Leveraging nonprofit work for your professional growth: My experience as a UX designer

Written by
Veronika Hnilickova
Published on
April 22, 2024

Starting my professional career in Business Intelligence, moving to Web & Mobile Software Development and switching from the role of a React Developer to a UX Designer has taught me not only that change in life is natural and can be highly beneficial but also how important it is to keep track and constantly develop in your line of work, more so in this turbulent and exciting tech era.

I enjoy learning new things as it helps me broaden or deepen my expertise, keep myself up-to-date in the field and maintain enthusiasm for creative work. However, I fully admit that sometimes it is difficult. One might get bored by reading articles (such as this one) all the time, watching videos about trends, taking online courses or trying out new tools they never really use in an actual project. This can get even harder when you are a junior worker, and you have to learn and grow quickly, fill your portfolio with super interesting projects and thus get the opportunity to participate in more interesting work or transfer to a better company.

Well, I found a way that might not be suitable for everyone, but it helped me grow immensely and learn a lot of lessons. Let me introduce the concept of volunteering for a nonprofit organisation as a means of self-development.

Understanding the Landscape: Business vs. nonprofit

It’s essential to recognise the contrasting landscapes between business companies and nonprofit organizations. From my experience, business entities typically operate within profit-driven frameworks, aiming to maximize revenue and market share. With extra money, they support their employees’ growth by offering language courses, licenses for educational platforms, mentorship, foreign conferences and much more.

In contrast, nonprofits are mission-driven entities focused on addressing social needs or advancing causes without the primary goal of financial gain. Using my skills to positively impact society brings purpose and motivation beyond monetary rewards. The organizational structure might be much looser. Due to the lack of finances, the innovation process can be stuck, and the budget for employee training is something managers can only dream about.

I exaggerate a bit. However, my main point is that the fundamental difference between these two entities shapes their internal processes and settings. How come a nonprofit environment doesn't offer apparent resources for self-development but can still be hugely beneficial for your career?

Unlocking Opportunities with nonprofit Volunteering

I got into volunteering quite by accident. When choosing the topic of my diploma project, I had a clear idea that it had to be a practical matter. However, I did not want to combine my thesis with my work in the company for obvious reasons. In short, I could not take a break from one another. I, therefore, looked elsewhere and remembered a friend's recommendation for the organization Česko.Digital. It would take a lot of words to explain the focus and functioning of this organization. Suffice it to mention that through Česko.Digital I got to work on an online dating app for people with disabilities as a lead UX designer, and my volunteering totaled 9 months.

Contrasting Experiences

While business settings may offer structured projects, nonprofits often demand customized solutions within tight constraints, fostering resourcefulness, quick adaptation and an innovative problem solving approach among volunteers.

Whether you are used to working in an agile or rigid waterfall organization, while volunteering on a nonprofit project you might lack a designated role responsible for scheduling meetings and monitoring progress. These matters often have to come directly from the core of the team. You need to actively advocate for sharing updates across team members, organize meetings, take notes, plan action steps, and share work. Yes, it can work similarly in many business companies, but that doesn’t mean they are winging it entirely.

What did it teach me? Teams and projects can work in many different ways. I can follow the established ruts, structure, deadlines and rules, but I can also create these myself. I can lead and manage a smaller group without fitting into the role of a manager. I have no problem setting deadlines for myself and keeping them.

Change Is Good

It can quickly happen that someone works on a specific project for months or even years. This can be a killer in a creative industry, as product design certainly is. However, what if someone doesn't want to change jobs after a year or two, just because they don't enjoy the content of the project so much anymore?

Volunteering in my free time greatly helped me with this exact issue. I got into a new environment, met new people and got unusual stimuli. I suddenly devoted myself to a completely different topic and had to research issues I had never considered before. On the other hand, nonprofits know you won't volunteer forever and won't get angry if you leave for other interests or a break.

Portfolio Diversification

Volunteering in the nonprofit sector can help you diversify your portfolio. Unlike business projects, which are often protected by a non-disclosure agreement, with a nonprofit one, you will rarely be forbidden to talk about it or present yourself. This gives you the opportunity to expand your portfolio and, in the future, express your broad scope when applying for a new job.

Networking and Collaboration

Both business and nonprofit sectors offer fertile ground for networking and collaboration. Here I want to emphasize that participating in a new project (no matter the type) can let you engage with professionals from diverse backgrounds. By exploring new projects and participating within different teams, one can expand professional networks and, therefore, fuel career growth.

It's not all roses, but it is still worth trying

I don't want to paint anyone's glasses pink; volunteering isn't just full of positives. You have to sacrifice time and energy and also kind of armor yourself against a different environment than you may be used to. Volunteering a few hours a week certainly won't save you from burnout, and it doesn't even work as a magical career boost. It's all up to you and your setup. For me, volunteering worked great in combination with a part-time job and university duties.

If you feel that your daily work life lacks enough challenge, go for it. If you just quit your job and can't find a new one, using this time to gain experience volunteering in the nonprofit sector sounds ideal to me. If you're about to change your line of work but don't have the confidence to apply for a job on the spot, try practicing at a nonprofit.

Volunteering can take many forms, and it is certainly not a forever commitment. It is a way to broaden your horizons, learn new things, develop new skills, and reward yourself by working on something that makes a difference.

If I've piqued your interest, check out the website with the overall list of nonprofit organizations in the Czech Republic, or head over to where you'll find more information about Česko.Digital and its projects and current open vacancies.

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