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Have you ever wanted to work for an organisation who’s mission is a cause rather than a bottom-line?
Since early campaigning work with pressure groups I had always envied people who had salaried positions with charities and other voluntary organisations. It seemed to me the perfect way to combine the causes I believed in with the necessity to earn a living, therefore the ideal career.
However it wasn’t one I got into straight away as I went travelling after leaving school and didn’t go to University until I was about 21. At this point I had just moved back to the area I had grown up in but felt strangely rootless after drifting for a while. I wanted to feel more grounded in the community, and applied to the local Victim Support scheme – at this stage I had no idea what I wanted to do career-wise, but responded to their ad for volunteers to support local victims of crime.
This was ideal for me as I was interested in community safety and justice, and my degree I was studying at the time was in Community Psychology so there were lots of parallels. In my second year I had to do a placement with a community organisation, so I was able to arrange to do this at the scheme… my involvement deepened, and I learned a great deal more about how the organisation worked. I was also able to undertake advanced training to work on more serious cases, such as supporting families of murder victims.
A year or so after that a temporary vacancy arose at the scheme, and being the only volunteer who knew how the office ran as well I was offered the position as their deputy co-ordinator. It fitted in reasonably well with my studying as it wasn’t full time, and I really enjoyed being responsible for aspects of the day-to-day running of the scheme: matching volunteers up with cases, liaising with police etc, recruiting new volunteers… for a tiny organisation, run on an absolute shoestring, it was an incredibly complex set up.
As graduation loomed I started applying for jobs in hundreds of different organisations, and eventually got the procedure down to a fine art – I written ops about this before so won’t repeat them here!. Before long I was starting to get interviewed, and eventually found a job in another part of London managing a new project.
I had no idea why I had been selected, and found out later that the project was so unpopular – seen as diverting resources from existing work, and managed by some incredibly difficult people - that no-one already working in the area had applied. So basically I was struggling with one of the most predictable situation in voluntary action: trying to deliver the impossible. The impossible, in terms of targets and outputs, had of course been blithely promised by the management committee in order to secure the funding to employ me, and this is the way it nearly always works – so the professional who has to deliver on the target (which might be legally enshrined in a Service Level Agreement) isn’t involved with setting/negotiating it in the first place.
Anyway it gave me my break, even though I spent the next few weeks cowering at my desk hoping nobody would notice that I hadn’t got a clue. After that I got out and got to work, realising that the lack of support meant unprecedented freedom and flexibility, and to cut a long story short I lasted a year most of which I spent re-defining and re-negotiating the whole project, including securing funding for 2 new posts.
Then a position came up in my local area, in a new Council for Voluntary Service – these are second-tier organisations which provide support services for local community groups, there’s probably one in your town but unless you’ve been involved with something locally you wont have run across it. I worked here for nearly 3 years, and really enjoyed it – providing development support to grass-roots groups, and developing my own skills as a trainer and project manager. However it also gave me a unique perspective on some of the very real problems involved with working for this kind of group, as a volunteer or staff-member.
First is management. Pretty much any bunch of people, with mutually agreed objects, can come together as a management committee. Provided they’re not disqualified they can act as Trustees and/or Directors if the organisation registers as a charity or a company limited by guarantee, and assume the legal responsibility for the assets, actions and activities of the group. They can never receive any remuneration from this work.
Then they come and see me and my colleagues, we help them get a good funding application in, and suddenly they find themselves employers – with every bit of legal responsibility that implies. Of course I did my best to do my job properly and offered loads of management development support and training, but as all these people are volunteers with other commitments they didn’t always see the value… until things went wrong. Stupid mistakes, such as failing to declare a family relationship to an auditor, or not keeping proper personnel records, can have very costly implications. I even encountered people who regularly exploited the level of ignorance in small, local organisations to make repeated claims of discrimination in recruitment, some of these people never needed to actually get a job because they lived well on the proceeds of two or three employment tribunals a year! If the organisation concerned wasn’t incorporated, this meant the committee members were personally liable, it was a hell of a mess, and there are evil shits who will exploit opportunities like this readily.
The whole thing with the committees can be incredibly incestuous – you be on mine and I’ll go on yours etc, it’s worse than the COT at Ciao! This can eat into your personal time a great deal as well, most management committees meet monthly, and I for one (having observed the consequences) would not accept the responsibility without becoming actively involved in supervising the working practices.
