How to Frame Volunteering on Your Resume When You’ve Never Had a Job

We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: the hardest job to get is your first one. Or at least, the first one that’s in your chosen field and not, you know, corn detasseling for Moon Pie money. Everybody who grew up in a flyover state say heyyyyy!

See, when you’ve never had a job before…

  • Your resume is as short as a sneeze.
  • You don’t have professional connections like mentors and old coworkers to turn to for help or advice.
  • True entry-level jobs are rarer than they used to be.
  • You don’t have much practice at the basic skills you need to get any job, like nailing an interview and writing great cover letters.
  • You have even less experience with next-level skills you need to get a great job, like learning how to understand your company or industry’s most pressing needs and position yourself with strategic accordance.

(Mmm, you know it’s going to be a good day when you’re an ENTJ and you get to use the phrase “position yourself with strategic accordance” before noon.)

Unfortunately, when unemployment is high, it all gets even harder. Because now you’re competing with a lot more people—and they likely have some of the advantages you lack.

We feel for anyone with a thin job history who’s stuck competing in a tough job market with wicked high unemployment. Y’all are skipping the Hunger Games and going straight to the Quarter Quell: head-to-head, not against other frightened children, but bloodthirsty professional-ass adults. So in the near future, we’ll be discussing lots of strategies that can help mitigate the shittiness.

Today, we’ll discuss how to use past volunteering on your resume to really make it shine! Let’s get into it!

Start by volunteering

If you have absolutely nothing to put on your resume, “start volunteering yesterday” is my first piece of advice.

First, because volunteering is just a nice thing to do, for yourself and for others. Here’s a hard truth about being an adult: most people end up working in jobs that they only find sort-of interesting. And even if you love your job, that doesn’t mean you love every task, every day. You’ll probably have to find something outside of your job to give you that rewarding sense of purpose. 

Second, volunteering is a great way to build community. It introduces you to a lot of new people and makes you part of an existing network. That’s very valuable to have while job hunting.

Third, it makes you a more attractive candidate. You’re showing that you have skills, initiative, and values. I’ve had many interviews where my interviewer really lit up when they got to the volunteering section of my resume. “Oh—you worked with this cancer clinic? My mother-in-law got treatment there! Aren’t they just wonderful?” Bam! You just moved to the top of their pile.

Finally, volunteering gives you perspective. Job hunting can be draining and demoralizing. It makes a lot of people feel blue. Being depressed feels like being trapped in a changing room with horrible, unflattering top-down florescent lighting: you get stuck hyperfocusing on all the things you don’t like about yourself. Helping others breaks that focus, which in turn helps you.

So if you aren’t already volunteering, find something that interests you and start doing it yesterday.

Inflate your contributions

Whenever I successfully tempt another reader down the path of lying on their resumes, I can feel it. Ahh. Like sinking into a warm bath.

Okay, okay, we’re not talking about lying. (At least not yet! That’s an article for a different day.) But I think a lot of our readers are the sort of people who have been taught to minimize their contributions. And you’ve got to push away from that impulse, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you. Because when you undersell yourself, all you’re doing is hurting yourself (and possibly the company you interviewed with, as they’ll probably end up hiring someone with zero moral qualms about self-promotion).

“Oh, I’m not a volunteer. All I do is help out occasionally.”

Congratulations, that is volunteering.

“Seriously, I don’t do much! There are other people who do way more than me.”

I don’t care.

“I’ve only done it on and off! I’ve been bad about doing it consistently.”

I continue to not care.

“But I would feel so bad misrepresenting myself as some kind of hero, when what I do is basically nothing!”

Your imposter syndrome is in the driver’s seat. Kindly throw it out into oncoming traffic and put volunteering on your resume.

Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced CEO of Theranos, knew that her company’s product didn’t work. She lied about it. Like, A WHOLE LOT! She exaggerated financial data, rigged product demos, falsified clinical data, and invented military contracts where none existed. (Her worst lie? That voice. GIRL.)

You are not Elizabeth Holmes, trying to build an empire on the shifting sands of pure bullshit and ruining other people’s lives in the process.

Your resume is a place to state true facts—but true facts framed in the most flattering way possible. Light your facts gently, from a slightly upward angle, with a forgiving Instagram filter. You owe it to yourself.

So dig deep. Tease out anything from your life that might be useful to you on a resume. This includes putting even informal volunteering on your resume.

Your table needs bread, and modesty is the least filling carbohydrate.

Omit the word volunteering on your resume

Sometimes the volunteering nature of your role is obvious. For example: a Big Brother through Big Brothers Big Sisters of America is understood to be volunteering. People know that’s, like, not a paid gig.

