How to List Volunteer Work on Your Resume (Make Unpaid Work Pay Off)

Many people who have taken time off when their kids are young find it difficult to jump immediately back into the working world. Volunteer work can offer a bridge back into work. It can help you get up to speed, build confidence, start networking or just dust off your skills.

Does volunteer work count as work experience?

Yes! If you used work-related skills, include volunteer positions in the Work or Experience portion of your resume. Use proper titles that indicate what you did for them. Don’t say volunteer but instead the title of what you were doing, for instance, Graphic Designer.

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Does volunteer work look good on your resume?

Generally, volunteer work is well-received by employers. It shows your passion and commitment as well as a low-risk way to try out other roles, brush up on your skills and build your professional network. Just make sure there’s alignment with the type of non-profit and where you’d like to work in the future.

Whether volunteer or interning, what should you take into account when considering unpaid work?


4 Ways to List Volunteer Work to Improve Your Resume WorkForFree_interior

1. Use unpaid work to sharpen your skills and get current.

After a few years of running after your sweet (sometimes sticky) munchkins and warding off disaster on an hourly basis — it can feel like your old career is just a hazy memory. Unpaid work can be a great way to make sure you’re up to date with new technology and changes in the field.

Situation: Jill Fella talked with us about her experience:“When I founded my community service organization, Real Charitable Housewives, it started my creative juices flowing for what I loved in college and before having children, which was public relations, journalism, and marketing.

When I had my sons and stayed home full-time, I felt like I lost a lot of that connection and so many things had changed with social media. I started to see that I could still utilize what I had learned back at school as well as develop new skills at promoting my organization.It gave me faith that I could get back into the career world when the time was right.”

Take-away: Since you’re unpaid, if you can, use the opportunity to take on something out of your comfort zone and take on something that gives you the chance to learn as many new skills (or make new connections) as possible.

Remember, you’re doing unpaid work and it’s important that you get something out of it too!

How to list it on your resume: Highlight the skills learned. Don’t just say “volunteered at XYZ” but explain the skills relevant to the job you’re applying for. Did you grow the charity’s social media account by 50% and increased engagement rates by 80%?

Always include numbers and metrics if possible. Often non-profits are too busy to track your progress carefully so track the numbers yourself if necessary.


2. Volunteer to explore new passions and build your reputation.

You may want to use your maternity leave as an opportunity to make a career shift. Maybe you never really loved your old job, or realized you have a knack for something new during your time away. Or maybe you just need a profession that allows more flexibility now that you have kids in tow.

Volunteering allows you to test the waters without a huge commitment while also building up your working reputation.

Situation: Marilyn, now a teacher, recalls her transition into teaching,“Volunteering for established community organizations can be a good way to transition back to the workplace. My volunteer work (in the library at my daughter’s school, mostly updating their system onto a new computer, and as a Sunday School teacher at the church) gave me some very good references for teaching jobs.”

Take-away: If you are looking for a career switch, even a low-level volunteering position can get you a taste of what to expect. Even if you have to run for coffee or sort mail, use the opportunity to talk to people to get a sense of office culture, work styles, and nuances of the job that can only be felt by being in the office.

If you are in a volunteer position that’s close but not directly related to the place where you want to be, highlight the transferable skills and get a reference from those who can vouch for you!

How to list it on your resume: Since this involves a pivot, it’s critical to demonstrate your skills in this new position. Generally, someone brushing up on their existing skills just needs to show that they are up-to-date and can rely on the rest of their resume to support their qualifications.

For someone using volunteer work to go into a new profession, you need to highlight the parts of volunteering that directly relate to the job. Hiring is a big risk for employers and they want to feel confident you’re up to the challenge.


3. Make sure there’s “skin in the game” on both sides.

Situation: We asked career coach Michelle Ward from WhenIGrowUpCoach.com how she advised her clients considering unpaid work:

“It’s such an interesting question about seeking unpaid work…reflecting on conversations with my clients, I often leave that to them when they’re looking for “guinea pigs” to test their process/results/offerings.

I coached my first 5 clients for free in exchange for them filling out a questionnaire after the last session to submit to my coaching school. After that, I coached for $25/session until I graduated, and then went up to $75/session.

The bottom line, honestly, is that there often needs to be skin in the game for your client in order to get them to show up and follow through, so I’d encourage charging something at first, even if it’s small. Mentally, it allows the client to take it more seriously.”

Take-away: If you’re considering taking on some pro-bono or discounted work to get the business kick-started, it’s important to be clear what you expect in return upfront, to both yourself and the client. What are the concrete outcomes of the job that I will use to propel myself forward? Before the project starts, outline the steps you’ll take post-project for maximizing return and get your client’s agreement for referrals or some other actionable item they have to spreading the word of your great service/product. For more on this, read our article about setting freelance rates.


4. Always evaluate and re-evaluate. Know when it’s just not working, and why.

Sometimes you love the field, have a great experience, find a perfect gateway back into the field and…it just doesn’t work. In this case, you have to distinguish what’s working and how to change things up. Designer, Kim, shared her experience:“I did volunteer work in the hope of getting more work in the field.

As the project progressed, it was clear they didn’t value my work and didn’t respect my opinion on any of the choices I made. In return, I was never able to feel invested in their project.It was a disaster, so I quickly ended the relationship once the final milestone was reached.

Now I’m clear about what I want in return when I do volunteer work, even if it’s not money. Many companies have ways to repay you through referrals that may be valuable than the price of the project itself!”

Another mom had this experience with an internship in a production company:I did an unpaid internship with a small but successful production company after a long leave from paid work. I ended up leaving after a little more than six months.

To be honest, I’m not sure it was that helpful. It seemed to make everyone uncomfortable to have me being someone in my early forties with lots of experience and confidence in a position where I was emptying garbage (which I had no problem with) and not expected to speak up in front of “important” people, even when I had relevant information or experience to contribute (which was harder). I’m not a great networker, in general, I’m kind of an introvert, so it might work out better for someone who is better at making connections in general, but I wouldn’t do it again in the same context.

Tip: Sometimes, you need to end a sour working experience quickly. If you realize that the internship, volunteering gig, or unpaid/discounted project is going badly, finish whatever you’ve promised and move on, taking what you’ve learned with you for the future.