Thursday, May 17, 2012

My volunteering past, present and future

It's Irish National Volunteering Week, May 14th - 20th. Reading the press coverage and hearing people talk about it prompted me to reflect on my own volunteering past.

1. The Charity Shop
As much as I'd love to give the impression of my teenage self being an individual committed to do-gooding, my first volunteering role was forced upon me, volunteering wasn't very sexy then. I was 16 and I was working towards my bronze President's Award. Swanky volunteering websites weren't around then to help guide me in searching for volunteering opportunities. This particular charity shop in my home town was fairly grim (it still is) and my friend and I were kept like orphans in the attic, deemed too naive to work on the shop floor we were regulated to sorting out size tags, donations and steaming a seemingly never ending pile of polyester suits.

Now why would I write about National Volunteering Week beginning with such a negative anecdote? Well, you take the good with the bad. My first experience wasn't the most enjoyable, I did my bit and forgot about volunteering for the next few years, exams came and went and I found myself in university, making new friends, enjoying the odd party, but I craved something more, and then I found UCD Greens...

UCD Greens and UL Greens with Brother Anthony, Glenstal Abbey, November 2009

2. The Conservation weekend
I began university in September 2007, but it wasn't until the following year that I became involved with the UCD Greens, my university's environmental society. In November of that year I went on the groups annual "Weekend in the Woods", at Glenstal Abbey, Co. Limerick. We spent a couple of nights in a self-catering old cottage on the estate. During the day we assisted Brother Anthony in clearing areas of weeds, overgrown trees and rubbish, thus allowing new foliage to grow and wildlife to flourish. It was a weekend of intense work, by night we enjoyed a home-cooked meal, eaten around a fire fuelled by wood cut with our bare hands and mulled over our physical and spiritual well being with the indomitable Brother Anthony, and a guitar if someone brought it! The next year, 2009, I was in charge of organizing the weekend, in collaboration with the UL Greens, and it was just as intense and as fulfilling as the year preceding it. I gained organizational, conservational and people skills as a result.

Getting to grips with hard work / The last supper at Glenstal

3. Invigilating
The summer after I finished my undergraduate degree, in that lull inbetween moving to Scotland for my postgraduate course, I found it difficult to find any summer work in my town. So I thought a valuable use of my time would be to find volunteering opportunities in my area. I wanted to find something that would compliment my interests and skills. The Model gallery had just reopened, so I took up an invigilating role there. It only required 4 hours a week of my time. This way I was able to become familiar with the day to day workings inside a gallery setting, having those 4 hours to reflect and to liaise with the visitors. I also took up a position (committing to 4 hours a week) at the Yeats Society, in a similar role, invigilating the permanent Yeats exhibition as well as welcoming and advising tourists. Neither of these roles were immensely demanding but they enabled me to exercise the knowledge I had attained throughout my degree and put it to practical use. I was in a position to attain new skills, in a cultural and heritage focused environment.

The Niland Gallery at The Model

4. Charity shop
In 2010 Mary Portas was making the charity shop sexy again. As a student, due to necessity, coupled with my own self interest, I had become more thrifty, spending more time browsing charity shops than Topshop. Oxfam had opened in my home town in 2009, so in the summer of 2010, having worked in customer service and retail before, I was curious as to what went on behind the scenes of a charity shop. Of course, I was eager to make use of one of the perks of charity shop work - getting first dibs on any donations that passed through my hands (within reason!). This was an active and engaging role, I worked two 4 hour shifts a week, with 2-3 other volunteers on each shift. Having become interested in vintage and charity shopping as a student I had a keen eye for styling. In this role I was given the freedom to express my creativity, I was put in charge of the window dressing on a number of occasions. This I particularly enjoyed, having studied an aesthetic subject for three years I was able to mix and match with whimsical abandon. My involvement with environmental groups throughout uni meant I was all the more conscious of consumer consumption and recycling, so my passion for a "reduce, reuse, recycle" frame of mind really shone through in my enthusiasm for the job, and aligned with the company's aims. I interacted with managements, fellow staff and customers in this role.

1. The GFT, / 2. GFT seats, (source)

5. The arthouse cinema
As a student and a film fiend, I found myself filling the September afternoons when I didn't have classes by walking into Glasgow City Centre to attend an afternoon matinee at the GFT (£3.50 a ticket!) The first film I watched in the majestic art deco inspired surroundings of Screen 1 was Metropolis. I was hooked. I would go online weekly to check the listings and through my browsing I found that they were looking for volunteer ushers. It was a perfect commitment, one shift a week, covering two films, and free access to films whenever I pleased outside that. I could expand my knowledge of film, see films I'd never have watched otherwise, meet like minded people and partake in something that was a habit of mine anyway (going to the pictures). It was a diverse, and engaging environment. I worked there for seven months and don't regret a moment of it. I was able to help out at press events, live Q&As and films festivals, something I wouldn't otherwise have had the chance to participate in.

