“We pride ourselves on the fact that our volunteers leave our ranks and go on to work for the U.S. State departments,” says Craig Kielburger, co-founder of Free The Children, the world’s leading youth-focused charity. “They work for the Canadian International Development Agency. They work in politics, and the International Criminal Courts. The alumni of our organization are an incredible network.”
For some students and recent grads, finding that perfect internship, co-op, summer job, or full-time position in their field can be a struggle. It only gets worse if you haven’t yet found your calling — that field or profession you decide to call your own. In this increasingly competitive environment, starting your career with the right experience, the right references, and the right networks is becoming ever more important. But for many, there’s one career option that’s often overlooked when planning out one’s career path: volunteerism.
At Jobpostings, we hope to change that with the help of Craig Kielburger. In 1995, at only 12-years of age, Kielburger founded Free The Children. The organization is based on a long term, holistic and sustainable development model known as Adopt A Village. This model is built on four pillars in which the organization feels is key to ending the cycle of poverty: education, health care, clean water and sanitation, and alternative income programs. Free The Children has built more than 650 schools and school rooms in developing countries and established more than 30,000 alternative income projects. Locally, through its We Schools in Action program, stadiums are filled with tens of thousands of young leaders who provide more than one million hours of community service every year.
As a New York Times bestselling author, a recipient of a piles of international awards recognizing his charitable efforts, and as the youngest-ever graduate of the Kellogg-Schulich Executive MBA program, Kielburger knows full well how a life dedicated to giving can truly benefit one’s career ambitions (BTW, he’s still in his 20s).
The value of volunteering
“It’s hard to describe how many ways that (volunteerism) has reshaped the course of my life,” Kielburger opens. “From lifelong friendships, mentorship opportunities, people who I’ve met and haveforever reshaped the way I look at the world, personal life choices, the opportunities that are open to me to travel, to meet new and interesting people, the way it’s shaped my career path as a writer. ... It’s influenced me in who and where I find personal joy and meaning, in who I am as an individual, and how I define myself.”
But while Free The Children is best known for its work educating, empowering and mobilizing youth to take action towards global and local causes, Free The Children (and MANY similar charities and NGOs ) also actively reach out to university and college students. It’s an opportunity for those interested in getting hands-on experience in the field they hope to enter.
“Internationally and domestically, we have many high school and university students volunteer with us. But we also have university and college students who get the opportunity to work on their specific skill sets abroad. For example, med students and nurses might work in our medical clinics. Accounting students and grads may work in the accounting department. Engineers will assist in planning and building schools. We have mentorships, like at Nipissing University, where their faculty of education did their practicum overseas with us. The University of Toronto sends some conflict studies students to do some conflict studies training in fragile regions of the world where we have projects.”
Volunteering at the right organization
“Volunteering is of course about helping others, but it is also very much about getting what you’re looking for out of the experience. And for a lot of people, they’re looking for a very unique experience. We embrace that. So absolutely, there’s many volunteer opportunities post-secondary students can leverage their skill set towards, but if you choose to volunteer, you need an organization to embrace your development needs.”
Kielburger encourages those interested in volunteering to research those organizations they are thinking about working with, and be honest about what you except to give and receive. “The big determining factors that decide how much responsibility and quality experiences charities and NGOs offer you are things like: how much time can you give? The frequency by which you can give your time. Is it a regular schedule? Again, the more you clarify your availability in advance, the more you can assume leadership opportunities. Skill set is another factor. So what particular skill sets are you walking in with? What are the skill sets you’re looking to develop? And lastly, the critical question that a lot of people don’t look at: what’s the culture of the organization? Is it a non-profit that is highly staffed, senior management driven, been around for a very long time, and therefore has all the core responsibilities already carved out by full time staff? Or is it a group that is a little bit more innovative (like a start up culture) where there are more opportunities for people who are self-motivated to take on new opportunities and roles?”
Opportunities for recent grads
But what about opportunities for recent grads? You might ask, how can volunteerism fit into your life amid pressures to pay back your tuition loans? To find a job? How can volunteerism fit in your life when it comes to launching your career?
