When I first met Jessica Spira, 46, a cheerful, natural redhead with a face exploding with freckles, we were lactating first-time mommies, who found each other through a weekly “new moms” lunch on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. As we went around the room introducing ourselves, we were asked to announce whether we were returning back to work after maternity leave. Jessica, like many women in the room, was opting to stay home.

A business development and marketing professional, Jessica had worked in publishing and in the then burgeoning new world of digital financial news. At the time, Jessica had no angst about taking time off to raise Zachary. That time turned into six and a half years at home until Jessica’s second child Elizabeth began pre-school. “I was very much in the moment those first couple of years until I started making the decision to go back, and then I was projecting ahead,” Jessica says.

Playground Strategy

As her kids got older and Jessica grew more antsy, she became very thoughtful and deliberate about how she would transition back into work. She knew that applying her skills in a volunteer capacity could also translate on a resume. So for nearly three years, Jessica raised money for Hippo Park, a playground on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  Jessica served on the board for the park’s fair. She sought strategic partners and sold sponsorships. Revenue grew and the park’s programming expanded. “This wasn’t about the check you could write, it was about the energy you brought,” Jessica says. “It was a diverse group of women and I had a great time doing this.”

As Jessica was contemplating how to move back into the workforce, she was also paying attention to the bleak economic forecasts.  “During the summer of 2007 the economy was showing some cracks and I thought I have ceded all of my financial independence to my spouse and he’s in the financial industry and that’s really not dependable anymore, so I better get my shit together and figure something out,” Jessica says. “I had been on LinkedIn and I had a decent network and always kept up with people. I was able to re-ignite that really quickly.”

Jessica tapped into her network. She had people who she trusted look over her resume and offer feedback. She listed out and described her volunteer work explaining the big gap in her professional life. Within weeks of first connecting with former colleagues, Jessica was interviewing.  “When people asked me what I was most proud of professionally, I would say the Hippo Park work. I really pounded the pavement,” Jessica says. “It was business development, just in a different way than I had done before. But I went on interviews and parlayed that experience into my conversations.”

Placing Value on Volunteer Work

Lynn Weitzman, the founder of Opt-in Consulting and career coach, says that Jessica’s vision to see her volunteer work as transferable work experience is exactly what other women should be doing.

Being strategic about the volunteer work you do now can be critical to channeling it into future paid work. “This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be volunteering for the PTA bake sale, but realize that a potential employer will not care about the bake sale,” Weitzman says. “Instead, think about the type of work you may want to return to. If it’s marketing, maybe think about how you can redesign the website for your school or be involved in a social media campaign that is important to the community. Choose substantive work that can be translatable.”

As a culture, we sadly don’t value volunteer work as highly as we do paid work. Perhaps it’s a gender thing and because volunteering has fallen primarily onto women’s shoulders, it’s been marginalized. And because we often don’t recognize its true worth, women tend to diminish this work as well. So rather than leveraging the volunteer experience, women may ignore and dismiss the work, leaving it off of their resumes.  This, Weitzman says, is a huge mistake.

Weitzman says that like Jessica, other women can strategically turn their non-paid work into solid career experience. It shouldn’t be ignored, instead it should be highlighted. And the way to do this is through the language you use.

It’s All in the Messaging

Weitzman says to dig deep into your volunteer work assessing every task you’ve done and then match it to the language you see in job descriptions. Some people can do this alone. Others benefit from using career coaches to help them.  The key is to look at your experience through the lens of the paid workforce and apply the relevant and current terminology.

  • Created and executed a strategy
  • Managed a team
  • Developed marketing material
  • Cultivated relationships and developed networks
  • Project and product management
  • Fundraised
  • Negotiated contracts
  • Worked within budget
  • Implemented a social media campaign
  • Launched a website and grew an engaged community on social
  • Managed outreach and communications

“Professionalize your volunteer work and match it back to the position you’re trying to get,” says Weitzman.  “Let the interviewer know that you had a goal, created and executed a strategy against it, and make sure you tell them the result of the project.”

Treat Volunteer Work Like a Paid Job

Weitzman also says that women should fully own their volunteer work and treat it as if it’s a paid position. “Pretend it’s a job,” Weitzman says. “Think that the person on the committee with whom you’re serving can be a connector and help you land a paid job in a few years. You want to be that woman who meet deadlines and is remembered for the quality of work she delivers whether it’s paid or not. I think a lot of people don’t get that.”

Jessica has been back to work for six years now.  She’s had three jobs and several promotions and has recently reached the level she believes she would have been if she hadn’t taken time off. She doesn’t apologize for staying home with her kids, or regret what for her was a true choice. And like many moms in the workplace she sees an added benefit to motherhood.

“It sounds cliché, but I am older, wiser and more confident and I don’t get rattled by the small stuff,” Jessica says. “I’m also a lot more fearless than I was before.”

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