Common job-seeking wisdom holds that volunteering can be a great way to gain experience in your chosen field. And it is — as long as you know how (and when) to show it on your resume.
Everything on your resume should be about showing why you’re a good fit for a job. If volunteer work strengthens your candidacy, then by all means, you should include it. If it doesn’t, it’s okay to leave it off, even if it feels relevant.
Why include volunteer work?
Volunteer work shows that you have a genuine interest in a particular field or issue. It also shows initiative and the willingness to go above and beyond what’s required, which employers love. If the volunteer work is in the same industry as the one you’re applying to, even better!
If you’re a student, recent graduate, or career changer, you may not have a lot of relevant paid experience. Volunteer work gives you the opportunity to highlight your skills, whether these are common transferrable skills or a specific skill set that your paid experience doesn’t show.
Think outside the box when it comes to volunteer work. This could include working with startups and non-profits, or even unpaid internships. If it demonstrates relevant skills or experience, it belongs on your resume.
When to include volunteer work in the main body of your resume
If you don’t have a lot of work experience
If you’re new to the workforce, your resume may still be under one page even with all of your paid work experience and internships. In that case, including volunteer work is a good way of demonstrating your skills and work ethic. In this case, it’s best to list your volunteer experience alongside your paid work experience, rather than in a separate section, as it’s likely to make up a decent chunk of your work history.
If you don’t have enough relevant paid experience
Volunteer work can be a great way to break into a new field, especially as a career changer. It shows that you’re serious about making the move and can give you relevant experience to talk about in a cover letter or interview. If your volunteer experience is more relevant to the new industry than your professional experience, you’ll want to include it in the main body of your resume, with your most recent experience on top.
If you have gaps in your resume
Rightly or wrongly, a lot of employers see gaps of more than a few months in a resume as a red flag. If you’ve spent part of this time volunteering, it’s a good idea to include that work chronologically on your resume to show how you’ve been spending your time.
How to structure a separate volunteering experience section
Another option is to create a separate section on your resume for volunteer work. This can be a good strategy if you have extensive volunteering experience with different organizations and you want to showcase that.
If you do this, you should structure your volunteer work in the same way you would any paid experience, with clear bullet points focusing on achievements rather than responsibilities. “Raised $5,000 for wildlife rehabilitation” is specific and measurable; “responsible for fundraising activities” is too vague.
What if your volunteering experience isn’t relevant?
Highlight transferrable skills
There is still an argument for including volunteer experience on your resume if it isn’t strictly relevant but still fits one of the above criteria. Volunteer work can be used to demonstrate transferrable skills, so look for ones that are particularly relevant or desirable. For example:
- Working at an event might require organizational skills, time management, teamwork, and public speaking.
- If you led a team or organized an event, even better. Leadership, project management, and communication skills are always in high demand.
- If your work was more backstage, you may have experience in data analysis, budgeting, or even marketing and social media outreach.
Focus on results
Just like paid work experience, any volunteer experience you include on your resume should be summarized in well-structured bullet points. These bullet points need to be action-oriented, start with strong action verbs, and, if possible, demonstrate concrete results. For example:
- Led fundraising event for [XYZ charity] and raised over [$amount] for [benefit]
- Created social media strategy for [organization] resulting in [X amount of new followers]
- Taught [subject] to [x amount of students] with [% pass rate on final exams]
- Organized a public awareness campaign for [issue] resulting in [X amount of people attending event] and coverage in [X and Y media]
For more samples of bullet points, visit Resume Bullet Points.
When you shouldn’t include volunteer experience
Just because volunteer work can be a great thing to showcase on a resume, that doesn’t mean you always need to include it. Think of your resume like a highlights reel instead of a complete biography — everything on it needs to serve a purpose.
If it isn’t doesn’t add anything to your resume
Rule number one: Everything on your resume needs to be relevant to the job you’re applying for. If your volunteering experience isn’t relevant but you really want to include it anyway, put it in a short ‘other’ section below your work experience.
If you have extensive paid experience
Paid work experience will always have more weight than volunteer work. If you already have plenty of recent work experience that’s relevant to the position you’re applying for, there’s no need to add volunteer experience on top of that. You want the hiring manager to focus on the strongest parts of your resume, which sometimes means leaving off other things that aren’t as impressive.