THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Instant karma: Helping others helps a career

We are entering the age of volunteerism. Generation X has shifted charity from the hierarchical, corporate-backed methods of the Red Cross and United Way to a grassroots, episodic volunteerism of, say, tutoring neighborhood children.

And Generation Y is donating more of their time to charitable causes than perhaps any generation in history. According Indiana University professor Leslie Lenkowsky, 90 percent of college-bound high school students volunteer.

Melissa Krodman graduated from Boston University with a communications degree and joined a casting agency in England. But she found that industry was no match for her values. She wanted to do something larger in media, but she wasn't sure what. 

So when she moved back to the United States to regroup, she volunteered at What's Up magazine. Bruce Tulgan studies the working lives of young people, and he sees Krodman's criteria as typical for recent entrants into the workforce. 

"Mission is especially important for both career and charity, but then they want to know what they'll be doing. They ask, What will I learn? Who will I work with?" he says.

In many cases, volunteering can add both mission and key experience to one's work life. Enter episodic volunteering: short-term, project-based, local, and hands-on, this is the type of charity that can improve your karma as well as your career.

Aaron Hurst is president and founder of the Taproot Foundation, which provides ways for people to donate their skills to discreet projects for nonprofit organizations. He says, "In the first 10 or 15 years of a career, people have limited money-giving ability but can give a relatively significant donation of time and skills. The average Taproot volunteer donates $5,000-7,000 in work, and they could have never given that much in cash."

For some volunteers, time with a nonprofit can shine light on a true calling. Krodman explains, "For a long time I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. Volunteering at What's Up gave me a much clearer focus. What's Up introduced me to media that inspires activism. That's a part of the picture I didn't have."

Even those who know their true calling can expand their skill set by volunteering for challenging projects. Hurst says, "Experiential learning is the best way to teach adults, especially when it comes to soft skills like leadership. Law firms have used pro bono work as a great training tool, and now it's spreading to other industries." 

One of the most frustrating aspects of an entry-level job is the lack of responsibility. Krodman points out that volunteering is a good way to gain responsibility fast: "In an organization where you have bosses and work for someone else, there's a certain amount of climbing required. At What's Up, I am my own boss and I get to do work that I would not get to do at a big corporation until years down the line."

And no matter where you are in your career, volunteering is a way to build a network. A typical Taproot branding project, for example, combines a project manager, brand strategist, graphic designer, and copywriter, each from a different company.

This benefit is not lost on Krodman. She used the contacts she made through volunteer work at What's Up magazine to find her ideal job – one that provides solid mission as well as solid salary. But what would she do if she landed that dream job and didn't have to work at cafes to pay rent? 

"Volunteer more," she says. "There's so much to be done."