It might sound counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to get ahead in your nursing career is by working for free. No, you don’t need to give up your paycheck. It’s worth your while, though, to consider volunteering and putting your nursing skills to work for even more good. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nursing will see a job growth of 22.2% through 2018, which is higher than nearly any other occupation.
Surveys show that more than a quarter of all American adults engage in some type of volunteer or charitable activity every year. However, that number includes dropping off used clothing to a homeless shelter to spending days coordinating relief efforts at a disaster site and everything in between. That explains why, despite the best efforts of so many altruists, there are still many gaps in the services offered to people of all ages, especially health care.
Nurses are in a unique position because they have a set of skills that can provide immediate benefits to those in need. And if the simple fact that people need the services a nurse can provide isn’t motivation enough, the fact that volunteering can provide a significant boost to your career should be enough to spur you to sign up to give back.
The many benefits of volunteering
Most people say they volunteer because it makes them feel good by giving back. However, there are some very specific career benefits that make volunteering a smart move for nurses.
The chance to explore options
Many nurses take jobs that aren’t in perfect alignment with their goals or interests simply to get their foot in the door. Still others are looking for new challenges but aren’t sure where to start. Volunteering allows nurses to work in different roles or specialties without making a long-term commitment. For example, a nurse who works part time in a hospital might volunteer in a local school to get a taste of what it’s like to be a school nurse, allowing him or her to make a better decision about a possible career choice.
Volunteering allows a nurse to expand his or her network. A volunteer supervisor or co-worker could prove to be a valuable reference or even open the doors to new jobs and opportunities.
The practice of nursing is constantly changing, and even experienced nurses can and should earn new skills. Volunteering allows nurses to use their knowledge and skills in unique ways and keep them sharp and fresh. If you are a new nurse and need experience to bolster an application to an R.N.-to-B.S.N. program, volunteering can help improve your chances of admission.
Not all volunteer options for nurses involve direct patient care. Nurses can provide valuable insight to nonprofit boards, emergency management teams, communication teams, and more, bringing their unique perspective and knowledge to help create positive change and improve overall public health. In fact, many nursing schools look for students who have experience volunteering, because not only does volunteer work show a commitment to the profession, it provides unparalleled leadership development.
The chance to serve as an ambassador
Nurses working outside of the typical health care environment and serving their communities have a chance to serve as ambassadors for their profession, both educating and inspiring others as to what it means to be a nurse. Given that the nursing shortage is ongoing, providing a positive impression of the field can help inspire other like-minded individuals to join the nursing ranks.
Finding opportunities—and a few considerations
Volunteer opportunities for nurses run the gamut from long-term, major commitments like the Peace Corps and the Red Cross to smaller, more local options like teaching health classes at community centers or working at free health clinics and health fairs. Usually these options are easy to find; simply contact the agencies you’re interested in and ask how you can help. You can also check out volunteer clearinghouses like One Nurse at a Time to find local volunteer opportunities based on your interests, skills, and experience.
Of course, there are some caveats to using your nursing skills in a volunteer capacity. While nurses may carry malpractice and personal liability insurance to protect them at work, that coverage may not extend to work done as a volunteer, and it’s usually up to the agency to provide such coverage to the nurses who volunteer for them. It’s also important to avoid doing anything that falls outside of the scope of your license or certifications, and for agencies to understand exactly what services you can and cannot provide.
Still, even with a few limitations, volunteering is an ideal way for nurses to both improve their career prospects and gain the personal satisfaction that comes from giving back. So before you question the wisdom of working for free, think about all of the benefits, and start giving back to your community.