Funding is another perpetual problem for local voluntary action, as organisations from all sectors compete to provide local services. I spent a lot of my time helping groups to identify potential sources and apply for their cash, and this activity diverts an astonishing amount of time from the delivery of the service in question. The hardest job was always securing on-going funding for an existing project… unless you had the holy grail of a local authority contract there were very few places you could go to and say ‘look, this is what we’re doing, it works really well, please give us some money so we can keep doing it’. I spent a lot of time working with groups to re-package what they were already doing – file off the serial numbers and give the whole thing a quick paint job, then tout it round the trust funds as a ‘new’ project. Or better still the Lottery, just make sure the word ‘Innovative’ appears in every paragraph for the sake of it…
This leads to the next major problem – short-termism, in thinking, planning and action. Some amazingly good work went on in these back rooms and community centres, yet they were lucky if they could look ahead to 2 years of guaranteed funding. How could they ever plan properly, or make any strategic decisions? Everything had to defer to the struggle for survival, so how could they ever compete with private and public sector bodies (as they are expected to do for social services contracts etc)
So do I recommend working in the voluntary sector? Yes and no. Most of the time, I loved it, and it can be incredibly rewarding when you are successful. Helping save a community centre from closing, secure funding for a new refugee literacy project, train a health services user group to negotiate and advocate for their members, all these things are very hard to beat on the ‘feelgood’ scale. You know you are making a genuine difference to people’s lives, and it’s very exciting to be involved in setting up something new and radical.
The struggle for resources is draining, as is the knock-on effect of everything being done on-the-cheap. This has a knock-on effect not only on salaries, but everything else that costs money – premises, staff training, etc. However you do get a buzz out of getting something for nothing, e.g. persuading a local bank to get it’s staff to re-paint your shabby dump of a headquarters during national volunteers week!
As I found out, if you are flexible and hardworking you can develop your career rapidly, and always move on to interesting work. Had I remained in the voluntary sector the next logical career move for me would have been to a regional or national organisation, as I didn’t want to manage a CVS. Larger organisations (I’ve never worked for one other than as a volunteer) do have better scope for internal advancement and probably more resources to support and develop staff.
Skills from all sectors are always needed – customer service, marketing, project management, all are highly transferable and very necessary in today’s voluntary sector. Add some volunteering experience to your CV and you should have no trouble finding interesting, rewarding work, although you may find you lose out financially. Be aware that employment practices may be very different culturally from the private sector in particular, I’m not here to cross-plug my other ops but you do really need to gen up on equal opportunities in recruitment/interviewing to give yourself a chance.
Many people see a few years work in the voluntary sector as a kind of sabbatical or career break, or else preparation for semi-retirement, or a chance to ‘put something back’ into a community they have benefited from. All these are equally valid, so long as you expect to work hard (after all you will be pitching alongside people not getting paid), and don’t have too idealistic expectations… in local voluntary groups I have encountered some of the most bitchy, corrupt, power-mad and petty individuals I have ever met. I have also met some of the most selfless, generous and motivated people around too, perhaps this a vocation which attracts extremes on both sides.
It certainly has a lot to offer, however you look at it.
http://www.thesite.org.uk/cgi-bin/do-it/vbfinder.cgi – to locate your nearest volunteer bureau, who can help you find local volunteering opportunities
http://www.workingforacharity.org.uk – London-based charity offering training, info and support to those seeking work in the sector. No personal experience of their training but have heard it highly rated.
Jobs – see the Guardian on Wednesdays, entry level jobs often advertised in local press too. The Guardian is also involved in the organisation of CharityFair, an annual event in London (usually springtime), lots of workshops and advice.
Good luck, and if anything I have written has helped or inspired you I’d love to hear about it!
I think that this review is very good you should have a look at the review that i wrote about my voluntary work for citizens advice.
tartantribe 26.07.2001 23:40
This is amazingly well-written. Really highlights the pros and cons of voluntary work. I've done a lot of it, and you've really hit the nail on the head. Well done.
judithritchie 15.07.2001 02:40
i admire you for devoting so much of your career to working for the voluntary sector! i have always done
some voluntary work of some kind, i did friends of the earth while i was growing up but now im involved
with Leukaemia Care (op hopefully coming soon). I know when I qualify I shall definitely devote 2 years to VSO
so I can give back to society, be involved in using my medical skills to help people who really really need it.
really enjoyed your op :) jude