Besides benefiting those in need, volunteering can be instrumental in building one’s career, whether it be in the meetings, events and hospitality industries or not.

To gain from the experience of others, the following colleagues have shared their volunteer experiences with me, and how they led to their careers and enhanced their skills.

Dawn Rasmussen, CMP, a trusted career guide and resume writer, shared how to use your volunteer experiences when applying for jobs.

Like with all Friday With Joan newsletters, I reach out via social media and through a network of many I’ve met to ask for volunteers to provide input to the subject.

I am always grateful to those who offer and provide input. If you would like to be on the list of those asked, email me at FridaywithJoan@aol.com, and on the subject line, write “Resource for FwJ,” and in the body of the email, your contact information and topics that interest you enough to comment. I keep lists of those who offer and will reach out when appropriate.

The editors may have edited this for length and clarity. If in so doing we’ve erred in conveying the responses, we apologize. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Joan Eisenstodt, or of Meetings Today or its parent company.

The respondents, to whom I am grateful for their willingness to share their experiences and for giving back, this month are:

  • Joy Crosby, director of marketing and communications, law firm of Crain & Wooley.
  • Ashley Kempson, manager, convention operations, National Automobile Dealers Association.
  • MaryBeth Powers, CMP, president/owner, PLANNING POWERS, LLC.
  • Annette M. Suriani, chief meetings strategist, AMS Meetings Solutions.

After their responses, you’ll read more from Dawn Rasmussen about how to best use volunteer experiences on resumes and when interviewing for jobs.

About the respondents:

Crosby: I have 15 years of association and business development experience focusing on marketing and program growth, including planning meetings and annual conferences ranging from 15 people to 1,200 attendees.

Kempston: I started out my career in the meetings industry working on the vendor side at a speakers’ bureau. After making the switch to the planner side, I’ve worked on a variety of meetings, including handling education content and workshops, exhibits, registration, housing and logistics. I currently work on a 23,000-person convention handling the logistics for public areas and meetings outside of the tradeshow floor.

Powers: I have been in the industry for about 25 years and started my own company about 21 years ago. My company is a full-service meeting planning company specializing in site selection and contract negotiations. Other independent planners work with me on a contract basis.

Suriani: I began my career in the meetings industry by believing I would land a job of a lifetime on The Hill when I graduated from college. Little did I know they weren’t going to hire me with no experience, and even though I had years of campaign experience in New York City, they looked the other way. Consequently, I took a job with an association as a receptionist doing projects for the meetings department. I haven’t looked back!

Eisenstodt: Tell us about volunteer experiences, if any, you had prior to entering the field professionally that either told you “this profession is for me” or lead you to a job as a result of volunteering.

Crosby: Growing up in a home heavily involved in church and community, I have been an active volunteer since childhood. From picking up trash to service days to planning large church conferences, volunteering and organizing service opportunities has been in my blood since age 10!

Kempson: Growing up I had grand dreams of following in my father’s footsteps and working in the music industry, specifically for a record label. While in college I volunteered for our student activities organization, arranging concerts for the campus. Since my university was a bit larger, I had a hefty budget and was able to bring in many nationally known acts, which allowed me to work in bigger venues with larger, more complicated stage setups.

By the time I graduated, I realized that while I enjoyed the music industry, in reality, I really just enjoyed planning events. I loved all the tiny details that went in to putting on a great event and the resulting feeling of seeing all those people gathered in one location, enjoying themselves, knowing that I helped bring them there.

Upon that realization, I said goodbye to working at a record label and started looking at event management jobs. Through a series of events, which of course included volunteering, I ended up as a meeting planner and have loved every minute since!

Powers: I volunteered with a women who worked at Bambergers (now known as Macy’s) planning and participating in fashion shows for Seventeen magazine. That is when I realized that I wanted to plan events as a profession. However, when I went to college, there was no such thing as a “Hospitality” major, so I got my degree in Communications.

When I graduated, I worked briefly at a hotel, then at a few associations in the D.C. area, planning meetings and events, before founding my own company.

Suriani: While in college in NYC I joined a sorority that quarterly put on events to raise money. At the time I had no idea it would prepare me for bigger things.

Eisenstodt: Tell us what you have done/are doing now as a volunteer using your professional experiences.

Crosby: One of the most rewarding professional positions I have held was as associate director of programs for a nonprofit in North Carolina. In that role, I often wore the hat of volunteer, volunteer coordinator and staff member.

One of our programs would plan events that moved our homeless neighbors into permanent housing. This event would require working in partnership with the director of volunteers to provide volunteer orientation, safety trading and community education as well as coach our formerly homeless neighbors through their journey of rehousing.

Kempson: My most recent experience was serving on the planning committee of the United States Gaelic Athletic Association, an organization whose goal is to promote Irish sports and culture in the U.S.

