Student Volunteering Week: Charity sector panel offers valuable insights

Student Volunteering Week panel hosts discussion of the realities of working in the charity sector, reported by Charlotte Boulton

Charlotte Boulton
13th February 2020
Credit: Charlotte Boulton
On Wednesday 12th February the Go Volunteer team hosted 'A Day in the Life: Working the charity sector'. This panel introduced students to three people working in the diverse volunteer and charity sector, from campaigning for policy changes in the refugee and asylum seeker sector to arts development in the city.

The event was popular, with over 25 eager students attending, marking the interest in Student Volunteering Week, which is a national campaign taking place from the 10th to the 16th February aiming to increase student involvement in the volunteering projects Go Volunteer run and opportunities beyond the university. Jo Day, the Students' Union Employability and Skills Co-Ordinator and event organiser, introduced the talk and invited the panellists to introduce themselves and how they got into their industries.

Will Benson began the introductions, explaining how he came to work with Kids Kabin, a Newcastle-based children's community charity that hosts workshops with disadvantaged children from across the city to show them creative opportunities and give young people "an opportunity to achieve and succeed" (Kids Kabin website). Will began in debt advice at the Citizens Advice Bureau in Cowgate, before completing his PGCE and teaching Geography; with a passion for teaching, but not finding his feet in the classroom setting, he fell into volunteering at Kids Kabin "by chance". He met someone who told him about a disused potters' wheel at the centre's base in Walker. Luckily, Will had learnt pottery when he was younger, so began to help train the other volunteers and facilitate woodworking workshops. He realised he could "develop relationships with people and teach things [I] loved" at Kids Kabin, and has worked there for the past 22 years. Kids Kabin's mission is to encourage children from disadvantaged backgrounds to engage in creative and practical activities, giving the participants the choice of workshops; the organisation runs everything from cookery classes and arts and crafts, to pottery and bike maintenance workshops.

Jennifer Laws currently works for Asylum Matters as Campaigns Project Manager for the North East, leading on campaigning projects for the rights of people seeking asylum and those with refugee status. to improve their lives through social and political change. Jen studied English at York University and became interested in what was happening with refugees and asylum seekers during her final year, so began to volunteer with numerous local organisations in her hometown of Hartlepool. This led to giving accommodation and support advice in Teeside organisations for asylum seekers, but after facing frustrations of dealing with the same systemic problems, Jen decided to pursue a masters degree in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford. After working with search and rescue charity Moas in the Mediterranean, on the ground helping refugees fleeing their homes, Jen returned to the North East to work with Asylum Matters. Asylum Matters is only 2 and a half years old, and is currently focusing on campaigning for the right to work for people seeking asylum, with campaign staff operating across the country to push forward this important national campaign.

Alison Flanagan Wood completed the trio of charity sector workers. She's the Arts Development Officer for Newcastle City Council, a post she has held independently for 15 years after an early career in youth work. Her role is all about "engaging local people in disadvantaged communities in creative activity", with Alison supporting and managing funding for the creative activities that people across Newcastle want to engage in. A Fine Art alumni from Newcastle University, Alison found a "passion for meeting with people and helping people" throughout her own creative practice. Her role in the council allows her independence and freedom to go into the community and co-ordinate various artist residencies and projects throughout the city, operating under the fact that "everyone is entitled to a creative life whatever that will be". The programme aims to meet the needs of the community, including vulnerable older people, refugees and other under-represented groups whose needs are not met by other provisions by co-developing projects and supporting professional artists in skill-sharing and engaging in creative practice with local people who may not otherwise have the opportunity to experience arts and cultures.

All the panellists agreed that any experience volunteering was favourable, even if it was for a short placement, and that trying different roles and organisations demonstrated a willingness to adapt and ability to explore different avenues.

After the fascinating introductions, Jo Day gave the first discussion topic, asking the speakers to share any advice for how students can gain experience whilst at university to help them enter charity work after graduation. All the panellists agreed that any experience volunteering was favourable, even if it was for a short placement, and that trying different roles and organisations demonstrated a willingness to adapt and ability to explore different avenues. Will noted that volunteering should be a "two-way process" and the benefit to the individual volunteering should be considered, as well as the more obvious benefit to the community, and that volunteering should be a positive experience. Alison expressed the importance of "having an awareness of where you are as a student, hooking up with what's happening in the city", using exploring the local arts scene as an example.

Communication was highly valued, both as a skill and as part of the volunteering journey to ensure everyone involved was feeling positive. Jen echoed the note about exploring different opportunities, as she had worked with a number of organisations which "shaped [my] understanding of how different organisations worked". Speaking more specifically about the refugee and asylum seeker volunteering sector, Jen noted that "in Newcastle it is incredibly rich": for example, North East Solidarity and Teaching (N.E.S.T.) is a Go Volunteer project run out of Newcastle University Students' Union which provides teaching, support and a community for refugees and asylum seekers across Newcastle, with student-led activities happening every day. Will added that one volunteer had said "as a student he felt detached from the wider Newcastle community" until he got involved with Kids Kabin, setting up the bike maintenance workshop that continues now, and gained more confidence and sense of community with the city outside the university, highlighting the importance of engaging with the community through these external volunteering projects.

