Volunteering your way to a better you – even a better job
When Kelli Bullington, a mechanical engineer, applied for a job in the UAE, the first question her potential employers asked her was what she had been doing for the past four years.
So the American, who quit work after the birth of her youngest child, produced two CVs: one that detailed her technical experience and the other the volunteer work she had undertaken during her time off.
From running a support group for labourers in Al Ain to volunteering for the Girl Guides and giving up her spare time to help needy sailors, Mrs Bullington felt that the work demonstrated her leadership, management, organisational and marketing skills.
And the decision to include her volunteering experience on her resumé paid off because she ended up with three job offers.
"After I sent my volunteering resumé over, the conversation about whether my skills were current or not was off the table. The rest of the time, the conversation was focused on my education and skills," says Mrs Bullington, 40, who moved to the UAE in 2006 with her husband, Michael, 41, a military consultant, and their three children - an 11-year-old son and two daughters aged nine and four - to live in Al Ain before relocating to Dubai 18 months ago.
"For me, being an engineer is about being a problem solver. I was co-ordinating 100 volunteers to feed 200 labourers of 20 different nationalities and figuring out how to manage the language barrier or reorganising a pastor's library that was housed in a room that hadn't been opened for six years. These were all ways of demonstrating I could solve any problem. So I was able to turn my volunteering skill set into actual assets."
Although volunteering may not make you any money, Mrs Bullington's story proves that not only can it do wonders for your emotional well-being, but also your CV because it demonstrates to potential employers a willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty.
Mrs Bullington, who returned to work last autumn when her youngest child started school, has done voluntary work since childhood and says she asked all of the volunteer agencies she worked for in the UAE for a reference to ensure her CV was kept up to date.
"The entire time I was off work, I wondered whether I would be able to get a job. It worried me that because I'd walked away from a 15-year successful career to spend time with my family, I'd struggle to start my career again. I wasn't volunteering because I thought it would get me a job, but I knew it would help at some point.
"The problem I ran into when applying for jobs was my lack of paid UAE experience. If you said you had none, you were automatically eliminated, so I started saying 'yes' because, technically, I had worked here and I had references."
Gaurav Sinha, the founder and managing director of Insignia, a brand communications agency in Dubai, says it is important for job-seekers to have volunteering on their CV because there is more to them than just qualifications.
"Employability is not necessarily about how you do the nine to six, but what you do between six and nine," Mr Sinha says. "When you are looking at the balance between character and skill, I always look at recruiting people because of their character - not necessarily their skills. Skills you can teach them; character you can't change."
This philosophy has worked for Mrs Bullington and many others like her, who decided to volunteer for The Angel Appeal during the global economic crisis.
The charity operates a boat called The Flying Angel, which supports seafarers off the coast of Fujairah. Alexi Trenouth, the events and CSR manager at The Angel Appeal, says the organisation had a huge increase in the number of people wanting to help during the downturn.
"People were looking for something to fill their time and keep up their CV. It was great for us because we had so many high-calibre people who could help us with our website and strategy," reveals Ms Trenouth, who says the organisation has 200 volunteers on its books, of whom 15 help out regularly.
"They gradually melted away as they found jobs again, but that's the nature of volunteering."
Ms Trenouth, 26, has every reason to understand the benefits of volunteering; giving up her own time to help others has also had a big effect on her career.
The Briton, who has lived in Dubai since the age of four, began volunteering for a veterinary practice in Dubai as part of the Duke of Edinburgh scheme - an achievement-award programme for young people - when she was at school. Then, during her studies in Persian and anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, she became a committee member for the Edinburgh Global Partnership, a charity that sends students to developing countries to help build wells, schools and assist on medical projects.
Ms Trenouth became so inspired by her work that she decided to seek full-time employment in the charity sector and says without volunteering experience on her CV, she would not have been able to find an opportunity.
"A lot of people come into the charity field later, when they've got a huge amount of experience operating projects or companies - but when you are fresh out of university, there's such high competition that the only way you can do so is by volunteering," she says.
"The great thing about volunteering is that you can pick what you might be interested in. I've dabbled in education; worked in special needs and with people with HIV and it gives you an insight into different fields without actually having to commit yourself. I knew I wanted to work in charity - I just didn't know which part of it."