And sometimes it’s best to position the work as volunteering on your resume. I personally have a long and healthy resume in my career of choice, so I add a “volunteering” section to my resume to signal my values, highlight my passions outside of work, and make me a more interesting and memorable candidate.

But if your volunteer work is the main thing on your resume, I would seriously consider not describing it as volunteer work at all.

Let’s say you’re applying for a job as a social media marketer. You’ve never been paid to do that role before, but you volunteered to run the social media accounts for your favorite charitable nonprofit. In a case like that, I would describe myself not as a “volunteer” but a “social media manager.” What’s relevant is that you’ve done the work to the satisfaction of another institution—not what you were paid to do that work. That’s kinda none of their damn business.

Again, don’t Elizabeth Holmes this! Assume that the company you’re interviewing with may call to ask for a reference. Just creatively downplay it by focusing on the work itself. Be like Mila Kunis instead! When asked by the casting director of That 70s Show if she was old enough to be auditioning, she replied “I’ll be eighteen.”

She was only fourteen at the time. But she was right! She would be eighteen. Eventually.

Make it a quid pro quo

Insert obligatory NO COLLUSION, NO QUID PRO QUO joke here.

If the Bitches have ten commandments, one of them is definitely “never, ever, ever work for free!” And strangely, I would say that includes volunteering.

The coin you’re paid for volunteering may not be currency. Most often, it’s the joy and satisfaction you get from giving back to your community.

If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I recently undertook a 200-mile road trip to bring five puppies to foster/forever homes. I had to take the day off from work, and blew through a full tank of gas. I wasn’t reimbursed monetarily… but I was reimbursed spiritually! After sitting in my house for the last month being Sad™ and Worried™ about the world, I got to sit in a sun-filled car, driving down mostly empty roads, blasting good music, with lil’ baby puppies using my fingertips to teethe. I got so much more than I gave.

And that is how volunteering should work! The time/labor/resources you give to this charitable endeavor don’t stop being valuable because you’re giving them away for free.

Reasonable repayments for volunteering:

  • Introductions! (“I’d like to build a career doing this kind of work. Could you introduce me to more local people who work in this industry?”)
  • Titles! (“I’m working on getting a full-time job, but I basically have nothing in my resume. Do you mind if I describe my work here as ‘supply chain assistant’ or something like that?”)
  • Recommendations! (“Could I ask you to write me a recommendation on LinkedIn that highlights my project management skills?”)
  • Testimonials! (“If I help you redesign your website, can I put it in my portfolio along with a quote from you as a ‘satisfied customer’?”
  • Specific assignments! (“My goal is to get better at event planning. Can I help out when it’s time to plan the next fundraiser?”)
  • Feedback! (“I want to make sure I’m improving over time. Can we sit down to have an occasional performance review, almost like I’m an employee?”)
  • Advice! (“I want to have a job like yours one day. Do you think I have what it takes? And how did you get to where you are?”)
  • Leadership opportunities! (“I’m feeling really confident about my ability to lead the next class! Is that something you’re open to letting me try?”)
  • Job opportunities! (“I’d love to do this kind of work full-time. If you guys are ever thinking of hiring, could you let me know?”)

There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for something that’s valuable to you in exchange for your willingness to do free work. You’ll notice that in almost all of these examples, I start by stating my goal—and I think that’s important! 

Here’s more on how this all works:

Srsly tho, get that LinkedIn recommendation

I don’t want to gloss over the importance of the LinkedIn recommendation. Ask for one from every place you volunteer with.

It’s getting less common for employers to call former clients or places of employment to ask for references. Many companies have stopped giving out their opinions on an individual’s job performance, limiting themselves to your start date, end date, and formal title(s) during your tenure. Plus, it’s a pretty easy system to game—all you need is a friend who is down to lie for you. (WHICH I AM, FOR YOU! YES, YOU!!)

So unless you have your own website with testimonials, the LinkedIn recommendation has become one of the best ways to prove that people like working with you. And when you have little-to-nothing in your job history, those recommendations add crucial color.

That’s all I’ve got today, kids! Do you have a story about using volunteer work to your advantage? If so, share it with us in the comments below!

2 thoughts to “How to Frame Volunteering on Your Resume When You’ve Never Had a Job”

  1. Tysm Bitches! I really have needed solid putting volunteering on a resume advice for a while, I’m so glad you wrote this now. This is grrrrrreat. Good timing too. I didn’t know about the LinkedIn rec thingy either! So thanks again! Stay safe and healthy.

  2. Be careful on who sees your “volunteer” job title in Linkedin if asking for a LinkedIn recommendation. My volunteer resources manager (aka boss) chewed me out for saying on my resume that I was a “Support Worker” (apparently it was “inappropriate” according to her) and I am just a “Volunteer”.

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