Articles - 12th February 2021

How voluntary work can strengthen a freelancer’s portfolio

Words by Cat Hufton
Illustration by Jon McCormack

In 2020, as the very first lockdown was announced and I started to worry about how life was going to change, I felt like I needed to do something tangible to help. I wanted to give back to my community and help those who were being worst hit by Covid-19. With my usual freelance support network taken away, I also knew that I needed to find new ways of staying connected to others.

So I signed up to volunteer for a charity based in London that helps to provide essential clothing, toys and equipment to mothers and babies living in poverty. I started by sorting clothes donations at home and was later trained up to call the most vulnerable mothers to organise the delivery of critical items such as cots, nappies, and prams. The work really pushed me out of my comfort zone while teaching me so much – from how food banks work, to making Citizens Advice referrals and how to provide advice to women suffering from domestic violence. Experience I would never have got in my usual day job as a freelance journalist.

And research shows that I’m not the only one who feels an urge to help. According to The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), there are believed to be over 19 million volunteers in the UK and over half the population are involved in some form of informal volunteering.

But what other benefits are there to volunteering aside from the altruistic, especially when it comes to our professional careers? The short answer is plenty. Not only is volunteering a brilliant way of giving back and staying connected, but it can also be a great way of adding value to a CV or portfolio – especially at the beginning of a career when your paid employment and experience may be limited.


Strengthening a CV

For freelancers such as John Munn who graduated in 2017, volunteering has been a vital part of his personal and professional life – one that he believes has also strengthened his CV. John volunteered in a number of capacities at university, most notably as the head of the Enterprise Society at his university, and as a volunteer consultant for non-profit organisation Enactus. He’s since worked as a freelance consultant and business coach, and also runs a social enterprise called ZeroSmart that helps people in the UK become carbon neutral.

“I decided to volunteer as an undergraduate for three main reasons: to meet new and interesting people; to improve my skills by putting things into practice in real life; and to make myself ‘more employable’,” John says. “All of the volunteering I did as a student has benefitted me hugely as a freelancer. Not only did I learn countless skills but I also met and helped hundreds of people who have since helped me – as clients and/or by recommending me to other potential clients”.


Staying motivated during furlough and redundancy

In 2020, a reported 9.9 million jobs from 1.2 million different employers were furloughed  in the United Kingdom as part of the government’s job retention scheme. While a challenging and worrying time, voluntary work has provided community and routine for many employees – and for some, such as Emily Coupe, an opportunity to take their career in a different direction.

Emily began working as a voluntary delivery driver for the charity Little Village when she was first furloughed from her full-time job in the events industry. “Volunteering benefited me in so many ways whilst I was on furlough,” she says. “It gave me a purpose and something to really look forward to in the week, while keeping me active. I also made friends and it gave me a huge amount of confidence that I think I may have lost had I not done it”.

“I was working in the events industry before being furloughed and then was sadly made redundant,” she continues. “But during my time working at Little Village it gave me a new motivation and career vision: I wanted to work in a role that would positively impact society. I am now working for an amazing company called Tiney who are on a mission to unlock the potential of every child. Volunteering gave me exposure into how a charity organisation works, and also made an amazing talking point in my interview for my new role”.


What recruiters say

But how do recruiters view voluntary work, especially when graduates are at the very beginning of their careers? According to Dean Cousins, Contracts Team Leader at Creative Recruitment (an agency for creative freelancers) voluntary work is always valuable especially when starting out in your career.

“Voluntary work is always well received by recruiters, as you are taking time out of a busy schedule to fit in extra work for free,” he explains. “This is usually to assist or aid others or follow a side-line passion. Voluntary work is better placed on a CV than in a portfolio, but as long as the quality of work is of industry standard, it can be included as a small case study – it also makes a great talking point. You may also learn new skills, meet new people and improve your digital profile in the process”.

This opinion is also echoed by Amanda Fone, CEO of f1 Recruitment who believes that recruiters will be looking closely at how potential candidates have spent their time during the pandemic. “Companies hiring in 2021 will certainly ask everyone looking for work – whether freelance or permanent – how their COVID year was, so applicants need to be ready with their answers,” she says.

“Many, many people did get involved in some voluntary work during 2020 and if you are one of them, then don’t be shy about putting this experience on your CV”.  Amanda advises placing this experience at the bottom of your CV just above hobbies and interests or creating a vertical column along the side of your CV explaining what your voluntary work involved and a few bullet points about the organisation, N4P, charity or social enterprise.

“Many employers are putting societal change and sustainability at the heart of their corporate governance and want to hire  people that care about both,” Amanda continues. “Many job seekers only want to work for a company that is candid about wanting to be purpose led as well as profit led so putting your voluntary work on your CV sends a signal that you are committed to enabling some kind of societal change”.

You can find out more about how the volunteering opportunities in your local area through organisations such as Reach Volunteering and the Royal Voluntary Service.

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