Volunteer value?

Volunteering isn’t perfect but…

Last week I spent a lot of time thinking about volunteering in all its guises. I had read this post by Brazen Careerist, was helping out at the Dublin Writers Festival, and also had something of a five-year reunion with some fellow Suas Volunteers at the weekend. Naturally I felt the need to express some of my thoughts in Blog form, but it’s not going to be strictly information related!

I could talk for hours if not days about the value of charity volunteering (and in fact I do!) – but what I am thinking about now is how continued volunteering can work to my advantage, but not lead to a cycle of exploitation. At this point in my career I find myself reflecting on the value of volunteering in a job search, the Brazen blog makes really valid points, yet sometimes I wonder how long we can all keep working for free. That said, it is possible to make the most of volunteering as a career building opportunity. In fact unpaid work, be it volunteering or interning, is becoming a popular route into the workforce. I was talking to somebody in a large multi-national organisation the other day and he admitted that taking people on as interns for three months was almost becoming a new interview strategy.

You get out what you put in…

If you properly research, contribute to and reflect on the experiences you have as a volunteer, they not only look good on the CV, they can be a really beneficial addition to your learning and development. And as written in the Brazen blog, volunteering can be a great opportunity to expand your network. In my opinion, the volunteer undoubtedly gains more from the experience than what they individually contribute. It is the combined hours of a consistent volunteer programme that delivers true gains to the organisation.

At the Dublin Writers Festival I had a few “I carried a watermelon” moments, doing tiny jobs that often seemed insignificant – bringing water to guests, wiping paint off a child’s coat – but without any volunteers there would definitely have been a small number people under huge pressure to make every event run smoothly. Enthusiastic volunteers eager to get experience are more than happy to run minor errands. At times I felt a bit more jaded than some of the younger volunteers as I wasn’t tripping over myself to impress anyone. However, it was great to gain an overview of how the events were coordinated over the week. I met plenty of interesting people between staff, writers, and other volunteers, a lot of them with interesting stories to tell.

Are volunteers being valued?

Another comment made to me recently by someone who has managed and benefitted from volunteers over the years, is that volunteers are often unskilled or cannot be left to their own devices. This is a major breakdown in communication that mires so many volunteering situations. Unpaid volunteers or interns are brought into an organisation, but their skills are underestimated and they are not given any significant responsibility or defined role. In the short term, it is understandable, but any situation longer than a week or two and the skills of the volunteers should be considered and put to good use. Those of us seeking experience through unpaid work often have a huge amount to offer, and would benefit from developing those skills within a clearly defined project. Likewise, the organisation stands to gain far more by meaningfully engaging their volunteer workforce.  It takes a little more effort and time to organise volunteers in this way, but in the long run everyone benefits so much more from the experience.

In a couple of situations in the past I have felt timid as a new, inexperienced and unpaid person at a workplace, and just accepted the work I was given, and spent a lot of time waiting around to be given tasks. When carrying out the work experience module for my Diploma in Youth and Community Work, I actually had to terminate my initial placement and find a different organisation that could accommodate my need to work on a project from beginning to end. This was difficult as I really believed in the organisation that I had to leave, but my time wasn’t really benefitting them, and I had little opportunity to learn.  I would strongly recommend discussing with the organisation what exactly they hope to gain from you. If they have a genuine need to clear some paperwork for example, then at least you will know that you are helping them to do something useful, and maybe you can graduate to a more specific project once that is done.

When is a volunteer not a volunteer?

In the past, I have learnt a lot from even very short-term periods of volunteering or employment. For instance, as an English Language Teacher covering two months of summer relief work, I completed 180 hours of face-to-face teaching, not to mention additional hours in planning and correcting. Knowing the learning curve that I experienced in that time, it really irks me to see the amount of experience that employers can require these days.  At the moment the Jobs Bridge Internship scheme offers employers the opportunity to take on an intern for either six or nine months. Unless there is a specific project that genuinely requires nine months, I feel that paying someone below minimum wage for longer than six months is stepping over the line from ‘training’ to ‘taking advantage’. After six weeks the organisation should be able to see how well an intern is performing, and after six months they are probably deserving of a little more reward for their work. These internships are supposed to be 30+ hours per week, so obviously the timeline and pace of learning would be different in a casual, part-time volunteering situation.

This has been a bit of a meandering path through some of my thoughts on gaining unpaid experience, it can be a complicated area and just one blog post could never do it justice, but please feel free to debate these points with me in the comments below or on Twitter!

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