Should you include volunteer work on a resume?

October 20, 2011: 11:26 AM ET

With many talented workers experiencing stretches of unemployment, employers are taking a harder look at unpaid experience. Here's what to include -- and what to leave out.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributorResume Job Hunting

FORTUNE -- Scale Computing chief executive Jeff Ready recently was interviewing job candidates for a position whose duties included coordinating all-hands meetings at the Indianapolis-based manufacturer. One prospective employee's resume included her experience planning an annual fundraiser for a local charity, several years in a row.

"To me, that experience was awesome. She had done it for four to five years; she obviously liked doing it, or she wouldn't have done it for free," says Ready.

The volunteer work stood out because her resume described the event planning experience and how many attendees were involved, making it clear that it was a substantial amount of responsibility. "You've got that four or five-second opportunity to say something that's going to grab my attention," Ready says. "In that case it was that I'm the lead event planner for the big charity event."

Increasingly, corporate bosses like Ready are taking note of job candidates' volunteer efforts. They recognize that in the recent recession, talented employees may have had stretches of unemployment that they filled with unpaid work. A recent LinkedIn (LNKD) survey found that 41% of hiring managers consider volunteer experience equally valuable as paid work.

But workers still feel nervous about what experience to include and how to be honest while also presenting in the best light. LinkedIn found that 89% of professionals surveyed had volunteer experience, but only 45% included it on their resume.

"People are wondering whether it's considered as legitimate as paid work experience," says Carol Fishman Cohen, co-founder of career reentry programming company iRelaunch.com. "What we're hearing on the employer side is that if the volunteer experience is relevant to your career goal, include it."

For instance, a medical social worker who took a career break to care for her children parlayed her volunteer work at a hospice into a paid position at another hospice, as a volunteer manager. She hopes that job will lead to work as a medical social worker. "She's in an environment where medical social workers are walking in every day telling her where are the best places to work and who's hiring," Cohen notes.

When including relevant unpaid work on your resume, you can either create a separate section called "volunteer experience" or lump it in with your paid jobs under a heading simply titled "experience." Be sure to use active verbs, be specific and quantify your accomplishments -- just as you do with anything else on your resume.

Sometimes, experience outside your field can be included to demonstrate commitment and character. David Bertorello, president of mortgage brokerage BTS Lending, puts on his resume his long-time volunteer work for Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership, because it's a cause that's close to his heart.

"I want my employers to know I have things I'm involved with. I don't want it to come up as a surprise that I have this commitment," says Bertorello, who devotes at least 150 hours a year to HOBY. "Hopefully it's showing them that I'm well-rounded…. It also breaks the ice in work relationships."

Some volunteer experience at well-known organizations can instantly signal your ability to follow through on a challenging goal. Whenever Marty Scheller, partner of Scheller's Fitness & Cycling, sees that a job candidate achieved the rank of Eagle Scout, he calls that person in for an interview at the Louisville, Ky., retailer.

"I always want to talk to them. I don't always hire them," Scheller says. "To get that particular honor, it takes a young person who's driven.... It's usually a pretty good barometer for character…."

Don't get carried away and start loading your resume with every single good deed. You don't want a laundry list that hides your true accomplishments -- or to end up embarrassed if the interviewer asks about something and you can't speak about it in-depth.

"You don't want to just put something to say you've done volunteer work," advises Miriam Salpeter, a job search coach and author of Social Networking for Career Success. "Anything that was a one-time thing, or twice a year, it may not be significant."

Some argue that job applicants should think twice about including volunteer experience related to the often-touchy subjects of religion, politics, and sexual orientation.

Cohen says that some stay-at-home mothers worry about including experience at the Parent Teacher Association. "Sometimes there's a stigma associated with that because it screams suburban mom."

On the other hand, if you were PTA president or had substantial responsibilities within the organization, your accomplishments may be so significant that you wouldn't want to ignore them.

Moreover, if your volunteer work demonstrates something important about you and your life -- whether it's your children, sexual orientation, or religion -- would you want to work for an employer that would discriminate against you because of it?

"All those things help paint a better picture of you as an individual," says Shawn Graham, small business consultant and author of Courting Your Career . "You wouldn't want to work for an organization where you'd have to hide it."

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About This Author
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Katherine Reynolds Lewis
Contributor, Fortune

Katherine Reynolds Lewis is an award-winning Washington D.C.-based journalist specializing in finance, work, and family issues. She has written for publications including the Fiscal Times, Money, MSN, the New York Times, Parade, Slate, USA Today magazines, and the Washington Post Magazine. Previously, she worked as a national correspondent for Newhouse News Service and reported for Bloomberg News in Washington. She began her career in New York at the Bond Buyer, after graduating from Harvard College with an A.B. in physics. She is active in the Asian American Journalists Association and serves as founding co-chair of the AAJA Digital Group.

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