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Why volunteering matters to me

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Frontline charity workers make a direct difference to many people’s lives every day – less so if like me you’re working in charity finance.

This is a copy of a blog entry first published on Civil Society.

So in 2002, I signed up as a volunteer mentor for the DePaul Trust’s (now DePaul UK) “Working Out” project – a scheme to support people who’d been homeless back into work or training.

So I go through the volunteer training, and am keen to get started when matched up with J. She’s moved from the Midlands to London, leaving a destructive marriage, and has ended up homeless.  We get on well from the start and J is upbeat about the things she wanted to do – my role is to help her develop some 6 month objectives and a plan to reach them and to support her in progress through our fortnightly meetings. Clear enough in the training, but the reality often feels like wading through treacle. Apart from ever-changing ambitions around work, our discussions often focus on other issues  - worries around benefits and short term financial security, regrets around leaving her husband, and some weeks I sense a complete numbness as she tries to convey how difficult it is to get out of bed or leave the house some days. How can I possibly help with these issues, or get her on track for training and a job?

After about 3 months in, I stop thinking about whether we are making progress on a pre-agreed plan, and decide my role is to show up, listen, and not judge or offer unsolicited advice. The support isn’t all one way – we laugh, J has great empathy, can tell and wants to know if I’d had a frustrating day, and I’m totally humbled and a bit embarrassed by how pleased she is for me when I get my first job at a charity, at Cancer Research UK. We spend many more months in our mentoring arrangement than intended, and at our last meeting J gives me a lovely card and tells me how much the support has meant to her. Despite this, and the time spent exploring her interests and starting relevant courses, I’m still left with a sense of a role unfinished.

In 2011, 8 years later, it’s a sunny day in Westminster and I’m with a host of colleagues from Scope and the disability movement on a “Hardest Hit” march and rally as part of a campaign against spending cuts. I hear a voice calling me, and it’s J, also out on the march. I don’t ask her whether she’s now in employment and a net “contributor” to the state. I can see a sense of purpose as she tells me she’s volunteering for a disability charity, and her pride in telling me about her 3 year old daughter. This, and our mutual warmth at seeing each other again tells me all I need to know.

I’m now in a role working with charities around social investment. Earlier this year, I’m at an event where Steve McKinlay from DePaul UK outlines their work delivering a Social Impact Bond under the DCLG Fair Chance Fund programme – a payments by results contract with the government paying for housing, employment and training outcomes for young homeless people, with social investors providing the upfront capital for the charities delivering the service.

Steve talks about the key issues that need to be addressed in order to achieve the tangible outcomes the government is paying for – providing emotional support and addressing mental health for individuals. And again, I’m reminded of the value of the voluntary sector – not to “get” people into work, but to help build their self belief and confidence so that they’re better equipped to do so, and as DePaul UK says, to address “hopelessness”. And I’m also reminded of my experience, and the still important role of volunteers – not to replace the front line professional, but to offer a relationship with a different dynamic, less about being “done to” and to break down perceived distinctions between people who are helping and those that are being helped.

Did my volunteering make a difference to J’s life? I don’t really know. But she made a difference to mine.

By Geetha Rabindrakumar, Head of Social Sector Engagement

Last updated | 
8 June 2016

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