Charlie Jones used to be found weaving through deserted London streets at night, taking urgently needed blood to hospitals across the capital. For nearly 18 months, Jones, the managing director of financial recruitment firm Orleans House, gave up his time – and sleep – as a volunteer driver for the charity SERV, which couriers blood and platelet deliveries to hospitals where they are needed during the night.
“I had mornings where I would leave for work as normal, and walk past neighbours who had no idea I had just driven 200 miles around Greater London, meeting relay riders in quiet petrol stations in Surrey, whizzing past a deserted Parliament at 4am; or making my way along ghostly hospital corridors to find fully-staffed, busy pathology labs grateful for the blood.”
He found out about SERV when he saw one of its drivers on a London street, and set out to discover more. “I researched them online, went to meetings, and began the training,” he says.
An affinity with a cause can be a key prompt, says Janet Thorne, CEO of Reach Volunteering, which puts volunteers in touch with not-for-profits. “They may be affected in some way by the issue that the charity is there to help with,” she says. “Or it might be that an organisation is really aligned with their vision of the world; they might particularly care about homelessness or social justice, for example.”
But there are other prompts, too. “People are often motivated by the prospect of using their skills in a different way and a different context, and learning new skills as well,” says Kristen Stephenson, volunteering development manager at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO). “Volunteering can also be a way to meet new people and make new friends and get to know your community better.”
Of course, volunteering can also take people all over the world. Accounting for International Development (AfID) is one organisation that could help this happen. AfID works as a matching service, where people from the accountancy profession pay to get in touch with charities in need of financial skills and training. A typical AfID assignment lasts between four and six weeks, although they range from two weeks to 12 months. The organisation has thousands of opportunities, including conservation, schools, medical clinics and support for entrepreneurs, and there is room for volunteers with all levels of experience.
Dave Busby, volunteer services manager at AfID, says: “We have people who come to us when they are newly qualified; they may be sick of doing exams and the idea of going into a full-time job is not appealing. There are retired accountants who still feel they have a lot to offer, and want to use their skills in a way that is going to benefit people. And there are those who are interested in a move into the international development sector and want to get a taste of what that’s like.”
The prospect of volunteering overseas can be daunting, says Busby. In addition: “When we speak to potential new volunteers, the biggest concern is whether their skills are relevant and whether they can actually be of help to these organisations,” he says. “But it never plays out like that on the ground – they always achieve more than they expect.” Indeed, their help can often be invaluable.
But volunteers also get a lot back from the experience. “I’ve always wanted to volunteer to make sure my skills, and time, are fully utilised,” says Jones. “I hate the idea of being able to contribute in some way, yet sitting back to let others take the strain. However, there are also huge positives for the volunteer: the people you meet, the things you see, and the places you go. I’m a more rounded person for the nights I spent creeping quietly out of my house at 3am.”
According to a survey for NCVO and CIPD, 65% of people who volunteered reported an improvement in their communication skills, and 59% said their confidence had improved. What’s more, it can help people to develop their professional careers, says Stephenson: “Trusteeship, for example, can support emerging leaders in developing leadership and strategic thinking skills in a boardroom setting. It could certainly be a route to moving your career on.”
Many firms have also realised the multiple benefits of encouraging employees to volunteer. KPMG, for example, allows staff six days of paid leave for volunteering. The group concentrates on skilled volunteering and social mobility projects.
There are many advantages, says Rachel Hopcroft, head of corporate affairs at KPMG. “First, from a recruitment point of view, we know that this is the sort of thing that Millennials will see as a differentiator. We also find it makes people happier, and when people volunteer on our programmes, almost all of them say it increases their pride in working for the company.” There are commercial benefits, too, says Hopcroft: “I don’t think we should be shy about that. It gives us an opportunity to demonstrate to our clients what we are doing in our communities, and that can be a positive way to win work.”
There are a number of ways to find volunteering roles, including ICAEW’s website, which allows charities to post voluntary roles and individuals to post their CVs. “The majority of the roles we have are for finance positions, but we actively encourage people to get involved in volunteering in any form,” says Gillian McKay, ICAEW’s head of charity and voluntary sector.
While it requires a certain level of commitment, and finding enough time is not always easy, Stephenon says: “There are short-term and flexible opportunities such as volunteering related to events, short-term bite-sized roles or even volunteering online.”
Getting the balance right is important, but when it works, volunteering can open doors to a hugely enriching experience. And once you get started, you might find it difficult to stop. After years of volunteering for SERV, Jones took on a trustee role for UK charity Medsin, which has just come to an end. “I’m already looking for the next opportunity,” he says.
Case study: Jane Crumpton-Taylor
Jane Crumpton-Taylor works as a steward for the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts and National Trust properties, is a school governor and is on the board of trustees for the Green Light Trust, an environmental charity in Suffolk. She is due to retire in September and plans to step up her volunteering. “I am talking to Butterfly Conservation about the possibility of becoming a trustee there too,” she says.
Crumpton-Taylor, who works full-time for the charity World Horse Welfare, admits that trusteeship is not easy: “To be a trustee, where you get papers and have to interact outside of formal meetings, is a big commitment,” she says. “It’s not the sort of thing you can fit in quickly in an evening.”
But it is hugely rewarding, she says. “It gives one insight into other organisations at a different level and from a different perspective. But what I have liked most in any volunteering Ihave done is meeting a whole range of different people and learning about things that you didn’t know you didn’t know about.”
Case study: Will Middleton
Newly qualified ACA Will Middleton spent six weeks in Belize volunteering for conservation charity Friends for Conservation and Development (FCD), an assignment organised through AfID.
He was excited about his trip, right until the moment he landed in Belize. “At the airport I was suddenly scared I wouldn’t be able to help them; I thought I might not have the answers.” In fact, he found he was well-equipped for the job. “I realised that, because of my ACA training, I knew a lot more than I thought I did.”
His employer, MHA MacIntyre Hudson, gave him time off for the assignment as well as extra time to go travelling. It looks like the firm will reap the rewards when he returns; he has gained a broad, intensive professional experience, and says: “I feel really excited about going back to work. I have gained confidence and experience and I feel empowered and capable to carry on and thrive in my job. If anyone is fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do something like this, I would say do not hesitate.”
Case study: Kit McCormick
Kit McCormick, a consultant at BDO, took time out to volunteer at llowola, a secondary school in Tanzania in October 2016. He helped to build a better financial structure and says the key to his project’s success was clarity and effective communication. “The most important thing is that you put something in place that is understood… you have to be able to adapt your message and your training to ensure they understand.”
McCormick had worked for more than three years as an accountant in a professional environment before embarking on his volunteering project, and says the experience was refreshing: “It’s an amazing experience that pushes you out of your comfort zone and once you’ve done it, you want to do it again.”
Speaking to Vital magazine in April this year, McCormick told Sinead Moore: “Chartered accountants are hugely valuable to NGOs – charities need reputable people. It’s a respected profession and it allows you to go and help other people that may need the expertise you’ve developed.”