By Liz Wolgemuth

We're a country on a volunteer kick. More than 4 in 10 Americans volunteered their time at some point in the 12 months ending in October--but charity wasn't their only motive. According to a Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund study, nearly a quarter of respondents were also looking to network. For some, it's just a benevolent way to make contacts, but for the nation's 15 million unemployed, the professional value of unpaid work could hardly be greater. Volunteering has offered a path for job seekers to broaden their networks, sharpen their skills, or simply stay busy, and the experience has helped lead some to paid jobs.

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Interest in volunteering has picked up at Feeding South Florida, a food bank in Broward County, says volunteer coordinator Jennifer Wescott. "With people who are unemployed or in between work, we've definitely seen an increase," Wescott says. "People just want to keep busy. They just want to keep from going a little crazy." That's no surprise, given the record-high 6.5 million unemployed workers who had been out of work for six months or more in March and the static number of job openings. Many fear that they are losing out on critical skills development, which only prolongs the period of unemployment.

Wescott encourages volunteers to use the experience to network. "You never know what you're going to find or who you're going to meet," she says. "When you learn about what we do, you have an advantage over someone who comes through the door, who has no idea what we do. I could recommend you, or someone else that you volunteered with could recommend you."

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A third of professionals under 35 who volunteer are motivated partly by the chance to network, according to the Fidelity survey. And often, the goal for younger job seekers is to fill a frustrating gap on their résumés. When Danielle Zorn, 22, graduated from Gordon College in Massachusetts in May, she first moved into an internship and then, in August, started her job hunt in the District of Columbia. Between job interviews, Zorn volunteered in the museum offices of the journalism-centric Newseum, where she chipped in with administrative tasks: "making copies and odd jobs they need done." The Newseum--a familiar name to D.C.-area hiring managers--went on her résumé.

Zorn started a full-time job in March. "Working in the offices there definitely gave me more learning experiences to prepare me for the setting I'm in currently," she says.

Some volunteers list unpaid efforts on their résumés without mentioning that they were uncompensated. For example, an unemployed marketing specialist might describe her unpaid marketing work for a nonprofit as "consulting." Experts say that's OK so long as the description on the résumé is truthful. "This is not to denigrate volunteer work," says Mary Agnes Williams, a nonprofit executive. "In fact, to me it's exalting it and using it in the same way as paid experience."

Some nonprofits find it tricky when people who express interest in volunteering are much more interested in landing a paying job. Donna Baker, the senior manager of operations staffing and training at the Newseum, says it's rare that a volunteer stint has turned into a full-time position at the museum, but one museum director is a former volunteer who worked his way up. His experience sets an example: "He didn't come in to network," Baker says. "He did what he was tasked to do and just impressed people."

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Most important to the unemployed is maximizing the value of volunteering, given the time it takes away from the job search. Small nonprofits can be good choices because they often lack resources and staff, says Mary Lee Gannon, author of Starting Over: 25 Rules When You've Bottomed Out. Gannon recommends that job seekers aim for volunteer opportunities that advance their skill set. "People think of filling water pitchers at hospitals and walking dogs--all valuable things that I do and my children do," she says. "However, if you're looking to be strategic to advance your career, you want to look to acquire skills that you don't have."

During a period of unemployment, Gannon volunteered to write a grant for a local school district. She had no experience in grant writing, so she took a class at a local library to learn the basics. Her unpaid efforts helped land a $68,000 grant. A second successful volunteer effort was for a grant seven times larger. Gannon, who now works as a hospital foundation executive, didn't see those efforts as charity but rather as an opportunity to learn new skills "at someone else's risk," she says.

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