While I don’t play Gaelic sports, I was introduced to the organization through a friend. This past summer, my friend’s division was chosen to host the national finals, which brought in 3,000 athletes to Washington, D.C. I volunteered to help with the finals, as the planning committee had limited experience in event management.

Leading up to the event, I helped mainly with contracting and logistics, assisting other planning committee members along the way. Onsite, I was volunteer extraordinaire, lending a helping hand wherever needed, whether it was pouring drinks for the 3,000 Irish enthusiasts in attendance (so many kegs of Guinness!), selling concessions, transporting officials around the large field, or running bags of ice around the venue in 90-degree heat. It was exhausting work but such a joy to be a part of. My Irish ancestors would be so proud!

Powers: Professionally, I serve on the Board of Advisors for the Alliance of Independent Meeting Professionals (AIMP), whose goals include advocacy for independent planners and to “build a charity to be able to help our members in crisis.”

Locally, I volunteer for United Community (formerly United Community Ministries). This year is their 50 Anniversary and they have committed to 50 events. I volunteered to assist and plan two of their bigger events. I help as needed for the other events.  

Up until three years ago, I was a regular volunteer at my sons’ schools, doing fundraisers and events. Also, In the past, I chaired the Women’s Committee for Arts for the Aging (AFTA), “a nonprofit which engages older adults and care partners in health improvement and life enhancement through regular participation in the multi-disciplinary arts.” AFTA’s biggest fundraiser was an annual auction and gala, and many times we held the event at embassies.

Suriani: Throughout the years I have volunteered at N Street Village, preparing meals for the residents. I certainly didn’t use my professional experience for this, but I put to use my compassion for people.

I’m currently serving on an advisory board for a new nonprofit called Kidz Give Back. It prepares them to be the next generation of volunteers. We are working on raising money, putting on events and getting families involved to teach the importance of giving back to the community.

Of course, I still volunteer on committees for PCMA (membership committee and professional development), and I chair the social committee in the development I live in. We put on events almost monthly that include community yard sales, international nights, happy hours, wine/cheese tastings, etc. It helps me sharpen my skills as well as show the community that giving back is important.

Volunteering can also be a one-time or periodic commitment. I give blood every quarter to either the Red Cross or INOVA. When my mother was sick and undergoing so many blood transfusions, I felt I needed to replenish that blood supply,

Eisenstodt: Tell readers about the professional skills you’ve gained and the ways they’ve been enhanced by your volunteer experiences.

Crosby:

  1. Accomplishing goals with little or no budget.
  2. Rallying diverse people around a common mission/goal.
  3. Ability to plan for and overcome seen and unseen emergencies (I.e., contingency planning galore!).

These three abilities (with many more) have been amplified by volunteerism because the world of volunteer-based events/projects is totally fluid. One day there is a donation to cover expenses and the next there is not. One day you may be working with seasoned volunteers who know it all, and the next day—a staff of newbies.

At one volunteer event all things go according to plan and the next event there is a medical emergency, a weather disaster or a client meltdown. Volunteerism and volunteer leadership teaches you how to be, as I often say, a willow tree—-bend but never break...willow!

Kempson: Through volunteering, the skill I’ve been able to work on the most is volunteer/personnel management. Professionally, I don’t have any opportunities to work with volunteers, but I do regularly work with temps and staff members.

What I’ve learned through volunteering and even onsite at my own work events is that your volunteers, staff and temps are really going to run the gamut in the skills that they possess. Volunteering has helped me work on how I train large groups of people, allowing me to improve my communication skills and simplify my training.

It’s also helped in assessing situations and knowing where to prioritize and place manpower. Even with paid staff, inevitably there are moments that we don’t always have the full amount of staff we need, so being able to quickly asses a situation and prioritize where we may need to shift volunteers/staff has been a great skill to hone.

Powers: As mentioned about AFTA, many of our events were held at different countries’ D.C. embassies and ambassador’s residences. That enhanced my knowledge of event planning with other countries.

It is always challenging as a planner when working with a volunteer organization. We planners have a defined plan and “take charge” attitude when planning events. However, when you have non-professional planner volunteers, it can be challenging to keep them in line and/or motivate them to complete tasks on a timely manner.

Suriani: Early on, my volunteering taught me more about special events rather than just meetings and having a special event within my meeting. I still am constantly learning by the people I meet on the various committees I join.

I do try to get out of my comfort zone so that I am challenged and stretch my imagination to think of creative and satisfying ways of accomplishing the end result.

Eisenstodt: Please provide the reasons to volunteer and the best ways to find volunteer positions to use one’s skills and to gain new skills.

Crosby:

Reasons:

  1. People need human connection.
  2. We are all one step, one sickness, one missed paycheck, one emergency away from needing some type of support—sow into our communities what we would like to reap during personal times of need.
  3. Volunteering breaks down stereotypes.
  4. Volunteering breaks down false assumptions and faulty world views.
  5. Volunteering brings out the humanity in all of us.

