Voluntary work: The benefit of a helping hand

Volunteering gives graduates the chance to give something back to the community - and pick up valuable experience on the way. By Kate Hilpern
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The Independent Online

Employers report that it is increasingly hard to find graduates with the right combination of skills including team working, problem-solving, communication and leadership, according to the latest survey from the Association of Graduate Recruiters. The good news is that all of these skills, and more, can be gained through work experience in the voluntary or charity sector.

"There are a number of benefits for the graduate - developing one's social and cultural awareness and improving self-confidence," says Wendy Duprey, divisional leader of Pathfinders Recruitment. "The experience is also an opportunity to acquire new skills and get a feel for the world of work. And in terms of employability, having this kind of experience on your CV will always work to your advantage."

Research shows that three-quarters of employers prefer taking people on who have volunteering experience (which, contrary to the literal meaning, can sometimes bring a small wage), and even more (79 per cent) say these graduates progress much quicker than those with no volunteering experience. "People learn to come out of their shells and to deal with challenges they don't face in the lecture theatre," says Jason Tanner, a spokesman for CSV (Community Service Volunteers). "If you're faced with a room of homeless people or young offenders, for example, you have to think quickly and use a different set of resources and skills to work with them."

Little wonder that many graduates are deciding to take a gap year - or at least a few months - following university to undertake volunteering placements.

"We offer UK opportunities ranging from four to 12 months," says Tanner. These graduates are expected to live away from home and can opt to work with groups ranging from drug users to children with special needs. "We get a lot of people who have some idea about what they want to do for a living - perhaps social work - and they want confirmation that it's right for them," he says. "You also get people thinking about becoming lawyers, who want to be better connected with people who encounter the justice system."

Mia Taylor, 22, volunteered for five months after university supporting pupils with learning difficulties at a secondary school in Forfar, Angus. "The experience really helped me decide what to do with my life and my ambition is now to get a postgraduate diploma specialising in autism," she says. Like many graduate volunteers, she found the work enormously rewarding. "One girl with autism wouldn't let anyone touch her hair but I bonded with her and in the end, I was able to tie her hair in bunches."

Taylor left university - as many graduates do - with student loans and an overdraft, and felt that an overseas placement would be unfeasible. "A major reason why I chose to volunteer with CSV was the financial support that I received - accommodation costs all paid for and you get a small living allowance."

Nevertheless, there are opportunities abroad where graduates need not worry about funding their placements. Bunac and Camp America are among organisations that offer highly structured overseas experiences working with young people, which are valued by graduate employers. Meanwhile, the international development charity VSO runs two relevant programmes for graduates - Youth for Development and Global Xchange - whereby graduates get the opportunity to live and work in another country and receive before-and-after departure training, travel, medical insurance, accommodation plus a living allowance.

Sanchayeeta Lyer, a deaf 25-year-old, worked with the Federation of the Deaf in the Philippines through VSO. "With the education and benefits I gained from the UK, I was able to bring a different insight into the Filipino deaf community. I initiated a reproductive health project and a theatre project," she says.

Meanwhile, she found the experience broadened her own horizons, increasing her confidence levels and making her realise her limitations.

Madelaine Hodge, 22, paid for her volunteering experience overseas, but hasn't looked back. "I went on a Global Vision International expedition to Mexico, where I worked with corals. It was brilliant and reassured me that I want to do a Masters in marine environmental management and then go on to work for a marine conservation company," she says. "I saved up £5,000 - £2,000 for the 10-week voluntary project and the rest for travel and some extra dive courses. It's a lot, but it covers all your food and accommodation and was still cheaper than if I'd gone on a diving holiday of that length. There was the added bonus of knowing you've done something really worthwhile."

One of the fastest growing areas of opportunity for graduates willing to give up chunks of time after university are in charities such as Christian Aid, Mencap and Cancer Research. "At Cancer Research, we offer structured 12-week internship schemes," says Annette Breeden, head of volunteering. "They aren't paid, but the interns are taken on for a specific project-based role. They get a two-day induction, where they identify their goals and they are then passed onto the relevant department, where they get a further induction and one-to-ones with mentors to check their learning goals are being achieved and that they are getting out of the placement what they expected."

