By DENNIS NISHI
While her friends interned at big investment-banking firms, Molly Heitzman chose a summer job in 2009 with Fundación Paraguaya, a microfinance company in Asuncion, Paraguay. She believed that giving the poor access to basic banking services was an effective way to fight poverty, and she’d also gain some global work experience.
The nonprofit was experiencing an abnormally high 13% loan default rate so Ms. Heitzman went out to investigate the problem. She discovered that many small businesses had defaulted because of poor to nonexistent accounting practices.
“I proposed a program that would school borrowers in the business basics of marketing, accounting and saving money,” she says, uncertain as to whether the organization used her ideas.
Ms. Heitzman’s efforts actually made a stronger impression on Deloitte Consulting in Minneapolis, which hired her for a full-time job as a business analyst a year later in 2010.
Although career experts say college graduates will continue to face a tough job market in the new year, volunteering for nonprofit work like the Peace Corps can fill an experience gap and provide a competitive advantage. That’s especially the case since nonprofit work can be like an accelerated management course. Volunteers are often pressed into management and administrative roles they might otherwise not attain for years at for-profit companies.
First, find a nonprofit organization that you’re interested in working with since commitment to the job and the cause is important, says Mark Lonergan, founder of the Redwood City, Calif.-based recruiting firm Lonergan Partners.
“Any way you can show that you genuinely applied yourself in a very important way can count as a very important component of any résumé,” he says. “Employers want to know that you were serious about the work.”
Seek out roles that offer transferable experience. Managing volunteers, for example, to build an irrigation system in Honduras is relatable to many different for-profit job duties. Working as a museum docent may be harder to sell.
Be prepared to aggressively promote and even defend your nonprofit experience during interviews. There is still a stigma associated with nonprofit work at some companies, career experts say.
Turn your more esoteric experiences into a narrative that illustrates how you overcame obstacles and achieved goals. People respond well to stories. Highlight the intangibles that employers are always looking for during interviews.
Emphasize your flexibility, communication skills and ability to deal with ambiguity, says Patricia Tourigny, vice president of talent acquisition for Avon, Conn.-based Magellan Health Services. “We don’t see a lot of entry-level résumés with that kind of experience, but when we do, we take notice. And we’re always looking for it.”
The pay for volunteer work may be negligible but full-time volunteers can defer or even have federal student loans forgiven through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program from 2007. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t help with private student loans.