Helping Volunteers to Market Their Experience on Their Resumes

Many volunteers hold paying jobs concurrently with their volunteer positions or will seek part- or full-time paid employment in the future. Directors and coordinators of volunteers can offer a valuable service by helping volunteers effectively communicate their service and skills on their resumes and cover letters.

After twenty-five years of hiring both volunteers and paid staff, and writing resumes and cover letters for job seekers, I have seen thousands of resumes in almost as many formats.

Not surprisingly, volunteers tend to overlook unpaid work when compiling or updating their resumes. When included, it is often tacked on at the end as an afterthought. In general, I have found that both volunteers and volunteer leaders are unsure how to treat unpaid work on a resume.

I often hear the question: "Should my volunteer work be integrated into the main body of my resume?" The answer: Absolutely. In fact, unless the job seeker has a specific reason for highlighting unpaid work out of context with the rest of a chronological resume, I always recommend integrating it with paid work, giving ongoing volunteer service the same weight and importance as a paying job.

This is especially important if the volunteer’s paid positions are separated by blocks of time during which she/he volunteered. Most employers look for continuity and growth as a worker changes jobs. Time that is not accounted for on the resume waves a "red flag" which can jeopardize the applicant’s chances for consideration.

When advising volunteers about resumes, directors and coordinators should first focus on the job description. This has two major benefits:

  • The job description provides not only information, but also actual phrases that volunteers can use when writing their resumes.
  • The volunteer leader will receive feedback on specific duties and responsibilities that may have been modified or even changed significantly since the last update.

When possible, the resume should be targeted to a specific position or employer. For example, when applying for a job as a manager, a Girl Scout leader could cite her volunteer experience in motivating girls as evidence of her ability to supervise and lead. Try to include as many of these points of intersection — similarities between the applicant’s experience and the prospective position — in the resume as possible. The more pertinent points of intersection should also be highlighted in the cover letter.

The following guidelines can be helpful for volunteers (and others) when writing resumes:

  • Use an easy-to-follow format. Avoid long sentences; instead, use bullets and phrases that are clearly written and can be read quickly.
  • Use the same format throughout. For example, use all CAPS for the job title and Caps and Lower Case for the name of the organization. Or vice-versa, highlighting whichever is the more important.
  • The specific address of the organization is not necessary; city and state are sufficient.
  • The resume should be written in reverse chronological order last position first.
  • Make sure there are no gaps in the time sequence. If there are, explain them in the cover letter.
  • Use "Professional Experience," not "Employment History" as a heading. This broader phrase very nicely includes volunteer work.
  • Although you should inform the reader that a position was unpaid, you need not include the word "volunteer" in the job title. Reserve that for one of the bullets.
  • If the volunteer position was full-time or ongoing, clearly note that on the resume. Most employers will assume that volunteer work is very part-time, short-lived, and/or sporadic.
  • Education is generally placed last on the resume, but it can be first, depending on the person’s age and the position desired. If the job seeker is young with very little work experience, education should go up front. Similarly, it may be important to highlight specific technical training or degrees for an applicant. If so, place education first.
  • Continuing education and on-the-job training should be placed after high school and college information. The volunteer manager’s records should help volunteers recall various training sessions. This information serves to verify that skills presented elsewhere in the resume were learned in a formal setting.
  • A Summary of Skills and Experience is the area of the resume for volunteers to emphasize special skills, whether formally or informally learned. List three to five bulleted points at either the beginning or end of the resume. For example: "Proven motivational skills" or "Easily adapt teaching style to reach all age groups" or "Excellent organizational and project coordination skills."

Even if volunteers have no intention of seeking paid employment, directors and coordinators may want to consider resume writing as a group activity. This can be a win-win situation: volunteer leaders will learn more about the talents and experience of volunteers (and also update job descriptions!). And, with a completed resume, volunteers will have formal documentation of skills and abilities gained through paid and unpaid work. Whether used in job searches or not, resumes can be empowering for people of all ages and backgrounds.

Permission is granted to download and reprint this material. Reprints must include all citations and the statement: "Found in the Energize online library at"