I volunteer. It sounds nice. Looks good on your CV, and there is always that sense of satisfaction when you get to say it out-loud to someone else. The word ‘volunteer’ holds about as much romantic resonance as telling someone you climbed Mt Fuji last summer…well, not exactly, but it makes you sound like a ‘good’ person. When we think of volunteering we unwittingly relate images of blissful hard-labor, being carried out by young, fit, helping hands. Sometimes there is even a spade, red soil, usually a well, and almost always – it’s somewhere sunny and distant.
I began volunteering with Computer Aid just over a month ago. Remember the ‘teach a man to fish’ ad? Yes; of course you do. Well this is the premise behind Computer Aid; except let’s swap fishing for ICT, (stay with me folks). This unassuming NGO, from the suburbs of London, takes your old donated computer, refurbishes it, wipes any existing data and sends it for re-use to other NGO’s, schools and hospitals around the developing world. Every PC is asset tracked; so you can find out exactly what project you are helping, and to what country your jet-setting PC has travelled to. Now; I know what you’re thinking – people can’t eat computers or use them to farm. After just the first day of volunteering, this pre-conception was disproved for me. Well, sort of. Let me begin by dodging some serious legal repercussions and confirm that: no, you cannot eat a PC. But ICT is an invaluable tool for farmers in developing countries…and doctors…and students.
As a volunteer this does not mean that I and the team travel to the likes of Kenya or Chile with PCs for donation. I was hired for an administrative role and to carry out support functions for the Fundraising Department. However, every day since beginning at Computer Aid has been different and, (without sounding too much like an encyclopedia salesman), not a day passes when I don’t learn something new about the workings of an NGO. Since joining I have taken part in a number of projects current to Computer Aid including fundraising for the EMAP awards, attended the Sustainability Live Exhibition and helped raise Computer Aid’s online Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter profiles. Which leads me to my first point of advice for charity pilgrims…
My advice to those seeking to undertake NGO/ charity work:
If you are serious about entering the charity sector, than volunteering can actually be a better starting point than scoring a paid position. Paid employment within a charity may not necessarily allow you to engage with different people or departments in an NGO. What do I mean? Let’s imagine you’re hired as Communications Assistant, but you find yourself interested in what Steve does – the guy with the laissez-faire dress-code, who just returned from a Project Management inParaguay. Crossover is less possible in paid employment because you’re paid a salary to do something specific. When volunteering, there are generally many great opportunities to get involved, across different departments. Since starting at Computer Aid the entire team has been open to my inclusion wherever possible. For example, on Tuesday, I spent the morning on fundraising for an up-coming event and the afternoon on communications research. For this reason volunteering is also a great place to start if you’re not entirely sure what specific role you want to undertake in the development/ charity sector. Volunteering genuinely does deliver a wider understanding of an organization’s work, especially if you enter the right organisation.
When seeking to volunteer, remember that larger renowned organizations do not necessarily offer more constructive experience. Although it’s always nice to point to charity spokespeople on television and say – ‘I work with him’ in your coolest, nonchalant tone, you might not learn as much in the long run. You might find that the larger the organization is, the further removed you are from the process you wish to be involved in. In the past, I volunteered with one of the most internationally renowned NGO’s (whose name I daren’t mention out of respect). Despite my enduring admiration for their cause, I only gained a faint understanding of their work because the chain of employment was so long. Despite each of their executive workloads everyone at Computer Aid (a small-to-medium sized company), is ever-ready to take time out and offer guidance to myself and the other volunteers. Inductions have been scheduled with departmental heads where possible so that I can see how their specific duties feed directly into the process of transferring ICT to a school inZambia. I was even given a tour of the factory floor where 1000’s of donated computers are fixed by Computer Aid staff and volunteers.
There is also the obvious truth: that you work with people who share certain values, want to make a difference and (aside from a common love of humus), are some of the nicest folk you’ll meet. I cannot vouch for all charity staff but the team at Computer Aid is as welcoming, friendly and encouraging as their website profiles suggest. Oh, and there is that thing about ‘giving back’ and feeling good about it. Make sure you get behind a cause that is important to you because it really does affect your work. I have always wanted to work in the realm of sustainable development (I know – if you had a nickel for every doe-eyed youth who uttered these words…anyway). But I wanted to ‘work’; not necessarily volunteer. Like almost every idealistic post-graduate, upon leaving university, there was nothing I wanted to do more than: ‘help’. Given the wave of young people that shared my dream the jobs-to-applicants ratio was bleak. My only advice to people in the same situation (and I’m sure you are many), is to begin by volunteering. Please do not look at volunteer work as being short-changed; if you enter the right organization you will soon discover how valuable volunteer experience can be.
Now: I know; there are probably a few buzz words you would like to throw at me at this point, like ‘rent’, ‘bills’, (and some negative slang for ignoring the obvious human need for money thus far). I assure you that I am in the same boat financially…the same, tiny, ready-to-capsize boat. If, like me, you do engage in the luxuries of eating, using the bus and keeping the landlady happy – volunteer part-time. There are charities and NGO’s out there that let you volunteer whatever time you can, including evenings and weekends. Everyone needs to begin somewhere,
As a warm thanks for your avid reading I have included a list of volunteering websites below.
(Please note that the following sites are mainly for UK residents; but if you are reading this from abroad and want advise please write to me and I will do my utmost to help).
http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/HomeAndCommunity/Gettinginvolvedinyourcommunity/Volunteering/DG_064405 – great because: as it says on the tin (tin in this case meaning ‘url’), you can search for volunteer positions in your local community, hopefully reducing travel costs and directly improving your local area.
http://charityguide.org/ – great because: your volunteer-flexi-time prayers are answered on this website – if you are trying to hold down a full-time job but still want to try a few hours a week.
http://jobs.guardian.co.uk/jobs/volunteering/ – great because: you get a comprehensive understanding of the role you will be entering rather than lucrative and brief job descriptions beginning with words ‘Help wanted’. (Also where I found Computer Aid!)
Christina Constantino, Computer Aid corporate and events intern