My field of expertise is Adult Language Acquisition, and when I was in my 20s, I regularly volunteered with a local nonprofit teaching ESL classes to refugees, and I loved it. But when a full-time position as an employment coordinator opened up, I learned that not all volunteer-work success translates to success as a full-time employee.
I may have been qualified to teach, but I wasn’t qualified to coach refugees through the US employment process, and unfortunately, that mistake put a cloud over my relationship with the organization.
But just because it wasn’t the right fit for me doesn’t mean it isn’t right for you. If you’re struggling to know when to make the leap from volunteer to employee, here are a few signs it’s likely a good move.
The position aligns with your expertise
My mistake: I was an English teacher trying to be an employment coordinator.
As a volunteer, you can try on a lot of different hats at an organization, but as an employee, you need to be the right fit. Though you may be tempted to jump at any opportunity to join the full-time staff of your favorite organization, you’ll be doing them a disservice if they hire you when someone else is the expert they need.
If the position falls into your area of expertise, go for it. If it doesn’t, step aside.
The position supports you financially (or if it’s part-time, adds to your stability)
My mistake: I didn’t discuss compensation.
Transitioning to employee status means going through the same salary discussions that you would with any job. Your heart is in the right place, but if the organization isn’t able to offer compensation that supports you, it’s a recipe for resentment.
That doesn’t mean some pay cuts aren’t worth it. But how do you know if full-time employment is worth making cuts to your finances? Here are a few tips:
- Be realistic about how you’ll handle your financial responsibilities. Cutting down on some discretionary spending is worth it, but having to sleep on someone’s couch probably isn’t.
- Keep an open mind about compensation. The organization may be able to negotiate something that works well for both of you. Perhaps some creative benefits or flexible working hours will help.
- Accepting part-time work should add to your overall financial stability. The hours shouldn’t interfere with your full-time work and other aspects of your life.
Your volunteer hours have increased (and you don’t mind)
My mistake: I was happy volunteering part-time. Volunteering one or two times a week is quite different from coming in every day. Here are some clues that you’re ready to up your commitment.
- You begin looking for additional volunteer hours. Perhaps you started at one hour a week, and now you’re up to five or ten and still enjoying time spent at the organization.
- You find reasons to come in more often. You take on different roles and volunteer for interesting projects when they come available.
- You move things around to be more available. Maybe last year you wouldn’t have missed drinks with your friends, but this year, that volunteer event takes priority.
You’re ready to take on the negative
My mistake: I wasn’t ready to handle the good and the bad.
My first experience as the employment coordinator was the disappointment of a major local factory turning down our proposal to hire a certain number of refugees. It hurt, and I didn’t handle it well. I quickly realized that as a volunteer, I was shielded from some of the negative aspects of day-to-day nonprofit work.
There are highs and lows that come along with any job, and nonprofit work is no different. You know you’re ready if you understand that meaningful moments occur in both positive and negative situations. When you’re ready to trade the sometimes-sheltered life of a volunteer for the ups and downs of full-time work, you’ll know.
Just because it wasn’t the right opportunity for me doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. If you sailed through the suggestions above and you’re ready for more, it might be an excellent time for you to make things official.
If you decide that being an employee isn’t a fit, don’t despair. You aren’t “just” a volunteer. Your time and dedication is valuable, and you’re supporting your organization the best way you can while also supporting yourself.
Pro Tip: Not sure if you’re ready to leave your job for the nonprofit sector? Here’s a handy quiz to help you out.
What would you do if your dream organization had an opening that wasn’t exactly the right fit for you? Has the situation actually happened to you? Tell us about it in the comments below.