Tips for Turning a Volunteer Job into a Full-Time Position

Marines fill cardboard boxes with non-perishable food items at the San Francisco Marin Food Bank.
Marines with I Marine Expeditionary Force fill cardboard boxes with non-perishable food items at the San Francisco Marin Food Bank, Oct. 7, 2016. (Sgt. Abbey Perria/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

To fill time between jobs or explore other fields, many people are finding that a volunteer job -- especially in the nonprofit sector -- can sometimes lead to permanent, salaried employment.

"People think the only way to land a full-time position is through traditional means," said Becky Lunders, president of teamWorks, a leadership development consulting firm in Rohnert Park, California. "The truth is that especially in the world of nonprofits, there are many other avenues one can take."

Perhaps nobody knows this better than Barbara Abbott of San Francisco. After being out of the workforce for nearly a decade caring for her children, Abbott decided in 2007 to get involved again.

But rather than look for a full-time corporate management job like she had before, she changed careers and took a volunteer position in the development office of the San Francisco Food Bank. There, she created a database of donors and organized a special project relating to local adopt-a-pantry efforts. In March 2008, when a full-time position opened to spearhead the nonprofit's food resources initiatives, Abbott's experiences made her a perfect fit.

"The first day I volunteered here, I never thought I'd end up with a full-time job," she said. "Looking back, though, it seems that was a sensible way to make an impression and get in."

Patience and Professionalism

While Abbott moved from volunteer work to full time within 18 months, it can take others much longer to make the switch.

"Be patient," said Lunders, who advises volunteers on how to parlay their volunteer work experience into full-time jobs. "Every organization is different, and even if they want to hire you on the spot, they may not be able to do so until money in the budget opens up."

Lunders tells volunteers to make themselves invaluable by taking on enough responsibility for higher-ups to notice. Plus, she says volunteers should give their unpaid job the same level of respect they'd give a paying gig.

Nancy Delaney, community engagement manager for Boston-based Oxfam America, learned this firsthand: She volunteered for two years before being hired full time 11 years ago. Early in her volunteer career, Delaney pitched in with everything, including filing, data entry, cold-calling and handling donor relations.

Over time, her bosses began tossing more responsibilities her way. After a year or so, she says she stopped feeling like a volunteer.

"People started seeing me as more than just a competent resource and really depended on me to get things done," she said. "I wasn't doing it on purpose, but by helping out in so many different ways, I actually made myself indispensable."

The volunteer experience also gave Delaney insight into what full-time employment at Oxfam entailed, so that when she came aboard full time, there was virtually no learning curve.

Potential Pitfalls

Volunteer work with a nonprofit isn't always a one-way ticket to full-time employment.

One of the biggest reasons so many volunteers aren't considered for full-time work is ego, says Lunders, who also advises nonprofits on how to groom volunteers into paying leadership roles.

"When a volunteer comes in and purposely tries to overshadow staff people -- almost tries to position themselves as the one who knows everything -- that's not good," she said. "It's important for volunteers to know their place, operate within the system and understand precisely what is and is not appropriate."

Grumbling about the financial realities of volunteering could also disqualify volunteers from being considered for a full-time job.

By nature, volunteer jobs don't pay (though some offer nonmonetary perks). Delaney says if you agree to volunteer at a nonprofit, it's a good idea to keep quiet about the cash situation until you're in a position that pays.

"Finances are a sensitive subject for a lot of people," she said. "If you're the kind of person who needs to earn money from the beginning, maybe taking the volunteer route isn't for you."

It's critical to volunteer for organizations whose core set of values you share. The San Francisco Food Bank was ideal for Abbott, because she had always strived to help feed the hungry in her hometown.

Prospective volunteers should also find out precisely what sort of tasks their responsibilities would entail, then ask themselves whether they would be comfortable doing these sorts of activities in the short term for long-term gain, Abbott says.

"This strategy definitely isn't 'one size fits all,'" she said. "But when it works, it's great."

Go from Volunteer to Employee

Volunteering is a great way to get yourself considered for full-time employment. Here are three tips about how to do it right:

  • Work Hard: The only way higher-ups will consider moving you from volunteer work to full-time employment is if they see they can't live without you.
  • Be Serious: Taking pride in your work goes a long way. When it comes time to hire new workers, those same people will remember your professionalism.
  • Be Upfront: If your goal is full-time work, tell your boss. Armed with this knowledge, they might fast-track you to a paid position

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