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.
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.