“There are a variety of volunteer experiences,” says Kielburger. But just like unpaid internships at a company, the quality of the experience depends on the responsibilities you’re given, and what organization you work with. Kielburger is quick to point out however, that (depending on the NGO or charity you work with), “There are also paid, short-term opportunities in the non-profit world.” The pay varies considerably depending on the organization, but Kielburger adds, “Bare in mind these people aren’t highly motivated by money. They have a passion to learn and a passion for the cause. In these cases, (at Free The Children) we pay you a stipend that you would mostly use to pay off your student debts a little bit, but in our mind you’re as valuable as a full time employee. In the end, the people who choose to work with us for a year or two, want to give to the non-profit world before they go on the do their law studies, or go on to work for an investment bank.” Kielburger adds that these people aren’t rare, in fact, “At one time, we had more than 700 applicants apply for one role.”
Learning new skills
So how can volunteerism benefit you in ways that an internship or a co-op placement at a traditional company can’t? One of the obvious benefits is the skills you’ll learn. “It depends on the type of volunteer work, and the length of volunteer work you do,” says Kielburger. “We have people who serve on our Board of Directors who are volunteers in that capacity. They learn a range of oversight skills, and get the necessary crash courses on what to do when it comes to financial management. We get people who have a lot of books smarts — strong academic credentials — but they may not have much experience in human resource management, managing or co-ordinating other volunteers, senior volunteers working with more junior volunteers, public speaking when they go out to audiences. We help them develop all these skills.”
Test driving your chosen career
Part of your early career involves experimenting with your interests. Kielburger believes volunteering can help you in this process. “Often you don’t really know what you want to do in this world. And instead of immediately leaping into a career path or immediately going into graduate studies, we have people who have a volunteer stage, one or two years, where they try a role they’re interested in.
“For example, we have a lot of students who will volunteer through us who might be pre-med. They’re thinking of working with kids, or want more experience working with kids. Or we might find engineering students who are really interested in designing schools, but want to spend more time stepping out of physically building the schools to do more community mobilization. You have an opportunity to try new things, new areas. I’m always amazed at how many people come into our organization ... thinking they know what they want to do, (but after being exposed to the real world experience of their field) we quickly find that people’s interests shift.
“I’d say one of the greatest opportunities (volunteerism offers) is the chance to learn about what you’re interested in doing in a very low risk environment, where — in a volunteer role, or short-term, stipend based role — you have the opportunity to explore what you want to do, what you love to do, on your own terms. You can learn before you make mistakes that would be quote-unquote more costly in the for-profit world.”
Impress future employers
Every employer and every academic institution today is looking for volunteerism on a résumé. Kielburger adds that, “It shows the person is committed to something beyond themselves, which is part of the culture any (employer) would want in a workplace. The skill sets gained through (volunteerism) are skills that are invaluable to an employer.”
Leapfrogging your career competition
Another advantage volunteerism offers, especially in today’s economic climate, is the opportunity to sidestep entry-level work. Kielburger agrees, “Studies overwhelmingly show that students — they call them the lost generation — who are graduating today are finding it’s tough to find entry-level jobs that have a clear route toward mid to senior management. They’re often just punching the clock. Or they just can’t find a job at all.
“Being in the non-profit world often offers learning opportunities that are far superior than what you can find in the for-profit world, with very little experience. And so the résumé that you have, and the experience that you have, whenever the economic situation does change, you can walk into a mid-level role years ahead of those who haven’t found work, or have been sucked in to low paying jobs with very little leadership opportunities. So it’s important to see volunteerism not only in the immediate term, but also in your long-term career path.”
Finding your spark
“We have an equation we talk about,” says Kielburger, “issue + gift = a better world. It’s the most important thing they don’t teach you in school.
“What I mean by that is, everybody has a spark, some issue they’re passionate about. Some reason they get involved. In my case, my spark was when I read about a child slave in Pakistan who was killed when he was 12-years-old. I was 12-years-old when I read this article, and that’s what got me interested in becoming more active in the world around me. For some people, the spark is very personal. They’ve had a family member battle a health issue, or military deployment, or experienced racism themselves.
“Everyone has an issue they care about. And that’s a gift. ... So who’s the right type of volunteer? Everyone. Some people who are loud and passionate are going to get up there and create a social justice group — great! Love sports? Get involved with mentoring younger students. Like to read? Try coaching students with learning disabilities. Whatever you naturally love to do. There are opportunities to suit everyone’s talents.”