Career Resources, From Larissa

Career Q & A: 4 Tips on Making Unpaid Work Pay Off (from Moms Who Have Been There)

November 16, 2014 Career Resources, From Larissa

I’m easing back into work after a long (8 years!) time off being a SAHM. I was considering volunteering to get my skills up to speed but want to make sure it actually gets me moving towards a job. Any advice?

— Marian O.


Many moms who have taken time off when their kids are young find it difficult to jump immediately back into the working world. Interning or volunteering can offer a bridge back into work to get up to speed, build confidence, start networking or just dust off your skills. Similarly, for moms who want to transition to a new line of work, an internship or volunteer work might allow a peek into another career path to see if it’s really the right fit.

Whether volunteer or interning, what should you take into account when considering unpaid work?


4 Tips from Moms Who Have Been There

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1. Use unpaid work to sharpen your skills and get current.

After a few years of running after your sweet (sometimes sticky) munchkins and warding off disaster on an hourly basis — it can feel like your old career is just a hazy memory. Unpaid work can be a great way to make sure you’re up to date with new technology and changes in the field. Our very own social media guru, Jill Fella talked with us about her experience:

“When I founded my community service organization, Real Charitable Housewives, it started my creative juices flowing for what I loved in college and before having children, which was public relations, journalism and marketing. When I had my sons and stayed home full-time, I felt like I lost a lot of that connection and so many things had changed with social media. I started to see that I could still utilize what I had learned back at school as well as develop new skills at promoting my organization and it gave me faith that I could get back into the career world when the time was right.”

Mommikin tip: Since you’re unpaid, if you can, use the opportunity to take on something out of your comfort zone and take on something that give you the chance to learn as many new skills (or make new connections) as possible. Remember, you’re doing unpaid work and it’s important that you get something out of it too!


2. Volunteer to explore new passions and build reputation.

You may want to use your maternity leave as an opportunity to make a career shift. Maybe you never really loved your old job, or realized you have a knack for something new during your time away. Or maybe you just need a profession that allows more flexibility now that you have kids in tow. Volunteering allows you to test the waters without a huge commitment while also building up your working reputation. Marilyn, now a teacher, recalls her transition into teaching,

Volunteering for established community organizations can be a good way to transition back to the workplace. My volunteer work (in the library at my daughter’s school, mostly updating their system onto a new computer, and as a Sunday School teacher at the church) gave me some very good references for teaching jobs.

Mommikin tip: If you are looking for a career switch, even a low-level volunteering position can get you a taste of what to expect. Even if you have to run for coffee or sort mail, use the opportunity to talk to people to get a sense of office culture, work styles, and nuances of the job that can only be felt by being in the office. If you are in a volunteer position that’s close but not directly related to the place where you want to be, highlight the transferable skills and get reference from those who can vouch for you!


3. Make sure there’s “skin in the game” on both sides.

We asked the wonderful career coach Michelle Ward from WhenIGrowUpCoach.com how she advised her clients considering unpaid work:

“It’s such an interesting question about seeking unpaid work…reflecting on conversations with my clients, I often leave that to them when they’re looking for “guinea pigs” to test their process/results/offerings.

I coached my first 5 clients for free in exchange for them filling out a questionnaire after the last session to submit to my coaching school. After that, I coached for $25/session until I graduated, and then went up to $75/session. The bottom line, honestly, is that there often needs to be skin in the game for your client in order to get them to show up and follow through, so I’d encourage charging something at first, even if it’s small. Mentally, it allows the client to take it more seriously.”

Mommikin tip: If you’re running your own shop or doing freelance work and are considering to take on some pro-bono or discounted work to get the business kick-started, it’s important to be clear what you expect in return upfront, to both yourself and the client. What are the concrete outcomes of the job that I will use to propel myself forward? Before the project starts, outline the steps you’ll take post-project for maximizing return and get your client’s agreement for referrals or some other actionable item they have to spreading the word of your great service/product. For more on this, read our article about setting freelance rates.


4. Always evaluate and re-evaluate. Know when it’s just not working, and why.

Sometimes you love the field, have great experience, find a perfect gateway back into the field and…it just doesn’t work. In this case, you have to distinguish what’s working and how to change things up. Designer, Kim, shared her experience:

“I did severely discounted work for a company in the hope of getting more work in the field. As the project progressed, it was clear they didn’t value my work and didn’t respect my opinion on any of the choices I made. In return I was never able to feel invested in their project. It was a disaster, so I quickly ended the relationship once the final milestone was reached. Now I’m clear about what I want in return when I do unpaid/discounted work, even if it’s not money. Many companies have ways to repay you through referrals that may be valuable than the price of the project itself!”

Another mom had this experience with an internship in a production company:

I did an unpaid internship with a small but successful production company after a long leave from paid work. I ended up leaving after a little more than six months. To be honest, I’m not sure it was that helpful. It seemed to make everyone uncomfortable to have me being someone in my early forties with lots of experience and confidence in a position where I was emptying garbage (which I had no problem with) and not expected to speak up in front of “important” people, even when I had relevant information or experience to contribute (which was harder). I’m not a great networker in general/I’m kind of an introvert, so it might work out better for someone who is better at making connections in general, but I wouldn’t do it again in the same context.

Mommikin tip: Sometimes, you need to end a sour working experience quickly. If you realize that the internship, volunteering gig, or unpaid/discounted project is going badly, finish whatever you’ve promised and move on, taking what you’ve learned with you for the future.


Thanks so much to these moms for sharing their insights and experiences into working without pay. Find your passion, take your work seriously (and make sure your employer does as well), and remember to evaluate constantly.


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