In this day and age, one of the pieces of advice many of us hear is that volunteering with an organization can be the gateway to a paying job, which likely leaves many of us wondering exactly how valid that piece of advice is.
Of course, this answer depends very much on the individual and the organization, but for me, it was actually true. It was a long and winding road to get here, but connections with museums in Philadelphia (where I either began as a volunteer or an intern) eventually turned into paying jobs and, finally, the full-time job I just started this winter at Jeffrey Miller Catering in Philadelphia.
While volunteering and interning may occasionally seem like work you could be getting paid for, sometimes it isn’t about the money. I know, there isn’t a money tree growing in your backyard, and money certainly isn’t falling out of the sky—although that would be nice—but stay with me on this. Volunteering and internship positions, especially for those who are brand new college graduates, can be an invaluable experience. If you are lucky enough to land a position with an awesome organization (or more than one!), you can learn all kinds of lessons and gain experience without as much responsibility—and your paycheck—hanging over your head.
Volunteering and interning can teach you everything from why dress codes are important to why it’s important to show up on time each day. The types of responsibilities you receive are usually a little different and can be tailored around what your strengths and weaknesses are. For instance, I have a learning disability that makes math and counting money a challenge and, for a long time, a major stress inducer. When I first started volunteering at Christ Church, I was petrified of the cash register, so it was arranged that I would stick to doing tours and chatting with visitors. The following spring, when I was hired as a tour guide, I would have to use the cash register as part of my responsibilities. Cue the panic attack, right? Wrong. The Director of Tourism at the time was kind enough to spend an entire morning with me sitting, in a quiet space, in front of a register patiently teaching me how to make change and how to do it quickly. She stuck around during the first few days of the busy season to make sure I didn’t screw up when there was a line of visitors.
Volunteering and interning can also teach you a lot about yourself. For example, I learned that it is okay to ask for help or direction; if you’re feeling lost, you can ask for help or to be pointed in the correct direction. While, hopefully, your supervisors are giving you enough to do, it is even okay to ask for more work or if they need you to do something else—if you feel as though you are sitting about twiddling your thumbs. This happens sometimes if it takes you less time to do a task than your supervisor thinks or even if you simply have amazing time management skills.
On the other hand, it is also okay to speak up if you feel you are being given too much work—while many of us are eager to make ourselves useful and show off what amazing and efficient workers we can be, we are all only human and there is such a thing as an overloaded plate. If you start feeling overwhelmed, talk to somebody and express your concerns. Your supervisor or someone else you work with can help you readjust your workload and learn how to manage tasks better, if that’s what you need. Just be sure to do this before you start missing deadlines and falling behind on your workload. While we’re all human, you also don’t want to appear irresponsible.Additionally, something everyone learns along the way is that it’s okay to say “no” to tasks sometimes. I know this sounds like an automatic way to get folks really angry at you, yet, it is okay to turn down a task. Think of it this way: if you already have enough or too much on your plate, are you really going to get that particular task done? Even if you do get it done, are you really going to get it done to the best of your ability? This isn’t college (even though some people may still be completing a degree), so there’s no such thing as just dashing off that weekly journal entry your professor makes you write about pieces you read during the semester. When a supervisor gives you a task, it’s expected that you are going to do it to the best of your ability, even if just thinking about it makes you want to freak out. If you know you’re not going to be able to pull that off, it is okay to turn something down.
Finally, make sure to enjoy yourself and take the time to learn everything you can! Volunteering and interning positions can be gateways to paid positions, and if they are, it will be an asset to you if you have taken the time to learn everything you can about the organization and the position because you will have something of a head start on the expectations and responsibilities.
Sarah Fife is a graduate of the College of Saint Elizabeth, where she studied English, History, and Journalism, including writing for the school’s newspaper and editing the literary magazine. In addition to blogging, she has worked for various historical sites in the Philadelphia area.