When Should You Be a Full-Time Volunteer?

Internships abound post-graduation, start-ups always need talent and many charities run on unpaid labor. The unpaid jobs are often exciting and grassroots, at the launch of a company or at the front lines of the nonprofit world, but still our own lives demand we pay down debt, we find independence and start building careers. So what does an ambitious 23-year old-do?

If you have the choice, do you work for free or do you take that less-than-ideal account manger job? Working for free can lead to full-time employment and can launch you into a new career but it can also leave you jobless, in debt and with some bitter feelings of worthlessness.

I interviewed hundreds of people searching for that ideal green job for my upcoming book and distilled down three critical questions to consider before you decide to work for free.

Who are you going to be around?
Will the position give you access to a whole new world of contacts or will you be meeting and spending your days with those you already know?

If the job you are taking involves getting out of the cubicle you may be better off. Whether it's representing the company at a trade-show, helping to coordinate an annual charity ball or attending conferences, the ideal unpaid positions enable you to either get a broad survey of the industry's social landscape or to build one or two solid friendships with people already firmly established in your field. You need to take a long term networking view as you never know who you are going to be working within the next five, ten or 15 years. Remember to consider context when evaluating the networking opportunities of a particular position. Chances are you aren't going to win the trust of your first investor as a coffee runner, but you may build a friendship with someone who can provide a deal-making introduction after you pack your bags and make a move towards the land of the paid.

Will you be able to teach yourself what you need?
Every job involves learning on the go, but as an unpaid intern you are going to have to know what you want to learn and to drive your own education. Interns are often undertrained and overlooked so plan for it and leverage the fact that you are working for free to get what you want. If you know that if given access to the company's internal workings you have the ability to learn everything you need, then working for free could be a great fit with your self-starter impulses. If you prefer to take direction, showing off your abilities through head-down work, you might be better off somewhere with more structure.

What is your exit plan?
"I hope they will hire me after my internship" doesn't count as a career plan. Do you want an introduction to a key person at a partner organization, do you want contacts or funding, or are you interested in launching your own venture? If you have an idea, as soon as you begin your unpaid position you can begin working on getting that introduction or planning your next move. Your exit plan should include more than waiting to see if you like the industry and hoping a job falls on to your desk. It should include ideas and actions that you can proactively start working towards while you're still at your unpaid gig.

Still stumped about whether or not to work for free? Designer Jessica Hische has a great flow chart on ShouldIWorkForFree.com/ that provides a much more cut and dried method of deciding. What do you think? How do you decide?