Work done by volunteers is valued at 1% UK GDP (c. £20bn) according to research by ONS and NCVO. Yet I could be forgiven for thinking, given the reaction from some people I speak to, that I’m doing something rare. It’s perhaps true that due to my circumstances I am relatively young/old to be devoting the amount of time that I do to unpaid work. Once regarded as the domain of the young trying to gain experience and the professionally retired because they had the time. I’m neither.
I’m fortunate. I don’t need to work full time to bring in the revenue I need to extract from my business to live day to day and to ensure that I can enjoy a comfortable retirement when that time comes. With no children nor adult dependents I have time to give, even after accounting for the many hours I devote to hobbies. I also love learning and need structure in the times when I’m not on paid engagements. Trying volunteering when I quit my last full-time job was a no brainer. It escalated.
When I moved from a corner of SE London to a market town in Nottinghamshire in 2017, I knew only my husband and a handful of his family and friends who live in a neighbouring county. I am terrible at meeting new people and having taken the nuclear option of quitting my permanent role with nothing to go to I knew that I needed to find a way of getting to know my new, now beloved home.
I did a walkabout and ended up on the shop floor in British Heart Foundation. Then I answered an appeal for Literacy Volunteers in my local newspaper and found myself ensconced in an infant school reading with 5- and 6-year-olds. Both roles went against my natural inclination to blend into the background. But more than that they each taught me about my immediate local and wider county communities.
Some people believed that I was just killing time while I figured out my next big career move, and one or two were surprised that I was ‘wasting’ my skills by working those frontline roles despite my academic qualifications. I wholeheartedly disagree:
I spent about the next two years juggling these and shifts in a hospice with paid contracts, getting confident enough to set up my company in 2018.
Then the world stopped in 2020.
Working at BHF was becoming increasingly tricky as my business became more established. Patterns in footfall to the shop had also changed since the local M & S closed permanently (people walked past the store on the way to town from the bus station, Marks and Sparks exit meant less people made the trip.) I couldn’t square off when I was needed vs. free, so I left in December 2019. After the Xmas party, obvs.
The pandemic had a direct impact on my roles at the school and the hospice, with them ceasing overnight for many months. Although I learned a lot from the hospice role, that wasn’t compatible with my business either because I was in the bank team, covering holidays and short notice absences. I needed a more regular commitment and so I now only support the charity with the occasional event or marketing drive.
Being a Literacy Volunteer had been perfect. It was a regular commitment so I could plan work around it. Even when I had a heavy paid work schedule, most clients found it difficult to argue against and so were flexible about me borrowing a few office hours and making them up elsewhere. Given that my paid roles focus on numeracy, I also found the hours spent on literacy a welcome change of scene.
But schools were shut for months, and we found out that effective videocalls with infants were not feasible - we tried! The school I was at did not want visitors back in when they reopened so I asked the CEO how else I could help while I waited for a new placement. I’ll talk about that a bit next but first want to end this bit with some changes triggered by covid that were more positive for my volunteering career.
In the middle of 2021, I became a STEM Ambassador because I saw a LinkedIn shout out for online mentors. STEM Learning has been matching volunteers to placements for years, but the move to digital learning during the pandemic lead to an increase in demand, hence the recruitment of more volunteers. Relatively speaking I don’t do many hours, but asynchronous text-based mentoring fits well with my business.
Finally, for six months to the middle of 2022 I was also on the voluntary data team for a menopause start up. A venture that I don’t think would have got off the ground so quickly had they not smartly decided to launch with a remote team. What I learned here is that a passion for the cause sometimes isn’t enough. They needed much more and in a quicker timeframe than I could give, so I stepped aside.
On LinkedIn, these roles without any of the context above might seem like I have flitted about and not stuck with anything long enough. On the contrary, in the four years that I’ve been volunteering I’ve already figured out what sorts of causes motivate me most and what sorts of roles dovetail best with the rest of my life. The best fit to date is where I’ve gone all in.
Rewind a few paragraphs and you’ll remember that when the schools were shut, I contacted the Literacy Volunteers CEO and asked if there was anything else that I could do to help remotely in the background. I pulled some statistics for use in funding applications. I proofread draft documents. I cleansed an old database. I kicked around marketing ideas. After a couple of months, I was invited to consider joining the board of trustees and started the training and application process.
I joined at a turbulent time. We had survived the initial devastation of covid on income by pivoting into early years services and thanks to the tireless efforts of the board in 2020 they had secured enough emergency funding not to have to make any staff redundant. I’ll spare you the details, but one month into my tenure as a trustee, the CEO left to be followed within weeks by the only staff administrator.
It felt a bit serious, and I initially wondered if I’d taken on more than I could handle. But then I realised that it was not so very different from bigger clients that I’ve worked with who were navigating choppy waters. I got to work understanding as much as possible about how we operated, so that I was better placed to make workable suggestions. At that point we were still meeting monthly as a board and remotely, so it wasn’t until earlier this year I met my fellow trustees in person. Mad!
The silence was deafening when the Chair announced that the current Treasurer was relocating. We cannot operate without one. Under ordinary circumstances the commitment of a Treasurer is not so onerous and right up my street from a task and skills perspective. But we're still in recovery mode and there's a lot to do - it’s easily a part time job!
Again, I beat down the overwhelm by remembering that once upon a time I had managed multi country, multi-brand analytics projects. I spent a day or so figuring out what our financial priorities are and wrote a plan. I’m now taking full advantage of a gap carved in paid freelance work to make some headway on the plan. The aim is that when I return to my business in January, my voluntary load will have shrunk.
I’d like to get a few more years in as a trustee across several organizations and may be try out for some other offices than Treasurer if the opportunity is right. In the back of my mind, but more research is needed, non-executive directorships are something that I’d also like to explore. Although being freelance does have its challenges one of the many benefits is affording me enough time to indulge these ideas. If you want to know more about what being a trustee entails, I’m happy to chat.
© Jo Gordon Consulting Ltd 2022