Should I Volunteer?
Authors: Maibh Shiels, Eryn Green, Martin Black, Amirah Muhammad
It’s one of life’s unfair paradoxes – how are you supposed to gain experience, if you cannot get hired due to insufficient experience?
For some, the answer is volunteering or unpaid work experience, but this comes with its own pitfalls – requiring time commitment, potentially eating into the time you could be earning actual money, and with no guarantee of paid work. Yet, it can provide exciting new opportunities, from meeting new people, chances to travel, develop new skills, to supporting a cause you care about.
We speak with four students about their personal experiences of volunteering…
“What price am I willing to pay for invaluable industry experience?”
Experience in your industry is invaluable. At least, that’s what many believe. Including me. But while it might be invaluable, working for free does come with a cost. Many students simply can’t afford to spend so much time working for no money. Including me. So, the question I had to ask myself was, what price am I willing to pay for invaluable industry experience?
I asked myself this almost a year ago now. I had finished the work experience expected of me for my Journalism degree, but the magazine I was working for was yet to set a date when I would stop. I was working as a feature writer, being published in print. It was a dream for me. I was getting experience in the industry I wanted to go into, advice from professionals working in it, and evidence of published work to go into my portfolio. It was, as I said, invaluable.
It was also a lot of work. I was going above and beyond what was expected of me to impress them. There was no way I could have continued my studies for my course, the unpaid work experience I was undertaking, and also have a job where I was getting a steady income. But I needed money. Living as a student – especially in London, where I was – is expensive.
So, when my four required weeks were up, I wasn’t sure what to do. Here I was, getting invaluable experience in the exact industry I want to go into, with the exact job title I hope to one day have, but it was coming at a cost. The cost was time. Time spent working for free when I could be earning money.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to make the decision. Six weeks into me working there, the magazine asked me to stay, and for pay. I was ecstatic. It wasn’t much money, but it was enough that I could make it work without another job. And there was my answer and, I suppose, my advice to anyone else.
If you can afford it, working for free for experience in your industry really is worth it, but there may come a time when you have to move on if you need more money. If you get to work somewhere, though, do what you can to show them why they should pay you. They might not be able to anyway, but they might. If nothing else, they’ll remember your name. If you have to pay the price of free work experience, make it worth it. Make yourself invaluable. Experience in your industry is invaluable, but you can be, too.
“People ask me why I would work completely free of charge… I would most often respond by telling them that it was the best thing I had ever done.”
In my year out before starting university I volunteered with Project Elea at Eleonas Refugee Camp in Athens, Greece. I found the project online completely at random back in April 2018, before I’d even finished high school, and on a whim decided that I would go and volunteer there for a month after I graduated.
Project Elea is made up of an ever-changing team of co-ordinators and volunteers: both international volunteers and camp residents. The project works to improve the living conditions of those living in Eleonas Camp, providing clothing and sometimes food distribution, as well as providing creative engagement and education services. I did various jobs within the project, such as helping residents build furniture and helping out in Women’s Hour, which I later ended up co-ordinating. This was an hour each day dedicated to an activity for the women of the camp, such as dance, yoga or informative sessions on pregnancy. I did a lot of outreach for activities, as well as doing admin for the skateboarding programme run by Free Movement Skateboarding. I dealt with sign-up sheets and permission forms, and took the kids to sessions outside of the camp. I would also lend a hand at homework club, and sometimes I assisted the children’s English ABC classes. At weekends we would run activities like bingo and karaoke for the kids, which was usually absolute chaos but always good fun.
Naturally there were some downsides. I earned no money working long hours and had to live on very little, often living in sublets or staying with friends. However, the downsides felt minute in comparison to what I gained from volunteering at Eleonas. People ask me why I would work completely free of charge, especially when the project wasn’t providing food or accommodation. I would most often respond by telling them that it was the best thing I had ever done. I think learning that you can do something hard every day without getting paid and be happy is incredibly useful. I loved the camp. I took on big responsibilities and thrived. I learned leadership skills, new languages, and grew my confidence enormously. I learned, at nineteen years old, to be very independent, which has served me well in the years since. Lastly, and I think most importantly, I made connections with wonderful people from all over the world and learned a great deal about the situation for refugees in Europe.
It has been a gateway to new friendships and opened doors to career and travel opportunities.
Me and Yannis, my friend I met in Crete, at Kazantzakis’s grave.
