asked me to help her test a software project for Alpha Phi, not unlike what I did at work each day.  Of course, I agreed.  Later that year, I was asked to serve on the Fraternity’s Technology committee, followed the next biennium on the Collegiate Recruitment Resources Committee.  I was learning all sorts of new “people” skills, while contributing to Alpha Phi the technology skills I already developed.  

Later, I received a phone call from a past International President who wanted to talk about what types of things I aspired to accomplish in Alpha Phi.  Then it hit me, I have two separate career paths I need to manage.  That sounded like a lot of work, so I took the list of skills I’d need for both career paths, merged them into one, and determined which method - volunteer job or paid job - I could use to obtain them. I ended up deciding to continued to serve Alpha Phi on the CMSC, IRT, and SPC, as well as being a recruitment volunteer and finally Regional Manager.  
And my approach paid off after 15 years.
Earlier this year, I was approached by another software company for a Senior Manager position. Professionally, I had never held a position this high, and for a moment was not sure I had the experience and confidence to take this on.  As I read the position description, and thought about the required skills and experience... But then I realized I had all of that - through being an Alpha Phi volunteer.  As Regional Manager, I was responsible for the performance of many chapters, most of which I did not have direct interaction with. I also needed to coach younger volunteers and collegiate officers as they worked with their chapters and found their own Alpha Phi career paths.  Finally, I had to ensure the success of projects and chapter oversight with a volunteer pool that was constantly changing and evolving. 
And that is exactly what this company is asking me to do.  Having thought this through in advance of the interview, I was easily able to articulate that my middle management volunteer roles in a sizeable non-profit organization gives me the opportunity everyday to manage projects and people, to coach others of various levels of skills and experience in a fast-paced, medium-turnover environment, and to advance the overall organization through my contributions. I never would have thought that the main skill sets that qualified me for this job would have been taught to me and mastered through volunteering. Alpha Phi helped shape and elevate my career.  My time invested was well spent and not only rewarding from a volunteer standpoint, but also that of career advancement.  Leveraging my volunteer skills allowed me to obtain the job I wanted and will enrich my experience in a new professional role.  

Andi Etwaroo (Zeta Omicron-Johns Hopkins) is the extension team lead for our Iota Sigma chapter at Carnegie Mellon, and she also serves as the co-chair for the Alpha Phi Strategic Planning Committee

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