Volunteering: The stepping stone to employment?

Conservation Careers Blogger, and RSPB volunteer Karen Langley, shares her top tips for how conservation volunteering can help you…

In an increasingly competitive job market it’s important to try and make yourself stand out. Many people consider volunteering to be highly important, especially within an organisation that has links to the area in which you wish to work.

I’ve been volunteering with the RSPB for seven years, and have become familiar with the benefits that comes with it; many of which go far past the ‘experience’ aspect most which most people sell.

Karen vol 1

A family fun day testing out the games (Credit David White).

Character building

Firstly, I have grown as a person. Being in a visitor-facing role has improved my communication skills, made me a lot more confident in dealing with a variety of people, and given me a better idea of what it is I actually want to do (as well as helping me discover new skills).

Use volunteering to your advantage, taking it as an opportunity to try out a number of areas in which you could find paid employment. Get involved in the ‘behind the scenes aspects’; even if office work isn’t your thing, there’s paperwork to be done in every job so get stuck in.

Venturing out of your comfort zone is easily done if there’s no pressure for you to be successful. Try new areas of work you probably hadn’t considered, you never know, you might find something new you’re interested in or just plain good at; or you may discover that that one thing you always wanted to do isn’t actually as compelling if it’s full time. Some things are better simply as a hobby after all.


Where potential employers are concerned, I have gained a variety of hands-on experience. If you know what you want to do, talk to those in charge of where you volunteer.

You’re giving up your free time to help them, and naturally they want to get the most out of that. This goes hand in hand with developing as a person. Assist with surveying, with events, with office work; wherever you’re volunteering get involved in as many aspects of the place as you can. You don’t have to do everything, but make the most of being able to try things at least once. If nothing else it shows willing, and being able to mention all this to employers puts you in great stead. Don’t forget, even if you got your ideal job there will always be one aspect that you don’t want to do but have to.

Contacts and inside knowledge

Finally, it’s not what you know but who you know, isn’t it? The best advice I have been given in regards to finding employment is from the RSPB.

“On one occasion I was phoned simply to be told how to improve my application form writing, even though I wasn’t being offered an interview. Cue me making those changes and application success as a result”.

After my most recent interview, I was offered feedback on how to improve my technique, and the site manager at the reserve at which I currently volunteer was sent an email with the same information. As a result I was offered interview technique advice and practice from someone doing the actual hiring in the area in which I am aiming to find employment.

I am also forever being offered advice in regards to applying for jobs, interviews and even being suggested jobs to apply for. The organisation you volunteer for has people who are paid to do the job that you contribute to for free. Pick their brains. Ask for advice. Take advice given. Show willingness to learn and the ambition to progress.

In some cases you can get more than just advice; if you offer up enough free time you can get qualifications that would normally cost you (First Aid, Brush cutting and Chainsaw being a few that have been offered to myself).

Karen vol 2

Building our first hide and boardwalk (Credit Ali Blaney).


Of course, volunteering can only get you so far… Whilst you can gain the knowledge, learn new skills and develop a solid contact list, researching any position you are applying for will ultimately give you the best chance. Don’t be naïve in assuming an interview offer means you’re nearly there. Ask advice from those around you as to what questions may be asked and what employers are looking for in interviews, especially if they are the people who would usually find themselves on an interview panel. Review the job description and research each role you are expected to play in the position, listing your experiences alongside if need be.  You’re selling yourself and showing the incentive to put time into learning more about your potential new job is highly favourable, especially if you might lack the employment experience other applicants will undoubtedly have.

Careers Advice, Volunteer & Internships, Top Tips