Veterans know what it means to serve. Many of us joined the military to be part of something greater than ourselves. We sacrifice our time and freedom to protect and serve others. Our country depends on brave men and women to take this challenge. Having people volunteer is crucial to the strength of our country. This is still true after the military. Your service may be over contractually, but the oath remains. Whether you wish to help charities or volunteer in your community, your continued service is still needed.
With all that being said, you just volunteered in one of the most demanding ways for the last few years. Maybe you need to concentrate on building yourself up first. Strengthen your organizational skills. Build-up your resume. Find things that interest you. Identify your strengths and weaknesses. Good news! You can volunteer in your community and do all of these things at the same time.
Volunteering can offer countless opportunities to improve existing skills and learn new ones. If you are truly involved, there are numerous positions in these organizations that require business strategy and planning. Whether you are marketing a future event, managing the budget, or leading monthly meetings, these volunteer positions can add ammo to your resume.
Last year, I was applying for a position in Program Management that required at least 10 years of related work experience. I only had 8 years, which was a problem. I did great on my interviews and waited on the recruiting department to let me know that I got the job. When they finally called, it started out with… “Great job on the interviews, unfortunately…” My heart sank. The HR policy required them to identify 10 years of experience and I was 2 years short. Right as I was about to hang up and accept defeat, I remembered my time in the Student Veterans Organization at Western Illinois University.
I was President for two years and had tons of relevant, transferable experience that directly prepared me for the future Program Management role. Right there on the phone, I ranted for 10 minutes about my experiences from being President. I went into detail on how it improved my ability to lead and communicate with teams. I recalled the numerous events that required hours of collaboration and planning with other organizations. Even customer service came to mind from working with people purchasing our club shirts or playing in the annual bags tournament. I even argued (and truly believe) that my experience from the WIU Vets Club prepared me more than any of my years working in the corporate arena. It worked. The recruiter on the phone had me go into my profile and add my volunteer experience as actual work experience, which completed the two additional years needed. This is the power of volunteer experience.
I don’t suggest being a fly on the wall when you volunteer. If you want relevant experience that improves skills and looks good on the resume, then you need to truly participate. You aren’t there to just attend meetings and check the box, you’ll be wasting everyone’s time. My suggestion is to take a leadership role. You don’t have to be the president, but you should have a role that is significant enough to make a difference and demonstrate your professional skills. Recruiters will question why you didn’t have the drive to take on more challenging leadership roles (I have witnessed this a few times). If you are looking for a career in Accounting, maybe take a role as Treasurer. If you want a role in Marketing, try to become Social Media chair or Events Promoter. This is especially important if your work experiences are a little weak or non-existent on your resume.
Becoming a well-rounded professional requires more than education and solid work experience. One of the toughest areas to evaluate candidates is their heart and/or character. Your education should say something about your ability to learn. Your work experience should prove your ability to perform a job. But what about your character? How do they know if they are hiring someone that will do the right thing when nobody is watching? Having a strong volunteer background will usually make recruiters and hiring managers feel more comfortable about this critical area.
Your ability to find time for charities and other organizations naturally speaks to your character. You choose to give up valuable free time to serve a cause other than your own. Hopefully this is a cause that you can speak passionately about when asked. If you are balancing your charitable efforts with work or school, even better. Successfully managing your work or school life with volunteer work displays your time management skills.
Because this requires your valuable time, it is important to be passionate about what you’re volunteering for. Being interested in the cause will help you stay committed longer. Another reason is you want to explain your experience with excitement. You aren’t just volunteering to puff up your resume, it’s because of your great character and who you are as a person.
Here are a few great avenues to start being a prominent and valuable member of your community after the military…
American Legion and VFW: A couple great groups to consider are the American Legion and VFW. These are established groups that are well known in community, state and federal levels. Both have a strong voice as veteran advocates and are respected by leaders and organizations throughout the country. While they do support some non-veteran related charities and causes, their main mission is supporting troops and veterans. Their local posts (likely in a city near you) allow veterans to come together for meetings and events.
Both the American Legion and VFW are hurting for membership and participation. These important organizations need younger veterans to join and become active leaders. Although I have not committed to membership yet, I intend on joining American Legion and becoming an active member. So far, I have attended only one meeting. We all know these organizations need some modernization to continue being impactful for today’s generation. This is a great opportunity for veterans that want to be part of a major change in the coming future for either organization.
The Mission Continues: If you are looking for something that focuses less on veterans and more on the community, you might like The Mission Continues. There are numerous platoons throughout the country that meet and provide volunteer services to areas in need. Whether it is creating a community garden or mentoring at-risk youth, veterans are deployed to assist their community in need.
*Student Veteran Organizations*: This one is a big deal for me. The Western Illinois University Veterans Club helped launch my career. I gained critical connections, skills, and experiences during my 3 years with the club. I met veterans that were going through the same difficult transition and made friends for life. Our club consisted of multiple committees that offered members a wide array of opportunities to stay active and take leadership positions. If you are in school, chances are you have a Student Veterans Organization. Do yourself a favor and attend a few meetings. Give it a chance.
Serve on a Community Board: Your village government typically has a few different committees that you can serve on. After interviewing in front of the village board (including the Mayor), I served for one year as a committee member on the Environmental Commission. I learned a lot about local government (good and bad). My community had a number of Commission’s to choose from: Art, Planning, Housing, Police & Fire, Youth, Design, Health, Bicycle & Pedestrian, etc. Chances are there is something that will interest you. The local Park District (coaching as well), Schools, and Library had similar committee opportunities.
I urge all veterans to give one of the above opportunities a try. Find one that really interests you. Make it a priority to attend at least one meeting to see what it is all about. Learn about what they do, talk to the members and ask about opportunities available. You may not be able to walk right in and take a leadership role. It would be a good idea to get to know the organization, the members, and the cause first. Be active, learn, and lead when the time is right. Whatever you do, don’t forget that you are building transferable skills along the way. This experience is more than helping a great cause and building a resume, it is a stepping stone to becoming a well-rounded professional. Good luck!