How Volunteering Changed My Life

How Volunteering Changed My Life

Guest Bloggers | 10 November 2015

I started out my working life as a tax consultant, but I always had a dream to work in the voluntary sector. After four years as a tax consultant and a lot of deliberation and research, I found a six month internship working as a Volunteer Coordinator for a National Park in the Caribbean. I quit my job and headed off to see what volunteering would bring me and where it would take me…..

Volunteering in the Caribbean was amazing and it changed my life!

I got to experience so many new things, from leading volunteers on turtle patrols on the moonlight beach at night; to building trails in the tropical rainforest around the dormant volcano in the national park; to nurturing native species and showcasing the biodiversity of the island in the botanical garden. And, of course, supporting international volunteers during their stay on the island and trying to ensure that they all had a really positive experience!

But it wasn’t all as glamourous as it sounds. Working night shifts doing turtle patrol could be tiring, and often the trail building and work in the botanical gardens was really tough physical work especially in the oppressive tropical heat. The volunteers weren’t always happy, sometimes they didn’t get on with each other, they were homesick or they weren’t particularly motivated by conservation work and just wanted a ‘holiday’.  We worked alongside local staff from the Island, and I had to adjust to some quite big cultural differences in ways of working too. Sometimes when I’d had a really long, hard challenging day I would have a little cry to myself.

But I’d been given an amazing opportunity and I was determined to make the most of it, so I threw myself into motivating the volunteers as best I could, and helping to achieve as much as we could for the national park during my stay. I also got involved in as many other little projects that I could think of, that would help improve the way the National Park worked with volunteers, or help them with achieving their objectives. 

There were some real stand out moments, days when the volunteers achieved so much, and days when we achieved something for the first time. We completely redesigned the Sensory Gardens in the Botanical Gardens; we stayed up all night to help the scientists fit a radio tracker to a green turtle so we could know more about its movements; we delivered a drama performance to all the schools on the island to teach them more about conservation; and I redesigned the volunteer arrival induction. I had such an amazing time, and despite all the challenges, a lot was achieved.

When my time as a Volunteer Coordinator was over, I was so incredibly sad to leave. 

Volunteering, however, opened so many doors for me; when I returned to the UK, I got a temporary job with Marie Curie as a fundraiser that was to be the start of my fundraising career. They were really impressed by my volunteering, and thought it showed a lot of initiative.  But what I hadn’t realised when I started my internship is that my time volunteering would not only help me to get my dream job, but that it would bring so many other benefits too.

I learnt so much from my six months in the Caribbean, and I know it’s a cliché, but it changed me. I found a new confidence: I wasn’t afraid to take on big challenges, even if I wasn’t sure they could succeed. I gained a real insight into motivating volunteers and how to get the best out of people. I learnt to use my initiative and to create things with very limited materials and resources (something that has definitely come in useful in my fundraising career!). I learnt how to deal with disappointments and things not going according to plan, and to find a renewed determination. And I also found that I loved working in the voluntary sector just as much as I had dreamed I would!

Now that I’ve found my dream job, I am still learning and gaining new skills and experience through volunteering, from being a member of the committee for my climbing club, to volunteering to help at my charity’s Crisis at Christmas event, to volunteering at IoF Scotland's Fundraising Conference last month. Volunteering means I never stop learning, and that I have a really wide range of experiences to draw on in my job.

Elsie Riley, Scotland Fundraising Manager, Crisis

Elsie Riley is the Scotland Fundraising Manager for Crisis. After an early career in the corporate sector in tax consulting, Elsie moved to the voluntary sector finding her passion. She has held Fundraising Manager roles for Macmillan Cancer Support and Camphill Blair Drummond, gaining  over eight years of  experience in all aspects of Fundraising. She still feels excited every day by the challenges, variety and richness that working in fundraising brings. In her spare time Elsie can be found running up hills or climbing mountains, which is a good metaphorical preparation for the challenges of fundraising. 

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