How to get involved:

  1. Join a local faith community.
  2. United Way local affiliates have some type of nonprofit listing that may be able to guide you to selecting an agency for volunteering.
  3. Your job! Many employers have a service day: Volunteer to be a part of the planning committee. If you don’t have a service day, start one!

Kempson: It’s such a joy to be able to use my professional skills to give back to the community. There are so many organizations that need people who possess the skills we have, and it gives you the opportunity to work on different types of events that you may not normally encounter.

Organizations have a need for long-term volunteers to plan the logistics of events, all the way down to just a day of volunteering, depending on the level of time commitment you can give. It allows us as meeting planners to take a step back and look at the meeting planning process from a different angle.

For me, it has pushed me out of my professional comfort zone and brought me to work on skills that I don’t use regularly in my professional life. In addition, you never know the people you’ll meet as a volunteer! I’ve met so many wonderful friends—as well as my fiancé—through volunteering!

I’ve found most of my volunteer positions through friends and word of mouth. I also recommend looking at organizations for causes that are close to your heart. Most organizations will regularly post volunteer opportunities. If they don’t, I recommend reaching out to the organization and see if they’re in need of help!

Powers: The one good reason to volunteer is because we can! We are lucky enough to be in an industry where volunteering your time, especially to plan an event, should be an easy task. With each event, you do gain new skills, whether they pertain to meeting planning or a new social skill or just for the good of the cause.

Suriani: We are truly blessed to be in this industry. We are afforded opportunities unlike in other professions that do the same thing day in and day out.

Our minds are sharpened and skills are honed as we always learn from our peers; by the new challenges we face (constantly changing environment of booking hotels); and by the ever-changing world of hospitality.

By volunteering, I’ve learned new skills that I can sell to clients because I do have the experience. I highly recommend giving back to the community in which we work and live. It isn’t hard to find a volunteering position because there is such a need out there. Just look within the organization you even work for. They are probably looking for someone to head up a lunch-and-learn group or be a hall monitor during fire drills.

You get so much more out of volunteering than you actually give. It is rewarding in so many ways, including making lifelong friendships.

Interview with Dawn Rasmussen, CMP

Eisenstodt: Please provide a summation of the work you do and why you do it.

Rasmussen: I help people get onto their right career paths by developing accomplishments-rich, keyword-driven resumes, cover letters and LinkedIn profiles, as well as coaching on interviewing and job search techniques.

Eisenstodt: Please tell our readers how to:

  • best position volunteer experience on resumes, when it’s all you have or when it is considerable and shows that you have the right stuff to do a full-time job.
  • add volunteer experience to a resume in addition to your paid work experience and why they should.

Rasmussen: Any volunteer experience that is RELEVANT toward your career goal should be listed, however, with the caveat that it needs to be current or within the past few years. If you volunteered over five years ago, it looks like you are grasping at straws to add to your resume.

The advantage of adding career-related volunteer experience is three-fold:

  • It demonstrates industry connectedness.
  • It adds weight and gravitas to your credentials.
  • It demonstrates your commitment to the industry or community.

Eisenstodt: Are there any negatives in highlighting volunteer experience? That is, when should you keep it off your resume?

Rasmussen: Any volunteer experience that highlights protected class information (age, gender, political, religious, etc.) is not a good idea, unless it of course is extremely relevant to the organization to which you are applying.

Employers will try to extrapolate anything from the information you provide. For example, it’s fine to volunteer with a cancer fundraiser, but if you list numerous cancer fundraising volunteer experiences, that will cause an employer to question whether you have cancer or not, given how obviously engaged you are in those types of activities.

[Joan discusses this topic further in her blog entry: From Volunteer to Meeting Professional]

This doesn’t mean you can’t keep volunteering doing those fundraisers; you just don’t need to proactively list EVERTYTHING you’ve done in that area.

Eisenstodt: Lastly, tell us of your volunteer experiences and how they have added to your expertise that will help others understand the value of giving back.

Rasmussen: My first volunteer experience was in high school when I was a “candy-striper” at the local hospital running errands and providing patient support. Since then, I haven’t stopped, and oftentimes tend to overbook myself!

From political campaigns to food banks to farmers’ markets to tourism committees to helping do burrowing owl counts, I am always finding ways to get involved and engaged in my industry and community.

The result? I have met amazing lifelong friends, learned so many new things, and had some amazing experiences as a result.

Volunteering is truly the spice of life; the great thing about it is that you can volunteer as long as you like, and if you get burned out or bored, you can end that stint and then find something else that lights your fire.

Volunteering has helped me be a better human being.

Related content from the November 2019 edition of Friday With Joan:

[Read more content in the 11.01.19 Friday With Joan newsletter]