One student asked how important education was in gaining the roles the panellists held, which gained a mixed response. Jen felt her masters had been influenced by the volunteering work already undertaken, but said it has also helped her in roles since in terms of understanding of the sector and been "incredibly valuable". Will explained how the volunteering and charity sector differs from many others, as participants of youth programs can choose to volunteer later in life and enter into organisations that way, so no formal qualifications are needed. He said that credibility in the labour market can come from a university degree and the wider perspective this can bring, but stressed that "it isn't the be all and end all". The importance of being able to talk about experiences was explained by Alison who said that "qualifications can get you through the door but in the interview situation it’s about you as a person and that wealth of experience and life skills you can talk about as well as qualifications". For any students interested in gaining more confidence in this, the ncl+ Award is available for any students who undertake extra-curricular activities, such as volunteering, to complete and gain a certificate and key skills to help contextualise experiences for interviews.

"Qualifications can get you through the door but in the interview situation it’s about you as a person and that wealth of experience and life skills you can talk about as well as qualifications"

Alison Flanagan Wood, Arts Development Officer for Newcastle City Council

Another query invited the panellists to discuss the best and worst aspects of their jobs within the charity sector. All the panellists spoke positively of their experiences and praised the independence and feelings of making a difference that working in charity roles gave them. However, issues of funding, difficulties fundraising and a sense of defeat when policy change was slow were shared by the speakers, showing the potential downsides to this type of work. For Alison, arts funding cuts across the council have been difficult, but was glad this allowed her to be creative with her limited funding to create meaningful community art projects.

Jen admitted that in campaigning work "progress is very slow" which can cause frustration and questions of achievement after working hard for little visible gain. However, she stressed the importance of maintaining a sense of perspective, and said that "getting asylum seekers and refugees to be in the spaces where they can hold people accountable and argue for change themselves" was what made it all feel worthwhile. The isolated nature of campaign teams that are delegated across the country was discussed, although she said it has its benefits of creating smaller close networks with campaigners in similar lines of work to grow support structures locally.

Taking time to pause, feel your emotions and then "pick yourself back up" was also emphasised as important to maintain resilience and energy in this sometimes difficult line of work.

The discussion continued with a question of resilience in the face of the roadblocks mentioned by the panellists, and how they cope when their work is difficult. All spoke about the importance of solid support structures; Will's came from the supportive board of trustees within Kids Kabin, and looking to inspiring, passionate people working in the sector to push you forward when feeling stressed or disappointed. Alison echoed this thought and added that it's good to know who to go to when you need help, and trying not to take everything on yourself as that community does exist. Jen added that "things beyond your control can happen and make things feel impossible, but you need to realise that not everything is urgent all the time". Taking time to pause, feel your emotions and then "pick yourself back up" was also emphasised as important to maintain resilience and energy in this sometimes difficult line of work.

Mental health was also discussed, as students questioned how the panellists maintain strong mental health when working with vulnerable groups and challenging situations. Will explained how he had worked with disadvantaged families and children for over 20 years, and sometimes has seen these children grow up and begin drug use or becoming homeless which is difficult to see, but he says "it's about focusing on the positive effects you can have and trying to understand why things don't work out". For as much good charities do, they can't always change the complex, difficult issues that people face in their lives, so volunteers should focus on the small positive changes and the many people who do experience long-term benefits from their engagement with charitable organisations. Jen and Alison both shared their difficulties in leaving work in the office, and the importance of finding a balance between caring and knowing your own limits to avoid burnout.

Finding charity work can be difficult, but the panellists offered various ways of finding opportunities. Alison admitted that arts development jobs are often rare, but directed students to the Arts Council website or the Newcastle City Council website for more varied offerings. Will said that Kids Kabin often used typical job websites like Indeed to advertise vacancies, but also suggested Voluntary Organisations' Network North East to seek local opportunities - however, he also stressed the efficiency of getting out there in volunteering positions, as many people progress from volunteering to paid jobs associated with that area. Jen agreed that volunteering is a great step into paid jobs, and found her Asylum Matters job on CharityJob. She also suggested W4MP to find policy and campaigning jobs working for MPs or in other policy areas.

The panel ended with final advice from the speakers, who were all impressed by the engagement and enthusiasm from the students attending. Alison suggested students "bite the bullet and go for it, it's who you know, not always what you know", whilst Jen encouraged students to embrace challenging situations as "being thrown in at the deep end can do you good". The panel was highly interesting, useful and engaging, and it was a nice reminder that charity jobs are achievable within the local area. Each speaker offered unique insight into a different element of the incredibly variable charitable sector and introduced the students to a range of opportunities right on our doorsteps.

Student Volunteering Week continues until 16th February with events each day, with further information on upcoming events and volunteering opportunities available on the NUSU website.

Credit: NUSU Go Volunteer
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