Over the years I had dabbled a bit with volunteering, from assisting at a pony trekking centre (driven by an obsession with indigenous American culture) to helping at an Oxfam music shop (the closest I got to living the Rock n Roll dream). Many years later, my wife suggested running creative writing classes for a project she was running in conjunction with a local charity – helping migrant women with isolation and integration – ‘You may as well make some use of that course you’re doing’ (I’m currently studying an English Literature and Creative Writing BA) – not sugar coating it with her usual hard dose of reality. Having always had a real passion for literature and writing, this was something I found both highly enjoyable and rewarding.
Not long after the classes finished the pandemic kicked in – during the first six months, I ran the whole rollercoaster ride: furlough, redundancy, unemployment, then going back to the job I had before the one I’d been made redundant from – I should have just stayed there, it would’ve saved a lot of stress. During furlough, I started delivering food parcels for the same charity, continuing when back in employment in my lunch break – the benefits of working from home. One of the packers was, like myself, a Geordie exile, and each Friday we’d speculate on how many goals our team would lose by at the weekend, and who would be daft enough to replace our useless manager (we’ve since kept in touch, and now every Friday, by text, speculate on how many goals we’ll lose by, and how long our new manager – the one who was daft enough to replace the last one – will last).
After the success but challenge – what with my studies, a full-time job, a non-sugar-coating wife, and daughter to contend with – of the creative writing classes, I was asked to follow this up with online conversational English classes, which I now run during my lunch break – the benefits of working from home. As well as helping migrants who have settled locally, I now have three students based in Iran. Now, I know some of you are probably thinking, there’s a certain irony in a Geordie teaching English, as many of you believe this is our second language too – Incidentally, Geordie is the original inclusive language, being way ahead of current gender ambiguity and stereotype concerns, as everyone is addressed, collectively, as ‘man’, for example: ‘Mother, man, have you seen me school bag?’ But, please be assured, I have a level 5 TEFL certificate, which I – regretting it at the time – completed during last summer’s Open Uni ‘break’.
It was through this voluntary work that I got a place on a fully funded weeklong course (Intercultural competencies for professionals working with Migrants) which was held in Rethymno, Crete, last August. As you can imagine, it was an incredible experience – idyllic coastlines and lovely, warm people – and one that felt like fate, as, beforehand, I had recently been reading the works of the wonderful Cretan author, Nikos Kazantzakis. I made another new friend – the guy who ran the training – who took me to visit Kazantzakis’s grave, and I got to touch its iconic inscription: ‘I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free’. I may have gone into voluntary work not expecting anything, but I have found it immensely rewarding, especially when I can see I’m directly helping someone. It has been a gateway to new friendships and opened doors to career and travel opportunities. You never know where voluntary work may lead you – it led me to a hilltop grave in Heraklion.
“Understanding your motivations for volunteering is crucial when deciding to commit”
If you’re doing an English degree, or know anyone who is, the running gag is the low number of contact hours we have. This isn’t to say we aren’t working – we’re often reading into the small hours. But the sheer amount of unstructured time can leave you wondering about the world beyond Shakespeare. During my English degrees, I volunteered with education and healthcare charities. Here are four key factors to consider when deciding to volunteer.
Time: Volunteering is quite flexible. You commit to pre-agreed hours, either on a long-term, short-term or one-off basis. Your time management skills have almost no choice but to improve. When I volunteered as a tutor with Team Up, an education charity providing in-school tutoring, I did 10 weeks of hour-long sessions. This worked well with my schedule because my volunteering ended at the same time as my university term.
Skills: The age-old conundrum of how to gain experience when you have no experience is (partially) solved by volunteering. Though prior experience can be useful, most volunteer positions simply require demonstrable enthusiasm and time to give. I found this to be true when I managed the Lewisham PCRS Twitter account for Humankind, a drug and alcohol recovery services charity. I wasn’t an expert on social media marketing, but I had done Google’s Fundamentals in Digital Marketing course. This demonstrated my interest in marketing and willingness to learn, while volunteering itself built my skills in a low-pressure environment.
Recognition: Volunteering is unpaid, so what makes it worth it? Organisations often have their own reward schemes to celebrate volunteers’ work, such as achievement certificates or a record of the skills you’ve developed. I received the Bronze SSAT Student Leadership Award for completing the volunteering programme with CoachBright, a social mobility charity. Additionally, your university may have schemes for recognising volunteers.
Networking: Volunteering introduces you to people who could become new friends as well as new professional contacts. Giving back to causes you’re passionate about naturally leads you to like-minded people and takes the anxiety out of networking (a little). You never know where you’ll end up and curiosity can lead to surprising, if fruitful, opportunities.
Understanding your motivations for volunteering is crucial when deciding to commit. Your ‘why’ helps to answer the more transactional questions surrounding volunteering: what can I offer, and what will I gain? In my experience, the answer is: more than you think.