My Goodness

Serve It Up

In this terrible economy, where can I find a hands-on, do-gooding job?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it. 

AmeriCorps volunteers

Dear Patty and Sandy,

What kinds of hands-on jobs can a recent college graduate find that make a direct impact? Are there jobs overseas? In the United States?


Finding any job right now is going to be tough—especially the coveted “hands-on” job every nonprofit-loving college graduate wants. This may be a time to suck it up, take whatever job you can find, and volunteer doing hands-on work in the evenings or on weekends.

But if you’re able to consider shorter-term positions that allow you to gain invaluable experience for very little pay, then this is a great time to look at national service programs such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps. The federal stimulus act provided funding for 13,000 additional AmeriCorps members starting this month. And just last week, President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, creating 175,000 new volunteer opportunities and four new service corps by 2017.

If you’re interested in working in the United States, AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) is a great program for recent college graduates. It requires a one-year full-time commitment and places volunteers with more than 1,200 nonprofits and government agencies each year. VISTA’s focus is on alleviating poverty, and volunteers work on programs ranging from community development to fighting illiteracy. Volunteers receive a small living allowance, health insurance, and an educational stipend after completing their service.

The Peace Corps is a great way to get hands-on experience abroad. Peace Corps volunteers have worked in more than 130 countries on an extraordinarily diverse group of projects, from counseling teenagers on HIV/AIDS to installing water pumps. The Peace Corps is a 27-month commitment, and volunteers receive a small living allowance, health insurance, and a $6,000 stipend at the end of service to help with their transitions back to the United States.

While neither of these programs will help you gain financial stability, they will provide exactly the type of hands-on work you want. If you want to learn about other full-time service opportunities (and there are lots!), has a list of “term-of-service opportunities” available. TheIdealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers (available for free from the Idealist Web site) also includes a section on how to use opportunities like AmeriCorps or Peace Corps to bolster your career and includes a comparison of the programs and their entry requirements.

Apply soon, though, because everyone else is. Peace Corps applications are up 16 percent in 2009, Teach for America plans to accept less then 15 percent of applicants this year, and AmeriCorps has nearly four times as many online applications as it had in 2008. No one said saving the world was easy.

Everything Sandy says is true: Government-funded service opportunities are a great “impact” job alternative in this economy. Relevant volunteer work can also give you a leg up when you go to look for your next job. (Fifty-four percent of nonprofit professionals say that relevant volunteer work or a term-of-service position is the most valuable experience they look for when hiring.) I know I give high marks to job candidates with a sustained and productive period of service on their résumés. But sooner or later, there will be bills to pay and families to support, and you’ll need a more regular income. So if you can’t consider a volunteer-service stint right now but are committed to a job search with “social impact,” here’s what I propose:

Follow the money. That’s right, even today’s nonprofit sector, with its belt tightening and consolidation, has significant activity that results in new job openings for the right candidates. So follow the philanthropic news. Set up an RSS feed or follow a site that aggregates the top nonprofit news, such as this one, to help you sort out what and who is giving and getting new grants. (Last week the Helmsley Foundation announced $136 million in grants, and some will likely mean new team members for the recipients.) In spite of the downturn, foundations still have an IRS requirement to spend a portion of their assets every year, so new grants will keep happening, even if not at their previous scale or pace. 

I was inundated with résumés from eager grads when Warren Buffett announced he would double the Gates Foundation’s annual giving. But I was most impressed by those who were smart enough to figure out that the greatest number of jobs (and especially the hands-on jobs) created by Warren’s support would be not at the foundation but at organizations in the areas in which we announced we were committed to doubling our giving. Those smart candidates put their effort into making the case for their ability (and passion) to serve directly at the best organizations in each of the categories we already worked in. 

So, other than foundation grants, where are today’s new dollars coming from? Track the Department of Education, which got billions to support education reform. Where is it going? Figure out what nonprofits might be benefiting from the boost in Department of Energy funding. Track USAID’s grants and contracts (a lot of their dollars go to U.S.-based organizations working overseas) via their press releases and other news feeds. If you see a new leader announced for a nonprofit you love, a merger announced between two nonprofits, a new strategy declared by a leader in your field, or any other news that might indicate a change in “business as usual,” then get going! They may need new qualified folks to get the job done.

So my advice is to follow your heart but also follow the money, because it takes new resources to create new jobs. If you don’t get your dream job right away, take the job that is the closest fit and build the right education, volunteer experience, and personal network that will recommend you when “your” job opens up later.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

In our ongoing effort to do better ourselves, we’re donating 25 percent of the proceeds from this column to—an organization committed to raising public awareness about the issues of global poverty, hunger, and disease and the efforts to fight such problems in the world’s poorest countries.