By Heather Boerner, for Yahoo! HotJobs
Sandra Erbe volunteered for a Maryland nonprofit for eight months after being laid off in 2008, using her communications skills to do branding and strategic planning for the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center.
When a communications job became available there, she was first in line -- and nabbed the job.
Volunteering is growing in popularity as laid-off workers look for ways to stay sharp in their fields and stay busy during the job hunt. But done right, volunteering can also land you a job in a company you might not have access to otherwise.
"Volunteering, sometimes referred to as 'adult interning,' is a great way for someone to hone specialized skills and be in the right place at the right time when a position comes available," says Debra Yergen, the author of Creating Job Security Resource Guide.
Here's how to make sure the time you donate advances your career:
Keep It Part-Time
"You can't volunteer full-time because then you don't have time to look for a job," explains David Craig, executive director of Work It Up, a Maine-based nonprofit that connects unemployed professionals with volunteer work in their chosen industries. "It shouldn't be more than 20 hours of your week."
Many corporations can't legally or operationally hire volunteers, says Craig, who works with companies to create projects that qualified volunteers can lead.
Nonprofits are always looking for volunteers, and may be willing to tailor a volunteer opportunity to your skills. You might also target small businesses that have been squeezed by the economy.
Make Your Case
For some companies, a new person without any training is more of a burden than an asset, even if she is working for free, says Craig. You can still get your foot in the door -- just demonstrate how you'll add value. "You've got to show a company that you will be low-maintenance and self-directed," Craig says. "Come up with a plan for how you can help their business without having a negative impact."
Treat It Like A Job
It's important to show up on time, dress appropriately, work hard and even stay late on occasion, explains Diane Gottsman, a San Antonio-based etiquette expert who works with job seekers and head hunters.
"Show them you're committed," she says. "If you just do a little extra, when they're talking about you, they'll say, 'Diane is such a team player.' You want to make yourself indispensable so they want you on staff."
Network, Network, Network
"You may volunteer with kids with the Red Cross, but they have no job openings," says David Couper, a California-based career coach. "The local kids' foundation down the street may, and they'd love to know about your experience."
Couper says that, no matter what, you'll definitely get the emotional boost that comes from helping others.
"And when you're engaged in a common purpose, you will make new relationships and contacts that can lead to jobs," he adds.