May 16, 2021

Preoccupations: Volunteer Work as a Path to Full-Time Employment

After graduating from the University of Denver in June 2010, I thought that volunteering, in addition to being worthwhile in its own right, would give me a leg up in the frustrating job market. I was working at Starbucks, and my applications for other jobs were getting me nowhere.

In offering my time to the Firelight Foundation the next February, I hoped that I’d eventually be offered a job. Firelight helps grass-roots organizations in Africa improve the well-being of children, especially those suffering from the effects of H.I.V., AIDS and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

Firelight happens to be based in my hometown, but it was also a perfect match for my career goals. I’d been interested in Africa ever since my first-grade teacher gave a presentation on the subject. I still have a picture from that day that shows me holding an African shield and spear — and beaming. Africa also played a role in my choice of international studies as a major. During my senior year, I spent a semester in Uganda with a program that offered college credit.

I reduced my hours at Starbucks and gave two days a week to Firelight, helping with grant applications. Three months later, Firelight offered me a three-month temporary job that allowed me to become more involved in reviewing such applications. I hoped the contract would be extended and was disappointed when it wasn’t, so I decided to take some time off to help my sister with her wedding plans.

That time gave me an opportunity to reflect, and three weeks later I decided that I wanted to return to Firelight. I knew that there was no guarantee I’d get a permanent job there, but I thought the organization was such a good fit for me. I reasoned that even if I didn’t get a job, I was gaining experience in the field, and I was meeting people who might help me get a paid position elsewhere. And I still wanted to make an impact in the world beyond serving coffee. My heart has always been with Africa, so I couldn’t see myself not volunteering at Firelight.

The organization took me back and added some responsibilities in line with my future goals. For example, I helped with donor prospecting and research so I could learn about grant writing. Six months later, a program assistant moved on and I was offered her position, so my plan ultimately worked.

Now I’ve taken on even more responsibility. I work more closely with the organizations that receive our grants and work with us as partners, and I speak directly to the consultants with whom we contract for mentoring and training groups in Africa.

I have especially liked working with the Imvani Women’s Support Group in Malawi, which helped women establish a bakery in their village. The proceeds have allowed them to pay the staff, to send children to school and to reinvest in the business to open another bakery.

I’M not saying it’s an easy path from volunteer to full-time employee. It took me a year, which some job hunters might not see as a long time, but I had been out of school a year and a half by then. For me, one real benefit of volunteering was that it gave me an opportunity to build a relationship with the staff over time.

If you’re hoping to turn volunteering into a job, you have to be willing to sacrifice. I had to move home after college because I couldn’t afford an apartment on my Starbucks salary. I did what I had to do. When it seemed that things might not work out, I tried to keep a good outlook.

Since getting a full-time position, I’ve moved into an apartment. In my work, I now supervise Firelight volunteers. It felt weird to be a volunteer one day and to be supervising them the next. But since I’ve been in their position, I can give them hope.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.

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