The Free Samples Theory: Why Volunteering Could Get You Hired

As the program coordinator of NeighborScapes’s Civic Leadership Corps for low-income youth from 14 to 24 years old, and as an AmeriCorps VISTA about to complete her year-long term, I’ve been talking- and hearing- a lot about volunteering lately. The arguments for volunteering are many and well-known- it makes you feel good, it’s needed, it’s a way to give back to the community. The arguments against it appear much more pragmatic, especially in a recession- time is expensive, the volunteers I work with are often students or of low income, and we just can’t afford to give something away for nothing. We, as a bloc, are much more comfortable spending low-value time in minimum-wage jobs that pay at least something, than in volunteering, which continues to carry the stigma of mundane work.

I agree that, in this economy, it is incredibly expensive in terms of opportunity cost to give something, including time, away for nothing. But volunteering has something concrete, of high value, but little-discussed to offer you: networking opportunities, work experience, and the opportunity to sell yourself as a potential employee.

The same perspective that I use concerning money- that it’s okay to spend money to go to work, if I can earn much more than what I spend- applies to time. Forty hours a week is a significant block of my time, especially when the unpaid time spent commuting or preparing to go to work are considered. I would not give that time if the value that I expected to earn while at work was not greater than the value of the time I sacrificed.

But notice that I use the word “value” and not “pay” here- I work partially for pay, but also because working is more interesting and socially acceptable than loafing, because working allows me opportunities to advance my career to more interesting, of greater status, and higher-paid opportunities in the future, and for a variety of other reasons. I’m comfortable spending this time because I know it’s not actually an expense but an investment.

So how does volunteering factor into the time-for-value trade?

I continue to spend something of value- in this case, my time, as well as transportation costs. I deliberately forego being paid for that time, for now. In exchange, I capture something of value- be it marketable job skills, meaningful networking opportunities, or the opportunity to engage more fully in a community so that I can better represent it in a job interview.

Further, 80% of job opportunities are not posted on the Internet, leaving 80% of us applying for 20% of jobs. Companies would rather hire someone that they know than make the expense and take the risk of hiring a complete stranger. To many, this translates to the value of having well-connected friends who are willing to give you a foot in the door. However, 52% of Americans work in small businesses, and 9.5% work in nonprofits, and for these jobs, the “someone you already know” reality translates to a door that is permanently left open far enough for you to fit your foot in, given an initial investment.

A case study: Monica M has a job, but is ambitious and wants to be hired at a better one. She offers to take on increasing responsibility at her company, works later hours, takes a bigger workload. She becomes the go-to person for various projects, and is assertive but not arrogant in her interactions with her supervisor and co-workers. Her supervisor acknowledges this and offers her a promotion or pay raise.

A second case study: Rebecca H is new to an area and wants to find a job, particularly in development at a nonprofit. She begins by volunteering at Charity A. Charity A initially has her stuffing envelopes, but she offers to make solicitation calls and staff special events, then gets so good at this that she starts to help plan the special events and train others in giving the solicitation calls. She approaches the head of the development department of Charity A and asks for a job, but Charity A is getting something for nothing and declines. However, Charity A collaborates with Charity B, who is increasingly impressed with Rebecca’s performance; they mistake her for a staff member, since she has so much responsibility within Charity A. Rebecca expresses an interest in working for Charity B, who asks her to name a pay rate.

A third: Kevin B is a student and wants to be an entrepreneur of a small business. He knows that the business world works differently within academia than it does outside of it, so he seeks out an internship based on job postings online, but most small businesses do not post internships online. Kevin then identifies several small businesses for which he would like to work, then asks for professional advice/guidance, refers clients, offers opportunities to the businesses, and becomes a frequent customer. The next time that business is hiring, it already knows and respects Kevin’s work ethic, and is more likely to hire him.

Companies use the “free samples” phenomenon frequently with their marketing. Free or dramatically discounted samples are sent out to new consumers, in the hope that the consumers will develop brand loyalty to that company and patronize them more often. Frequent buyer discounts increase already-present brand loyalty and encourage referrals. The initial sunk cost of a cup of Starbucks coffee is recouped by your continued presence at Starbucks every morning, your likelihood to buy a pastry with your coffee, and your increased likeliness to invite a friend to coffee at Starbucks if yours is free; the initial sunk cost of a free $80 cosmetics kit with a purchase of $20 of cosmetics at a department store is recouped in your new found brand loyalty to the cosmetics counter that gave you the kit (Incidentally, Clinique and Bare Minerals are in fierce competition for my loyalty right now).

I know that my work is a high-value product that comes with excellent customer service. My dream small business or nonprofit may not know that, yet. However, offering “free samples” in the form of consulting, referrals, and volunteering as a way to high-value network, learn job skills, and engage in my community with intent can teach people about my value as an employee and persuade them to purchase my time in a more enduring fashion.

Chris Furuya

Chris Furuya is a jobs consultant and grant writer whose passion is helping people land their dream jobs- or creating those dream jobs from scratch. Follow her on Twitter @furyousgrants

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