Lessons learned from volunteering

Volunteering is a lot more fun than it sounds. It sounds vaguely similar to community service, and has a vague air of paying a sort of penance for your sins. This, my friends, is not the idea. Nobody’s going to make you serve tea to old ladies, or pick up rubbish from the town centre, unless that’s what you’ve chosen to do. Whatever it is that you like to do, there is likely to be an opportunity where you can put your skills and interests to good use, all while actually enjoying yourself. Don’t let anyone trick you into thinking that volunteering is boring, or something that people only do when they’re retired. Everyone can do it and everyone can enjoy it.

If you can’t find the money, find the time. It’s common to equate any kind of volunteering with gap-year type activities, where you go to Africa and dig wells. That kind of volunteering has its value and place, but it’s not the only way you can help, and it can get quite pricey. So if you don’t have the money to do anything like that, maybe you have the time to do something just as useful but on a smaller scale, in your own local area. For people who are unable to travel any distance at all for a volunteer activity, there are many things you can do from home. If you’re really strapped for time as well as cash, there are also many micro-volunteering opportunities, which can easily be completed any time you half an hour spare – or less.

Just because it’s unpaid, doesn’t mean it’s a charitable act. I turned down a volunteering opportunity after I realised that a big part of it involved working as a receptionist. For absolutely no money. It’s quite hard to know where to draw the line when it comes to volunteer activities, especially when you feel like you don’t have a lot of power to barter with. For this reason, it’s incredibly easy to get taken advantage of. Now I’m not suggesting that unpaid reception work is exploitative, but it is not something that I wanted to do without being paid. It was not something I could do in my spare time – there were going to be shifts and rotas. I won’t name any names but the organisation in question, though not-for-profit, certainly makes enough money to pay reception staff. And, in my view, it should pay reception staff. So, the lesson learned is that not everything unpaid is a charitable act. Sometimes you have to set your own boundaries so that your volunteering experience is helpful to everyone involved, including you.

By Midori (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

You’ll probably get some tea and coffee and biscuits out of it as well, which is always a good thing. (Top tip: you also get free hot drinks and biscuits if you donate blood. You can thank me later.)

I found volunteer opportunities through Do-it and Vinspired, as well as looking out for things locally and asking people if they needed a hand with these things, and so on. I recently discovered United Nations Online Volunteering as well.

5 thoughts on “Lessons learned from volunteering

  1. Brilliant post. I hadn’t heard of the UN’s online volunteering database so thanks! I’m looking for permanent work at the moment and I think volunteering is a great way to keep your skills up to date but also to fill your days – it’s amazing how quickly you get used to doing so little. I feel crap when I haven’t achieved anything all day and much better know that I’m doing pro bono work for a gender charity.
    Good call on turning down the receptionist role – that’s just unpaid labour!

    • Thanks Claire! I only learned of the UN online volunteering recently, but it looks great. Oh yes I definitely agree that it’s a good way to fill your time and stop yourself from feeling like a waste of space – I first started looking for volunteer opportunities when I was feeling incredibly low and beginning to think my life was all quite pointless – a bit extreme I know but it’s so easy to feel this way when you’re un- or under-employed :( Your gender charity work sounds interesting, I’d love to hear more about it.

      Yep I agree it was a good call – shortly after I turned it down someone made me feel really bad about doing so, like I shouldn’t be so picky and suggesting that it was my attitude that was preventing me from getting a job – but now I’ve had time to reflect I still think I shouldn’t have done it. When I applied to be a volunteer for the organisation in question I marked on the form what I was interested in doing – and reception was an option, which I did not tick – but it turned out that every volunteer basically *had* to do reception shifts. No thanks! Being a receptionist is a proper job that someone who wants to be a receptionist should get paid for.

  2. I volunteered in a charity shop after I graduated and before I started working full time. It’s something I’ve always wanted to go back to!
    Is there as big of a problem with unpaid work here as there is in the US? I know this is different than what you were talking about, but in my entire time looking for internships I never found a paid one. Although I think it’s ridiculous that they can’t pay you even some kind of bonus, at the same time I feel like I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I had if they’d cut way back on interns to be able to pay only a couple.

  3. I volunteered at a Brownie group for years and although it’s not the first thing you think of, it is the kind of volunteering that can make a real difference in a community even though it is only a few hours a week!

    Maria xxx

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