What do we mean when we talk about volunteering?
In the strictest sense, a volunteer is defined as:
1. A person who freely offers to take part in an enterprise or undertake a task
2. A person who works for an organisation without being paid
So why do it?
Growing up in Canada, I was brought up with a respect for others who are less fortunate, and was told both by my family and my school that I had an obligation to volunteer my time. In fact, my school had a quota of volunteering hours that I had to fill to advance to the next year. I might have grumbled about it at the time, and been sold on it because “it’ll plump up your CV”, but to be honest this early exposure has meant that volunteering has been a part of my life ever since.
Back then, I spent my time in the pool helping to teach disabled children to swim. Since then, my volunteering roles have shifted and changed as my skills have grown.
While an engineering student, I was heavily involved with Engineers Without Borders, working to increase awareness of international development issues in my home country of Canada. During my MBA, I volunteered with the MEST (Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology) programme, giving business planning advice over Skype to a team of 4 students in Ghana. Through these experiences, I built a strong interest in the power of social enterprise which has ultimately led me to my current role at Big Society Capital.
More recently, I’ve volunteered with a few homelessness programmes in the UK, such as the House of St Barnabas and Crisis. I’m also a Director on the board of On Purpose, a social enterprise leadership development programme, as well as a Trustee for a volunteer-run international development organisation called MAD4Africa. This year I’ve also become a business mentor for long-term unemployed young people on the Prince’s Trust Enterprise Programme.
Each of these experiences has taught me so much – about how resilient people are, how positive and driven they can be, and how very lucky I am. It has also taught me about the challenges facing charities, with ever-declining budgets and ever-growing numbers of people relying on them.
I hope that I have added value to each of these organisations. Often it’s obvious – when volunteering in a homeless shelter being an extra pair of hands and a friendly smiling face often does the job. Sometimes it’s less obvious – when you’re sitting on a Board, you can often feel very removed from the realities of the issues. Sometimes there’s also a risk that Trustees feel they need to leave their commercial brains and skills at the door when they serve on a charity board, when in fact the opposite is true. It’s often those very skills that were the reason they were accepted onto that board. Other types of volunteering opportunities, such as helping out for a week abroad building a school, can also sometimes add a burden on to the host organisation unless the volunteer is well trained and knows what they are doing.
Despite these possible pitfalls, volunteering can be so worthwhile both for the volunteer and the charity. My advice would be:
- Try different issues and find ones that you’re passionate about
- Ask yourself where you would really add value to an organisation and focus on those
- Use your brain and your talents - don’t leave them at the door
- Get out there and do it. Once you start, you’ll find it very hard to stop!