Do Nonprofit HR Coordinators really Appreciate Volunteers?

After publishing last week’s blog, ”Revolving Doors and Musical Chairs”, I got an interesting response from a reader.  She was an older individual with still a lot of good years of work in her, and was a long time volunteer for an organization.  She knew the organization’s mission and programs well.  When a professional position opened up, she applied for the position and it was perfect fit for her skills and knowledge.  The NPO didn’t hire her, and the job went to a young person fresh out of school.  It’s a pity, because the NPO lost out in the long run.  Older candidates have a great deal of life experience and, this volunteer had working knowledge that the other candidate did not have, and the younger individual will likely jump ship the first chance she gets.

I share this story because it is something I commonly hear at CNRG Networking Nights or read about in various professional networks on Linked In.  There are many people who want to end their careers working in the nonprofit sector.  People who have worked for businesses large and small and didn’t find the satisfaction they were looking for in their jobs are looking to make a difference.  Perhaps, seeing high paid executives make bad decisions and ruin a business, yet walk away with a golden parachute worth millions of dollars has soured their stomach about working for corporations, or working for companies that don’t value their customers needs, and incorporate bad ideas just to make a buck. Whatever the reason, I have run into many people who have made that decision in the last few years.

One of the first things a career changer is told is to find an organization to volunteer for, and gain experience in the field.  Organizations need the free labor and the volunteers gain practical knowledge about things like project coordination and events and envelope stuffing.  Ideally, when a position opens up at the organization or similar one, the volunteer gets the opportunity to interview and gets hired because of those skills gained through service.  Volunteer Coordinators often support their volunteers with recommendations.

However, this is often not the case.  When an applicant sends a resume and cover letter to an organization, it often never gets read by human eyes.   Those items will often be fed through a scanner that will search for key words and positions held.  If one applies to a small organization, it is much more likely that someone will actually read your application materials because they can’t afford the technology.  Those programs are meant to weed people out and exclude them from the hiring process, not to truly find the best person for the job.  Should the application materials actually make it to a person, the thing the HR coordinator is looking for is paid experience.  How long has the person held the position they are looking to fill.  If the applicant hasn’t held the position, the likelihood of getting an interview is next to nil.  They would rather find someone with paid experience, even if the resume shows a history of short term employment and job hopping, because it is paid experience. 

My volunteer history is better than my job history.  Besides an occasional short project gig, most of my volunteer service has been four years or longer.  I gained valuable knowledge and skills during that service, and I continue to take advantage of the learning opportunities by serving several organizations.  I actively participate and share ideas.  My knowledge, efforts and connections have enriched the organizations I have served and continue to serve.  If an HR Coordinator/Manager wants to rely on a scanner that doesn’t value the skills of hardworking and dedicated volunteer, it really is a pity and is their organization’s loss.

All I can say to the reader who responded with that tale, and to the many others who have gone through similar situations, is that you are not alone.  Keep volunteering, keep meeting others in and out of the sector, and let people know what you want to do and what you can do.  There is hope for you so don’t give up.

Richard Freedlund, the author, has been involved with nonprofits for over a dozen years in several capacities. He currently serves on the Board of CNRG and is the owner/proprietor of Greater Good Fundraising, a business catering to the needs of small nonprofits and public schools. His opinions are his own and come from his experience, knowledge, and training in development. They do not represent the collective opinions of CNRG board members and volunteers. He welcomes responses to his blog at [email protected].