Kate Reynolds, a 24-year-old graduate in biology and psychology, was amazed at the breadth of roles. "The project I worked on was in the retail department and I was taken on to redesign the window display guidelines, but I learned a lot about what other jobs exist in this sector too," she says.

For graduates after more flexibility, most voluntary and charity organisations offer the chance to dip in and out. Many higher education institutions now have their own co-ordinators, linking graduates to organisations. "Gone are the days when volunteering was seen as purely altruistic. It's quite acceptable to be honest about the fact that you want to get something out of it - whether it's transferable skills, a taster of a particular type of organisation or to open up your social capital," says Constance Agyeman, head of youth programmes at Timebank, which links up graduates with organisations who need volunteers, based on their locality and their interests or something related to a career path.

Opportunities include working in a homeless shelter or going to a local school to read to children once a week for an hour. "You don't even have to take out a whole day of your time to gain valuable volunteering experience," she says. "Timebank is all about matching up the time you have available."

Alternatively, you can apply to charities or voluntary organisations directly. Sharon Greenaway, volunteering strategy officer at Scope, says: "We have graduates working in our shops right through to supporting children and adults in schools and independent living services."

Jennifer Miller, 26, fits volunteering at the Oxford Natural History Museum around her MSc course in primate studies. "I'm trying to make myself as marketable as possible and am ready to look for a full-time job in a zoo or museum," she explains. "I mainly work with cataloguing collections and I do it once a week for a few hours. It's a nice break from everything else."

Some graduates, such as Oliver Kyle, 25, arrange overseas volunteering independently. Kyle spent eight months in Nepal, where he ran a research project through an NGO. "I arranged it through a friend of mine who worked in the Foreign Office. I returned with a huge number of skills, as well as a confidence boost and an ability to deal with extreme social situations. It definitely helped me get a job in the finance sector, where I now work."

'Volunteering at a school in the UK was a great opportunity for work experience'

Jade Lewis, 21, took a year out after her degree to do a CSV (Community Service Volunteers) placement supporting underachieving year 11 pupils at a school in Ashford, Middlesex.

I was a student mentor and helped a group of six pupils improve their GCSE grades. The school had over 1,000 pupils and many of them had difficult family situations. There seemed to be far more drugs and alcohol around than when I was at school.

Some of the pupils I mentored had anger management issues and could be a real handful, others simply lacked confidence. If they'd let me I would sit next to them in class and help them to concentrate and complete their work.

The one-on-one support I gave definitely made a difference. One girl managed to get a B in her course work and an A in her mock exams.

I just didn't have the money after I finished my psychology degree to do a gap year abroad. With CSV, I didn't worry about costs - I even got paid a little bit to do the work, which was a relief.

I saw volunteering at a school in the UK - which I did for a year altogether - as a great opportunity for work experience and to help me decide what to do with my degree. All I knew was that I wanted to work with people. I have now decided that I want to become an educational psychologist and at the moment, I'm working at a residential school for autistic children.

'I came away with so many transferable skills - and a job'

After graduating, Joseph Taylor, 26, spent a year volunteering with VSO as a Youth For Development volunteer in Malawi.

My friend had been on a VSO placement and persuaded me to apply. As someone coming straight out of university, where I'd graduated with a degree in economic history, I was attracted to the fact that it offered both financial support and development opportunities.

I was sent to Malawi, where I volunteered with an organisation called DAMRA (Development Action for Marginalised Rural Areas), which works in agriculture, irrigation and HIV and Aids. Here, the main focus of the placement was being a capacity builder and fundraiser. Basically, that involved acting as a catalyst for change in terms of how the organisation developed and by the time I left, they ended up being an organisation much more focused on their clients.

The change didn't just come from me, but from the sharing of skills. Sometimes there is a misconception that volunteers make all the changes, but actually it comes from working together.

Although I did the kind of work I did, other people on Youth for Development placements could do very different work, such as researching. The ethos is that you're put in a role that is genuinely needed - volunteers for placements, not placements for volunteers. In other words, the opportunities didn't just exist for us - we are actually part and parcel of what VSO is trying to achieve strategically.

Having said that, I came away with so many transferable skills - for instance, writing proposals and organisational and strategic planning. It improved my confidence no end too. I also came away knowing that I wanted to work in the development sector, for which overseas experience really helped me secure a job. In fact, I was lucky enough to get a job with VSO as a fundraiser, which I thoroughly enjoy.