Transitioning from full time work to non-profit volunteer position?
November 15, 2016 5:52 PM   Subscribe

I am trying to get out of my current dead-end job and would love to get an internship at a local social justice non-profit that appears to have openings. How can I do this smoothly and get good references out of my current job?

I graduated from college about a year ago. Since then, I have been working the same job at a small publishing company, editing and working with freelancers. I find the work extremely boring and unfulfilling, and I also think the company itself is borderline unethical in terms of how it treats me (they failed to implement a pay increase that had been agreed upon, and a lot of my career here has consisted of false promises of opportunities and raises that haven't come to fruition).

What I would like to do, especially in light of recent events (particularly the election), is apply for a volunteer position/internship at a local non-profit. I live extremely close by (within walking distance) and I believe I am qualified for the position listed on their website. I have my resume in order and I've already written my cover letter. Long-term, my goal is to develop social justice credentials and ultimately apply to law school. My current career is doing very little to further this.

Here are my concerns/questions.

1. The application asks for at least two professional references. I am afraid that if I ask my immediate supervisor for a reference, she will say no, or might attempt to pull the plug on me and get me fired. Does this sound like a reasonable fear? Is there anything I can do to get around it? Basically, my concern is whether asking for a reference sends a clear message that I'm on my way out, a message that may have unforeseen negative consequences.

2. I also fear that if I apply for the volunteer position (which I believe is unpaid), it will seem entitled or otherwise questionable that I am working a full time job that I would probably need to give up. What if they ask me if I intend to quit my job? Will that look bad? Will I appear to be a nut for giving up a full time job in this day and age? (for the record, I have some money saved up, and I also would have no qualms about getting another part-time job to help pay the bills--I'm just concerned about how this will look, either to the interviewer or to anyone looking at my resume in the future)

3. Are there any other pointers you have that might help smooth over the transition? If it helps, I should point out that we just recently finished a very large project, so the work load is slightly diminished right now. I would not necessarily be bailing on anything huge.

Thanks so much for your thoughts.
posted by MixBarnbick to Work & Money (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Surely there must be a way to get involved with this non-profit that wouldn't require quitting your job to take a full-time yet totally unpaid position?
posted by kickingtheground at 6:11 PM on November 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

kickingtheground, well as I said, I hate my current job. I don't have any desire to continue working there, or at least not full-time. If there was another part-time position I could snag, I would do so in a heartbeat. Although, I have also talked to someone in the company about the possibility of working as a freelance contractor, which would probably entail more flexible hours. My greatest concern, really, is not the money, but my ability to transition out of this company without them giving me a hard time. And whether it will look strange to have transitioned from full time work to a volunteer position (even if I find another part time gig).
posted by MixBarnbick at 6:27 PM on November 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you're planning on doing this for a year or so while you get yourself together to apply for law school, I don't think it'll look that weird. Activism as a gateway to law school is common. Just do the research carefully to make sure you are a good candidate in advance--law school has become much more of a gamble than it used to be.

If you're thinking that you may want or need to get back into full-time work in your field after this, you'd better be prepared to explain it to interviewers. For a younger person, going full-time paid -> unpaid volunteer does suggest potential problems in the first workplace.
posted by praemunire at 7:51 PM on November 15, 2016

1. Yes, your concern has validity; don't ask your current employer. Ask someone who doesn't supervise you, like a co-worker who would keep your secret and people from past jobs.
2. No, just emphasize your passion for the mission, that it furthers your career goals, and (in the interview) your savings. It makes you look like a true believer in the cause.
3. Just give as much notice as you can, like 3-4 weeks if possible.

P.S. I think you should try to get paid for this internship. Interview question: "Do you see any chance that this might lead to a full-time job here? That's not an absolute necessity for me, but I'm interested in your plans."
posted by salvia at 10:03 PM on November 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

praemunire: That's very interesting. I would like to know what you mean about it being a "gamble." Perhaps I haven't done as much research as I should have.

salvia: Vast majority of your answer is a total relief. Number 1, of course, it a bit scary. Do you think it will hurt me to use co-workers as references instead of a supervisor? This is really my first actual job, so there aren't a lot of "professional references" to turn to. Also, the team I've worked with here is incredibly small. It's essentially been three people: one of them I think will give me a reference, one of them has been my supervisor since I got hired (and who I'm afraid to ask), and the third person was fired for doing a bunch of shady stuff (like passing her work off onto other people). Anyone else who I would ask doesn't know my work ethic as well, so they would probably be fudging if they praised me. I might be able to find someone who assigned me a task earlier in this job who I don't report to anymore (since I used to be more of a jack of all trades).

I should note, by the way, that this isn't a random non-profit that nobody would have heard of. It's the local branch of an organization that's a household name.

Thank you for your answers, everyone!
posted by MixBarnbick at 5:12 AM on November 16, 2016

No one would expect you to give a reference from your current supervisor; that is very rare. I have always used coworkers--sometimes peers, preferably people slightly higher on the ladder but not in charge of you--or references from older jobs. Did you work at all while you were in school? Those would also count as professional references--I had a part time office manager job in college that I used as a reference for my first two jobs out of college.
posted by gideonfrog at 8:18 AM on November 16, 2016

gideonfrog, I worked for a little bit in college, but the job was a while ago and it was also student-run. I was a student security officer. I don't even put it on my resume because I find it insignificant. I did, however, work with an animal rescue for years as a volunteer (which I put on my resume and mentioned in my cover letter). That was a summer thing, through high school and college. Maybe I could ask my supervisor from that?

Just an update: I asked one of the people who I've worked with closely at my current job (a freelance contractor on-staff with the company, who is definitely my senior in terms of position and influence) and she said she would be happy to be a reference. So all I need is one more.

Also the supervisor that hired me to do this job is technically not my supervisor anymore. And we just finished a big project together, which I was waiting to finish before I got out (to leave on a good note). Maybe it isn't the end of the world to ask her? I still have my fears. I'm mostly afraid that she will say no, but that's perhaps my own insecurity...
posted by MixBarnbick at 8:30 AM on November 16, 2016

I just wanted to say that I ended up asking this person (my very recent supervisor) for a reference and she was more than receptive. I submitted my application with references. I think it will go well. So I am marking this resolved.
posted by MixBarnbick at 2:36 PM on November 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

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