When her second child was born, Gina Long reached her personal tipping point. Though she loved her job as a paralegal, it was stressful and demanded long hours. So with both regret and relief, she signed on for the title of Stay-at-Home Mom (SAHM). But that didn't mean an end to her working life. In between carpools and playdates, she volunteered for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, where her first task was working on a "Cookies with Santa" fund-raiser. Long's success led to bigger projects. In 2005 she chaired the hospital's "Festival of Trees," a holiday event that raises about $1 million each year. She did such a good job last year that the hospital hired Long, who'd been a stay-at-home mom for 13 years, to be the festival's full-time executive director.
"I started volunteering because I was so glad we had such a great hospital in our community," Long says. "But I found out I had a passion for this kind of work."
Long discovered that volunteering is a great way to get a big return on a little spare time. You set your own hours, pick your own responsibilities, and pitch in for a cause that you care about. But at the same time, you can give your own future career a leg up. According to the 2005 Volunteer Impact survey by Deloitte and Touche, a professional-services firm, nearly three-quarters of Americans volunteer in their communities, and 86 percent think that it has a positive impact on their professional life.
Employers agree. "There's a direct connection between volunteering and skill development," says Evan Hochberg, Deloitte's national director of community involvement. "When you learn public relations, marketing, or technical skills through a volunteer job, you're gaining real experience. Employers won't discount it just because your work is unpaid."
If you've taken a break from your job to be with your kids, you may already be pitching in for some worthy causes. But to turn your effort into an advantage when you're ready to reenter the workforce, you have to think strategically.