Similarly, Anastasia Mankhaeva, 27, says volunteering has helped her make some important choices about her career.
Ms Mankhaeva, who moved to the UAE more than 10 years ago from Russia, works for her family business and freelances as an audio engineer, English tutor and journalist. She is also studying for a master's degree in international business. But through her volunteer work for the Middle East Veg Group, a vegetarian focus group, Ms Mankhaeva says she may have found a new vocation.
"I got involved behind the scenes, running their Twitter account and researching possible seminar topics for them," says Ms Mankhaeva, adding that her CV has more volunteer work on it than paid work.
"Then last December, I was asked to speak at the first MEVeg Congress. The experience gave me confidence and later, after a presentation in class, one of my master's lecturers said I should consider teaching and perhaps doing a PhD while I teach. I really do think it's because of my experience with MEVeg that I'm seriously considering doing that."
Christo Daniels, the managing director of Morgan McKinley, a professional recruitment consultancy, says adding volunteer work to the interests section of a CV is important at the graduate level.
"The more experience you have, the more focused the employer will be on the experience. The less experience you have, the only elements to the CV they can look at other than your education are what you have done proactively to get an internship or to volunteer," Mr Daniels says. "That section of your CV will tend to get smaller and smaller as you move through your career, as more of the space is taken up by the achievements you have made in your career."
Mr Daniels says volunteering is not something that should be omitted from a CV either, particularly at the executive level in the professional services sector, where employers may be trying to find out if there is more to a potential chief executive than purely his professional persona.
"To come across as a more rounded individual than perhaps someone married to corporate culture, adding volunteering to your CV is very beneficial, particularly here in the UAE, where the charitable sector is reasonably small. It shows a certain amount of proactiveness because if you want to contribute here, you've got to go out there and find the opportunity - something that actually enhances the value of volunteering because it's that much harder to get involved," Mr Daniels says.
But Mr Sinha of Insignia says it is not only important to volunteer when you are looking for a job, but while you are employed as well. The entrepreneur runs Harmony House, a community centre for women and children in the slums of New Delhi, which he set up with his British wife, Lucy, in 2008.
And the company boss actively encourages his staff to get involved.
"If one of the employees wants to volunteer, we subsidise his cost of travel and give him time off without any issues. That sort of commitment magnifies people's characters, which results in the enrichment of the overall collective culture of an organisation," he says.
Being "involved" is something that is also important for Ion Gonzaga, a senior designer who creates websites for charities even though he has a full-time job.
The Filipino, who began volunteering as a teenager for a youth organisation in the Philippines before moving to the UAE in 2006, regularly devotes his weekends to charity projects. He says it is important not only for his sense of well-being, but also his portfolio.
"I prefer to contribute in the way that I think I can most help, which is my field of web design. The fact that I can do these websites has been a gateway for the charities as they were able to gather thousands of donations in order to treat kids with cancer," says Mr Gonzaga, 27. Knowing the effect his work has is worth more to him than the Dh5,000 to Dh10,000 he could charge for his services, he says.
"It is very heartwarming and while I'm not only contributing my time, I'm also able to enhance and hone my skills," he says. "It shows that I am well-rounded and people always ask in an interview if you are a team player and this experience has made it easier for me to answer this question.
"It's not just about having a portfolio to showcase, but also about inspiring others. If I can use my spare time to contribute in the best way I can, then other people can reach out by using the skills they already have."
1. Prepare your CV. Any organisation you want to work with will want to know your skill set and what type of work - paid or unpaid - you have done in the past.
2. Decide what you want to do and how much time you have to donate. You should give up only a manageable amount of time so it does not interfere with other commitments.
3. Directly contact the organisation you want to help. It may send you a questionnaire to ascertain your strengths and weaknesses and ask how much time you want to spend with it.
4. If you're not sure what you want to do or who to contact, get in touch with a filter organisation such as Volunteer in Abu Dhabi, Volunteer in Dubai and Volunteer in Sharjah, which can put you in touch with projects that need help. The organisation has more than 12,000 volunteers across its three branches and carries out work as varied as environmental clean-ups to collecting laptops for charity and taking cancer patients to hospital for treatment.
5. Once you have carried out some work for an organisation, ask for a reference. You never know when it might come in handy, either for your professional career or your future in volunteering.
Updated: May 14, 2011 04:00 AM