Persian carpet design, the Stoddard-Templeton design archive

6. Working in an archive
A work placement module was offered as part of my postgrad course. It seemed like the sensible option, particularly for my career aspirations, as the field of arts & culture calls for a strong background and experience within the sector. It would improve my employability, and considering it was affiliated with the university I was attending it was a role that might not have been advertised or open to me otherwise. My placement was within the University of Glasgow archive services. The project I worked on was the Stoddard-Templeton design archive. My responsibilities resulted in my gaining valuable new skills such as object handling, identification and evaluation of archive material, object-based research and digitization of fragile material. Five months of cataloguing and repackaging carpet designs, also resulted in me conducting some research into the persian carpet designs in the archive, this culminated in my collating a blog post and an illustrated report on my research. The blog post was a general one, entitled 'The Persian Carpet in the West' whereas the illustrated report was more specific to the project, and the archive, 'Illustrated report on the influence of the Persian Art Exhibition (London, 1931) on Templeton’s design and carpets'. This project had to be condensed into a poster presentation that I gave to my peers, on an open afternoon where we discussed the outcomes of our individual work placements. The insight gained from sharing stories and shortcomings was fascinating. I think it is so important for volunteers to have meetings like this regularly as it gives them a chance to meet liked minded people and also offers a forum to give advice and to network.

Some advice- Much to my own benefit, I was expected to formulate both personal and professional objectives within the first couple of weeks of my placement. This is something I would stress to anyone taking on a voluntary position - make a list of objectives before you start, to determine what YOU want from taking on this unpaid responsibility. If within the first few weeks you haven't ticked off any of these, or added any to the list, perhaps it is time to reassess your motivations for being there, and find an alternative position. Your heart must be in it, otherwise neither you, or the organisation you are working for, will gain anything from your time.

This post could have been twice as long, I had to rein myself in, but volunteering is something I am very passionate about. At a time of so many cuts to government funding, community engagement and supporting the arts is more important than ever.

My strong background in volunteering helped me to gain my first internship at one of Ireland's leading regional galleries. Hopefully in the near future I will find a paid position to apply my skills and enthusiasm to!

Volunteer Ireland
Sligo Volunteer Centre
Voluntary Arts How helping others makes you happier AND healthier


  1. Oh man, I love this entry so much. What I really love about your blog is how it incorporates so many different aspects of the arts and history and culture and is about so much more than just dressing one's self. This is so great and has really inspired me- an opshop opened up down the road from me and I printed out a volunteer application form but never filled it in/handed it in. I think I will do that on my day off tomorrow. I don't require paid employment right now so I may as well do something decent with my time rather than sit around on the internet all night. You are so awesome Zoe, I have mad respect for you and all your volunteer work.

    1. Oh Georgia I'm blushing! I kind of gave up on the dressing up aspect for the moment because it was dull and one dimensional for me (awful camera, bad lighting, shots in the family sitting room, blergh) Georgia you would be perfect for that!! I can't wait to see what trinkets you'll amass from working there no doubt :)

  2. This is really interesting Zoe! Your volunteer work reflects your varied interests and personality, in particular the cinema sounds just such a good place to volunteer, I think I will be on the lookout for things like this myself!

    1. Thanks Ingrid! I know how we're both interested in volunteer management and the like so I'm glad that you found this blog interesting! The cinema was brilliant, I saw so much and its an activity I would have done otherwise, so why not offer my time! Keep me posted on how you get on x

  3. I. loved. this. entry! You've done so many different types of volunteering, Zoe! What great experiences! Love your Green photos too! You've inspired me to volunteer at the Belfast Book Festival - I just filled out an application form! :)

    1. Oh Maeve I'm always so thrilled when i get the thumbs up from you!! I've done a varied bit alright, I think it would be interesting to do some short term festival work too - it can be sometimes difficult to commit on a weekly basis, particularly as my employment situation is so unstable at the moment. Oh you'd be perfect for a role at the BBF, let me know how you get on! x

  4. Hi

    This is really mind blowing Zoe!Your offer work shows your different passions and character, in particular the theatre appears to be just such a good way to offer.

    volunteer abroad