How Volunteering May Actually Be Hurting Your Job Hunt

by Lisa Huntsha, Head Editor, INALJ Sweden
previously published on 6/19/13

How Volunteering may actually be Hurting your Job Hunt

lisahuntshaIf you’re job hunting, undoubtedly countless people have suggested that you spend some time volunteering. This can, of course, be beneficial for a several reasons:

  • You can get your foot in the door at a local library or organization;
  • You are able to keep relevant with current library trends;
  • You show dedication to the field, even if you are in between paying positions;
  • You receive much needed hands-on experience.

That said, let’s play devil’s advocate and look at a few reasons volunteering might be hurting your job hunt, and even the library profession as a whole:

1) If you are willing to work for free, why should an organization find funding to pay you? Also the “why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free” argument.

Professionals do themselves a disservice by being willing to work for free. If you’re still in school and working on your degree, or if you are pre-degree and figuring out if librarianship is right for you, by all means, volunteer. But if you have a professional degree, let’s examine the message that working for free is sending to potential employers.

2) If you’re not asking for compensation, you’re not valuing your skills.

Or you are at least severely undervaluing what you have to offer an organization. Giving your time and skills away for free can send the message that your time and skills are not valuable.

3) You might be stifling your career advancement or setting yourself up for future exploitation.

If you don’t advocate for your professional worth now, it may make it harder to be professionally where you want to be 5 or 10 years from now. Maybe you’re already read this New York Times article about 20-somethings “paying their dues” to break into competitive fields: If you haven’t, it’s worth a read.


Volunteering as a library professional is something we need to look long and hard at, and be willing to discuss critically. I would be remiss, however, if I posed the argument that you shouldn’t volunteer and didn’t offers some alternative suggestions. So, what should you do instead if you want to gain experience while you’re job hunting?


1) Volunteer for an organization that doesn’t have the ability to compensate its employees.

Find an organization that is run entirely by volunteers (like INALJ!) so that by volunteering you are not replacing someone who might otherwise be compensated for this work. This way, you can use your skills to gain experience in a manner that is not taking away paying positions. (I do realize that many libraries and nonprofits are severely underfunded and benefit from volunteers. My argument for the sake of this article is that professionals should not be the ones volunteering).

2) Use your skills to create your own group/organization/event that fills a need in your community.

Think outside the box! See a need and address it. Using your skills does not necessarily mean volunteering for an established organization, so think creatively about how you can put your talents to use.

3) If you are volunteering, don’t be afraid to ask for a modest or even creative form of compensation for your time.

This request could come in many forms. You could ask the organization to fund a trip to a conference, or see if they can offer you some sort of other perk. Again, think outside the box and advocate for your skills.

Overall, I think we should have some serious discussions with library (and allied) professionals about the nature of volunteering. Feel free to weigh-in in the comments section! And, remember when it comes to unpaid internships there are legality issues you should be aware of. But perhaps that’s a topic for another blog post.


Previously entitled Playing Devil’s Advocate: How Volunteering may actually be Hurting your Job Hunt

  21 comments for “How Volunteering May Actually Be Hurting Your Job Hunt

Comments are closed.