Volunteering, a “how to” guide

Morning all,

Apologies that this will be a super picture-lite post. One of the hazards of living in the middle of a nature reserve is that the WiFi is limited in both speed and amount of data. If someone reminds me I’ll come back when I have real wifi and add in some more pictures. Also sorry it’s a bit late. Again, access issues mean posts will be sporadic for the next few weeks.

Today I want to chat a bit about volunteering. Don’t worry, it’s not a “thou shalt volunteer” post. It’s more of a general information post, but also a bit of an intro to what will inevitably be a series of posts about my volunteering experiences as I move around Australia, as that’s one of the main aims of my travels. I’ll try and keep it fairly generic, but all of the examples (and possibly some of the specifics) will be about nature/conservation/environmental volunteering, because I’m writing it.

So let’s kick off with the obvious question: why would I become a volunteer? I’ve vaguely split this into two sections; what’s in it for me?; what’s in it for the volunteer organisers?

What’s in it for me?

Volunteering lets you do things you enjoy, with people who’re interested in the same things as you. It may come as a surprise, but I didn’t become an ecologist for the glamour and money. I became an ecologist because I love doing ecology. I love being out in nature, I love discovering how nature works, I love working toward something which I believe actually matters. One of the best ways to get stuck into a subject like ecology is to head out with a bunch of other people who feel the same way and actually get stuck in to a project. Volunteering allows non-ecologists to do something ecological as often as they want, or, like me, it allows ecologists to break out of the office and do some work in the field for a while (which I’m sure is why most ecologists became ecologists in the first place). Of course this similarly applies to any other cause you feel is important, either within your field of work or outside it.

Volunteering is a fantastic way to learn new skills. Some of these skills will be widely applicable to many things (team working and leadership skills for instance), some will be highly specific (I know how to build a willow fence… Does anyone need a willow fence building?), and some will be somewhere in the middle (I have considerable experience using a cane knife, which, along with other similar implements, is regularly used in land management), but all are things which broaden your abilities as a person, and who knows, next time you’re with a group who want to build a willow fence, maybe you’ll be showing them how to do it. On a personal level though, I find a great satisfaction in learning new stuff. It doesn’t matter if that knowledge will ever lead to anything meaningful or not, knowing things is good, and helps to shape who we are.

This may not apply to all forms of volunteering, but certainly in ecological volunteering it gets you fit. I’m a person who finds the gym extremely boring. I tend to stay reasonably fit from walking and occasionally playing some sport, but if I’m out walking round the outback all day, carrying a cane knife and some herbicide, killing off huge Lantana bushes (as I was yesterday), then I’m using a lot of muscles which I wouldn’t otherwise be using, and my general fitness is improving.

Volunteering also brings with it the joy of going places and seeing things you either wouldn’t otherwise see (or you might have to spend a lot of money to go and see). When I was back in the UK I volunteered (occasionally…) with a group in Sheffield, who took me out to all sorts of little places I would never have been without them, often on private property. Here in Australia I’m currently working on a wetland which is closed to the public because its the wet season (though apparently not a very wet one) and therefore I get to see the reserve in a way that the public never do, and I also get free reign of the place without other people here. Of course this comes at the cost that a lot of the time when I’m seeing the reserve I’m also fixing fences, cutting down bushes, clearing paths, or cleaning stuff, but to me that seems like a pretty small price to pay.

A view of the wetlands you simply won't get unless you volunteer there... Or pay a lot of money... Or read my blog (though the photo does not do the moment justice).

A view of the wetlands you simply won’t get unless you volunteer there… Or pay a lot of money… Or read my blog (though the photo does not do the moment justice).

While you’re volunteering, there are also the unexpected rewards. You can expect a cup of tea for your efforts, but sometimes there’s more reward than you could possibly expect. Sometimes you’ll find that they’ll provide you with accommodation free of charge, sometimes they might even provide you with food as well. Then sometimes you find a place where they might reward their volunteers with a trip to some area of local interest, or they might have a friend who’s a tour guide and might take you on a private tour. There are so many possibilities it’s not worth trying to list them, but sometimes you just find incredible rewards for the work you’re doing because you love it anyway.

What’s in it for whoever you’re volunteering with?

The obvious answer to this is that they get a free worker, getting something for nothing (or at least very little). Not only this, but they get someone who is passionate about the task or subject at hand, and someone who is there because they want to be there. This means they’re often at least semi-skilled in the work, or if not, they’re very willing to learn the necessary skills to achieve the task at hand. A valuable asset for any organisation.

It’s also inspiring to see people out volunteering. If you wander past a local nature reserve and see a bunch of cheery people working away to make it better, you might think “oh, maybe I’ll give that a go”, or at least you might ask what they’re doing, and find yourself being educated of the nasty nature of Himalayan Balsam, or the new path which will make it much easier to enjoy that reserve.

