Making a difference through volunteering

Penumbra are recruiting new board members to join our Trustee team so Spotlight caught up with former board member, Graeme Reekie, to learn how his life was changed by volunteering. If you’re inspired by Graeme’s experiences and want to make a difference in mental health, click here to find out more and apply to become a Penumbra Trustee.

My own volunteering story began in my final year at university. Working in the Barnardo’s charity shop on Glasgow’s Byres Road turned out to be more enjoyable and educational than the lectures I should have been going to instead. Even unpaid, it was one of the best jobs I have ever had. Getting first sight of fresh donations was a bonus, but what really mattered were the life lessons I learned about work and how to relate to people from all walks of life. The experience and reference I gained landed me my first proper job. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity the charity gave me, and they’ll always benefit from having a place in my heart.

Volunteering is all about community and belonging. It combats isolation and loneliness and connects people in new ways. There are sometimes fewer barriers or power imbalances between volunteers and people using services. This allows space for natural, human connections to be made and reciprocated. All of which can help people and communities to develop or heal.

Unpaid work provides us with a genuine sense of purpose, contributing to something bigger than ourselves in ways that paid work doesn’t often equal. There’s nothing quite as humbling as finding the skills, spare time or interests you take for granted being gratefully valued by others.

My second voluntary position let me share my skills, and learn new ones, in a lifechanging way. Using a community grant, I set up healthy eating classes. Sharing my passion for vegan cooking helped me get to know people in a new city. It even led to writing and publishing my first book. Sadly, ‘Teaching Your Granny Not to Suck Eggs’ came 20 years too early for the current vegan craze. However, the teaching qualification I gained qualified me for my first management position, in a community education mental health service. Teaching while cooking several meals at once gave me the perfect grounding for the training and group facilitation I still do today.

Volunteering provides a safe space to reach beyond our comfort zones and try new things. Because everything you offer as a volunteer is a bonus for the charity, nothing is taken for granted and the expectations on you are different. They are not necessarily lower – charities will still want good, reliable volunteers wherever they can get them. But they will often be more supportive in developing your skills, and more encouraging of new experiences, than paying employers are.

Years later, I moved back to Scotland to be nearer family and set up my own business while still working part time. There aren’t many part time management jobs around, which meant taking a less senior position, with lower pay and fewer responsibilities. I was worried about losing confidence and knowledge, so decided to supplement my job with a senior volunteering role. Joining my first board as a trustee in 2007 was the final transformation volunteering has given me so far.

I’ve been on boards since but, like my lifelong connection to Barnardo’s, a big part of my heart will stay with Penumbra, the mental health charity that helped me to retain my skills and passion. These days I work with charity boards for a living, but I still draw on the experiences I’ve gained from my 10 years as a voluntary trustee.

My life and career would have been completely different without the learning, opportunities and connections that volunteering gave me. If you are interested in starting to volunteer this winter, or finding a new role, it’s worth considering the transformations you want to contribute or experience.

Start by thinking about what you want to get from the experience. This might sound odd, for something that is mostly altruistic or about ‘giving something back’ to society. But a successful volunteer experience starts with being clear on your motivations and goals. Volunteering is a two-way street – if you don’t get joy, or even just satisfaction, in return for your time and skills, it won’t last long.

Many volunteers are motivated purely by making a difference. What difference do you want to make? To whom, or to what? What causes or issues do you care about enough to give up your precious free hours, days evenings or weekends?

Think about when you are free and how much time you can commit. Most services need volunteers who can commit to particular days or times, so it’s important to be honest about your availability. Don’t worry if you can’t make a regular commitment, however. Some groups offer one-off opportunities to help out for a day or for a particular task. For example, community councils and environmental charities like TCV have regular workdays which you can take part in without making a long-term commitment. Look out for other opportunities around Christmas, like carol singing for Health in Mind or Christmas befriending with Crisis.

Volunteering can be a gateway back to work or to learning new skills. Advice services like Victim Support Scotland, Citizens Advice Bureaux and Samaritans offer structured training and support but will expect a good level of commitment in return.

Lots of people use volunteering as a way to stay healthy and active, looking for roles that will help improve their health and wellbeing. Volunteering is often less stressful than paid work, but it’s rarely stress free. Think carefully about the environments or issues you are comfortable with.

However, don’t be surprised if applying for volunteering opportunities feels a little like applying for a job. Yes, organisations need volunteers and will usually want to bite your hand off for an offer of help. But they also have a duty to the people and issues they serve to recruit and train volunteers in the right way.

For these reasons, don’t be afraid to ask for a copy of the volunteering policy. Does the organisation pay expenses, offer induction and ongoing training or support? Charities that have been awarded Investing in Volunteers (IiV) status are worth looking out for.

Some organisations employ a specialist volunteer coordinator to recruit and support volunteers. As a minimum, you should expect to have a named contact and know where to go for information. Being given a good, welcoming induction and initial training will set you on the right path. Take the time to get to know the people, policies and place you’ll be working. Once you’re established, review your goals from time to time to make sure you’re still happy with what you are giving and getting from the experience.

When the right person finds the right role, lives are changed.

Find out more and apply to become a Penumbra Trustee.