Working for a charity isn’t enough

Recently I felt very proud to become trustee at the wonderful Mind Norwich and Central Norfolk. It was recommended I apply to become a trustee to aid my career development and get a better understanding of how charities operate. It has only been a few months but I have learnt so much already and would recommend it to anyone.

I’ve helped other organisations in a variety of volunteering roles – helping with collections, cheering at events, organising events, giving training for free and of course, helping their fundraising. But it is only when I became a trustee that I started to think of myself as a volunteer. It was the first thing I had applied for and gone through a formal process. With the other roles, I just kind of fell in to it – helping a mate out, joining in because I was already going to something or seeing an opportunity on social media and just thinking ‘Yeh, why not’. The formality of the trustee role has really made me think differently about volunteering.

Of course there are all the common reasons of why people are encouraged to volunteer – it makes you feel good, you help people, you meet new people, it looks good on your CV, you develop new skills, the list goes on.

And of course many charity workers volunteer for a variety of projects in a variety of roles. But many don’t – and it is a shame. Not just because they won’t experience all the common benefits listed above, but because volunteering for another organisation will help influence the work they do for the one that pays them.

The things I’ve learnt by being a volunteer have helped me better understand the volunteers of the organisation I work for. Things like how important an induction is, how we must give people appropriate information, how scary it can feel to be the ‘new kid’, how our role must be given context, how a role description often isn’t that helpful, how useful an assigned ‘buddy’ is for asking questions. And it has helped influence my day job in a positive way. I plan better, I think about my communications more, I check volunteers are OK more frequently. Oh, and I say thank you – regularly and with sincerity. Because I now know and understand, what it feels like if those things don’t’ happen. Rubbish. And a bit disappointing.

There’s also the inspiration factor – if you’re inspired enough by a cause to give your time for free, you want to continue being inspired by the charity when you volunteer for them. So we must make sure volunteer roles make best use of peoples skills, engage them with the charity, give them room to grow, make them feel like their making a difference. How many of the roles you are currently looking to fill, meet all of that criteria? I know I’ve been guilty of not meeting that standard in the past – but volunteering myself and going through the experience I currently am is keeping these thoughts fresh in my mind.

Volunteering is not just valuable for those in fundraising – I just had a conversation with a colleague who works extremely closely with non-fundraising volunteers and feels as I do about her role with a branch of the Cats Protection league. She said that by being a volunteer, she understood much better her volunteer’s motivations and how they must feel in different situations. I also think ‘back office’ staff, those in finance, administration, the mail room and so on, could all benefit from volunteering. Thinking about how important they are to the organisation and how we all play a role in giving volunteers a good experience.

If you work for a charity, often people do a ‘Ooooh you must be a great person’ face and deem themselves unworthy for working in a different field. But a job in a charity is still a job – despite your reasons for doing it. It’s not a good enough reason to not do more – particularly when the benefits can help your day to day work so much too.