It’s often a case that volunteer organisations will only have limited resources in terms of skills available, and therefore volunteers might well bring in new skills which the group can’t afford to pay for. In ecological groups these often involve either publicity or IT skills. For example, today I’ve been working on how we might rejuvenate the website for the reserve I’m currently based on, because the folks here aren’t awfully tech savvy… though neither am I, but at least I can make suggestions on structures for the website based on my vague knowledge of it from writing this blog (though the structure of my blog needs a good looking at too).

Who do you volunteer with?

Now this could simply be a case of finding the subject you feel passionate about, and seeing who are the main players in that field. That’s how I ended up doing some work with the (then) British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (now, ” The Conservation Volunteers”) years ago. While these large organisations tend to be well equipped, always active (and therefore very easy to get work with), and very well recognised in their country of operation and often abroad too, my personal experience (and this is only my experience) is that working with them can feel somewhat like community service. People tend to go with them to get some quick and easy volunteering hours, and therefore you will rarely work with the same people twice (in my personal experience).

An alternative is to see who is operating in your area, and see if you can join them. Most organisations have a website and are reasonable easy to contact. That’s how I ended up working with the Sheffield Conservation Volunteers. I saw they worked in the area, sent them an email, and the following Sunday I was out clearing rubbish from the Porter Brook. This was a much more friendly group in my opinion, as they were out each week together, and therefore were all good friends. I was welcomed in with open arms, and found that within their ranks there was a huge wealth of conservation knowledge, ranging from farmers to biologists, and bankers to opticians.

While I’m out in Australia however, things are a little different. As I’m looking to volunteer for a month or so at a time, groups who work locally once or twice a week aren’t a huge amount of use to me (particularly as my only means of travel is my legs or highly irregular buses). Therefore I’m now hunting for more established organisations who have a month’s worth of stuff for me to do, and preferably the infrastructure to support me through that too. This means government departments and large conservation bodies mostly. fortunately so far I’ve found both government departments and large organisations to be quite happy and indeed eager to have me join them. I guess people who are offering a month of free work aren’t too common, and there’s always something needs doing.

Well that about rounds up my post for this week. Sorry it’s a bit late. My internet access is sketchy at best at present, but I’ll do my best to roll them out when I can.

Until next time.


3 responses to “Volunteering, a “how to” guide

  1. A very nice and thought provoking post. I’m a UK civil Servant and in common with the whole UK government workforce I get 3 days a year of paid special leave to volunteer for community projects. For the past 20 years, I’ve always used my allowance and probably much much more besides because of the reasons you talk about here, the wonder of ecology, meeting like minded people, helping people in need and doing fun things. I have worked in special needs, community farms (learning to keep pigs was a fantastic experience!), bat surveys, beekeeping,veteran tree surveys etc.. The trouble is that many government departments don’t like publicizing the leave allowance because they don’t like the concept. Equally I have worked on schemes where I see vols being used in place of contract labour which is a dreadful turn off for those involved, which echoes your point about community service!. The UK seems to have a massive over reliance on retired people (I work with woodland Trust and the Wildlife Trusts as well) and I find it immensely difficult to get younger people involved with my environmental work. This year my Department has given me a junior member of staff that I can train on ecological and biodiversity surveying and that is brilliant but its the result of a couple of years of effort! I want to see more volunteering but the other part of the deal is that volunteers need to learn skills and not just be used as cheap labour…and a number of charities I work with don’t quite get that. it’s lovely to hear what you’re doing it sounds great!

    • Hi Nigel,

      Thanks very much for the comment. I’ve heard of these volunteer days in businesses a few times before, a few of the water companies do them as well (and I’m sure many other places do too). It seems like a very good idea to mix in a bit of team building, a bit of skill development, and some “off piste” productivity, and to get folks out of the office (one of my pet hates, perpetual office syndrome). However, as you say, the aim is not just for someone to get free labour, there has to be something in it for the people who’re giving up their precious time (and not just a cup of tea). I’m a great believer in the “I scratch your back you scratch mine” mentality, and that’s exactly what volunteering should be, volunteers scratch the organisations backs with shovels and rakes, organisations scratch the volunteers backs with (meaningful/useful) experience, contacts, opportunities, and privileges.

      I’d be very interested to hear other people’s views on the volunteer days Nigel is talking about. It’s something I’ve never been involved with, but certainly seems like a good idea.

      • In terms of the benefits, I think different people are looking for different things. There are people who want to increase their knowledge and skills (which is something I’d hope for), and I think there are also some people who are quite happy providing free mindless manual labour because all they want is to have a laugh and feel like they are doing something worthwhile (which again after a taxing week would also be quite appealing).

        I would speculate that the greatest barrier to attracting volunteers in the UK is lack of awareness of what opportunities are available, and a feeling of uncertainty as to whether it is for them, whether they ‘belong’. For example, are some young people put off because they see it as something retirees do?

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