As a manager in a voluntary charity, I realise that ‘volunteering’ is a popular word, one of those buzz words which seems to be high on the government agenda.
For instance, initiatives which involve mental health issues or marginalised young people have at least a fair chance of attracting funding.
In Youth Initiatives, volunteering has been the backbone of our work for well over a decade. Though numbers of paid staff have risen from two to 18, it is the volunteers who have enabled us to keep going and have brought energy, dynamism, and creativity to our programmes.
From beneficiary to volunteer
The key for us has been that our volunteers are mostly young people who have participated in and benefitted from our programmes and who want to stay involved mainly because they enjoy it, their friends are there and they see the benefits for themselves and their local community. Most of our young people get involved at age 11. Once they reach the age of 16 and have been involved for at least a year, they qualify to be part of a volunteer team and can opt to serve in any of nine different projects.
We have three different levels of volunteering in which participants are expected to demonstrate agreed skills and character traits, from teamwork and commitment at beginner level to integrity and role model at the highest level, which we call Legend.
Having volunteers who were involved as participants has one major advantage – it builds a high degree of ownership on the part of volunteers. They want to be there, they actually enjoy it, and they get loads out of it. The benefits can vary from one person to the next. For some guys, they learn what it means to be committed and take responsibility. This could be just by turning up at 7pm every Wednesday night for a team planning meeting, or learning the importance of making the team leader aware if they can’t be there. Only good excuses are valid! For others, it is more about developing their confidence. For example by leading a game at a kids’ summer scheme, or standing in front of their peers to give out announcements on what is happening next week.
For all our volunteers, it is the sense of community that is important, a sense of belonging to something where people respect and value them, a safe place where it is OK to be themselves. Some people prefer the more behind -the-scenes roles and we have plenty for them to do as well.
Selling the experience
Personally, I’ve been on plenty of interview panels and volunteering experience on a CV is always seen as something positive. But you will also need to be able express the benefits of your volunteering experience in your interview. As an employer, I’m looking for people who are go-getters who will do whatever it takes to succeed, who are self-motivated, have initiative and are passionate about they do.
We have so many young people who come to us looking for a placement, either through school or college. We make sure it’s not a cushy ride for them and that it gives them a good grounding in youth work and that it stretches them. So why not give it a go? If you are looking for a job, why not try getting some volunteer experience in that area? It could be the start of something new for you!
Andy Hewitt, Executive Manager, Belfast Youth Initiatives
More information about the Belfast Youth Initiatives
Andy’s career journey
Law degree at Queens University Belfast - gap year doing voluntary youth work in London (learning to live on my own two feet in a big city!) – back home for a few temporary jobs: schools worker at Belfast City YMCA, youth worker at Frontier Youth Trust, Development Worker at Safer Towns Project, period of unemployment – applied for job at Youth initiatives and got it starting Sept 95 – then youth worker on other projects – then Project Coordinator – then Manager responsible for developing staff and also the work of YI in new geographical areas. youth worker on a music project