Hey, it’s volunteer week (sorry, #volunteersweek), and as you know (actually you probably don’t), I do love to piggyback a blog post all over someone else’s PR.
Like most of us in the environmental sector, I have attained my lofty position on the back of some hard (and some not so hard) graft as a volunteer. Post-graduation, I found that my qualifications were not the magical key that would have potential employers in the sector knocking down my door (ok, I suspect I’ve mixed metaphors here. If I have the key, why are they knocking my door down…? Never mind). All that academic brilliance was of no consequence next to the huge, gaping void in my ‘experience’ column.
I asked around about this – ‘welcome to the environmental sector’ they said. And so I found myself bumbling about at the London Wildlife Trust as part of the (now sadly defunct) graduate trainee scheme at their Camley Street reserve (a space I now occasionally visit if only to point out to bemused members of the public that ‘I built that’).
I was very fortunate to have some excellent, patient, knowledgeable and perhaps overly trusting staff through my year of volunteering at LWT. When I first started volunteering, I was very much on the ‘careerist’ side of the volunteer dichotomy. I had a slightly mercenary view about what I was willing to do. Now any volunteering I do is primarily for the satisfaction. I have become a ‘hobbyist’ volunteer in my dotage. As volunteering develops, the environmental sector will see an increase in the former class of volunteer. As such the volunteering experience really does depend a great deal on the outlook of the staff that manage this ‘resource’. For starters, as soon as they use the phrase ‘resource’ to describe volunteers, you can probably be sure you’ve found a wrong ‘un – Volunteers are not a commodity to be calculated only in terms of their hours for match funding.
As a volunteer I was given the opportunity to expand my skills and ability, to take on responsibilities and new projects, to develop my own ideas. Most importantly, I was taken to the pub frequently. I can’t state how important this last point is for volunteer cohesion, retention and happiness. The way I was treated as a volunteer is something I have tried to continue in my own career, firstly when I became a member of staff at LWT and in every role since.
But the volunteering world is not all sunshine and rainbows, particularly if you’re using it to get a toehold in the sector. Be wary. There will inevitably come a time where your skills and experience are at such a level that you might find yourself doing, or being asked to do, things for which someone might reasonably expect to be paid. Don’t be kidded into thinking that as a volunteer, you should just be grateful for the opportunity and get on with it. Perhaps you should, but don’t ever believe that you aren’t in a strong bargaining position. My advice is to always ask what you are getting out of it and what you could get out of it.
There’s a bit of advice me mam always gave me about being nice to people on the way up – and I can’t stress this enough to all you volunteer managers out there. I’m forever coming across former volunteer I managed; one even recently interviewed me. This does further illustrate the importance of volunteering in such a small pond as the environmental scene in London. I really can’t understate this. People forever use the word ‘networking’ as a benefit to volunteering, but it is the friends I have made – friends who just happen to now work in different environmental organisations all around the country – that have been one of the biggest advantages, both on a personal and professional level, to my time volunteering.