Volunteering: some lessons I've learnt along the way

Volunteering, for me, is an interesting and complex thing. It’s something I started doing when I was 15 and have always done since, but it raises lots of issues and questions and sometimes leaves me disillusioned and tired. But it’s also something I find hugely rewarding when I go about it the right way. I worked out a long time ago that the work I love to do is generally worthwhile socially but poorly-paid if at all, and as such I try and do what I can whilst off-setting the cost through paid work. A reality that just is.  This means that my volunteering is a compromise time-wise, and means that I seek projects that don’t need a huge commitment per week, but that require longer term commitment. I can’t offer full time hours, but I can offer a year (or three) of me in bits. 

Working with a group of Nurses from Southmead Hospital to build and open a Hospital in rural India. 

Working with a group of Nurses from Southmead Hospital to build and open a Hospital in rural India. 

This summer I’ll be starting some work with Serpentine Community Farm, which I found out about through my course tutor when inquiring about potential voluntary opportunities for someone like me with an interest in outdoor therapy. She had spent the last 18 months helping to strip back and wholly redesign a local farm space in Buxton, Derbyshire, and was desperate for volunteers to help with the horticulture, but also to help grow the project as means for local community engagement and support for local people with mental, physical and/or learning disabilities, or simply for people to come and learn new vocational skills who might lack confidence or opportunities elsewhere. 

When I was deciding whether and how I could be of value to Serpentine, I realised that I was drawing on several years of lessons learnt in such matters. So, I thought I would share the distillation of those on the blog today as they could be useful to other people thinking about starting some voluntary work for the first time. 

Serpentine Community Farm, Buxton Derbyshire. 

Serpentine Community Farm, Buxton Derbyshire. 

1)    Don’t expect it to be a place where everyone is angelic, friendly and selfless
This was a tough lesson I learnt years ago. At the end of the day charitable organisations are made up of the same people as businesses. Granted, there might be a higher percentage of caring, selfless people in the third sector, but all people are Human and this means that at some stage you will feel let down by people who you thought would behave better. It has happened to me at Oxfam, Age UK and Samaritans. All great organisations doing great work, but put a whole bunch of people together in an organisation and there will always be those who want to get to the top, or who want to control the way things are done, or want to set up an inner-sanctum of favourite people that at some stage you will feel left out of. Once you’ve accepted this truism of people, your expectations will be a lot less freighted with unrealistic hope and over time you will last for longer in the organisation of your choice. 

2)    Get as close to the community as possible
This is an issue of two halves really. Firstly, you will gain a lot experience, satisfaction and sense of usefulness the closer you are in a relationship with the people you wish to work with (and working with is important. You are no one’s saviour). The further away you are from the people who count, buried in logistics and politics, the harder it is, in my experience, to maintain a love for the work. Remember – you’re doing this for free. But whether you’re paid or not the people you’re working with will likely want your commitment, so if you do something and then immediately get frustrated, bored and angry then you’ll leave and the training investment in you will be a waste to organisations or communities that can least afford it. So related to this is do your homework before committing. Do you have a skills match? Does the commitment suit what you can manage? Secondly, volunteering brings value when you build relationships with people and help to set up sustainable systems. Not when you pay someone else lots of money to take you somewhere exotic, get some great photos with ‘the poor and needy’ and then leave again. I’m a big believer in local community work for this reason. It’s not as sexy and glamorous, but you have the chance to build stronger links overtime with a better understanding of what’s needed on your doorstep. Bringing value isn’t about flying into a place and reaffirming stereotypes about the needy developing world, and the white saviours from the west. It’s about working with people in communities to do it for themselves. Whether that’s helping build infrastructure or helping individuals learn to cope with mental illness. Of course, I'm talking specifically here about working with people for people, but the same will be true of environmental/animal work I'm sure. 

3)    The most needed projects aren’t necessarily the sexiest
The inescapable fact is that some of the most important jobs in society are not sexy. Think of the night shift workers in a care home for the elderly. The awesome folk who empty your bins and sort your waste. The nurses working a late in A&E on a Friday night clearing up sick when everyone else is out partying or having a quiet night in. Often the most disadvantaged people who really need advocacy and support are marginalised by society or generally forgotten in the scrum. This might be a far cry from English teaching, school building or turtle counting but it is very necessary work. For as long as I can remember I have wanted to get some experience working in Africa but several degrees later I am still waiting for an opportunity where I can bring real value, not just to sign up for an ‘experience’ that will benefit me more than it will the people I want to work with. In reality, there is so much to be done in the nooks and crannies of our own communities and some of it might lack the wow-power of international aid work, but it is still vital and necessary and worth looking in to. That’s not to say there isn’t wonderful work to be done abroad – as I say, I’m still on the lookout for what I can do within my current constraints – but international work in beautiful places is not the only work to be done. The uncomfortable truth is that sometimes your money, or your help with marketing and awareness raising at home is more important than your presence on the ground in that beautiful place you saw on social media. What are your unique skills? Where do they bring value the most even if they’re not so sexy? You can bet they’ll be important somewhere! Then one day when sexiness and skills match you're on to a winner ;-)

4)    It’s important to rest. 
Some roles are demanding both physically and mentally. After 2.5 years on the phones, in prisons and running half marathons with The Samaritans I was on my knees emotionally. I went in hard several days a week on top of my full time day job and growing small business, and I burnt out. I got to the point where I couldn’t take another phone call listening to someone else’s despair. It was too hard. I worried about them too much. I got too furious with the prank sex calls. So I took a break, a really long break and I allowed myself the time to reconfigure before taking my next steps. It’s important that you try and avoid care-fatigue and remember that it’s much easier to look out for others when you are healthy yourself. Self-care is ok! Frankly, you can get carried away trying to do amazing things and there comes a point where you have to ask yourself who you’re doing it for – you or them. I’m not a believer in altruism and know that voluntary work will always tick a ‘makes me happy’ box, but on balance I think it should probably be a greater service to those you’re working with, and to be effective you do need to maintain your own well-being along the way. 

A phone not a calculator. Great North Run. 

A phone not a calculator. Great North Run. 

Clearly, there is so much more to say on this topic - I could talk about it for hours - but this is just a few thoughts of mine that might help you make some choices in the future if you don't know where to start looking for opportunities that you can get involved in. 

Have you volunteered in the past? What lessons did you learn? I'd love to hear about your own experiences on here or Instagram!