Lessons in the not for profit sector

Sometimes what you think you’re going to learn from an experience ends up being quite different from what you actually learn.

When I applied to volunteer at the Trussell Trust, it was partly because I wanted find out what it would be like to work within the not for profit sector, as I’ve been contemplating a career change for some time. On paper, the Trussell Trust ticked all the right boxes. Their head office is a convenient commute from Southampton, it’s a medium sized organisation (after ten years, I’ve finally realised being a teeny cog in a giant organisational wheel doesn’t suit me) and, most importantly, I’m completely behind their mission to tackle UK poverty.

After a few charity job searches online, it had become apparent that a) a large number of charity jobs are based in London, and b) many of them involve fundraising and/or sitting in an office all day. I was hoping that by volunteering at Trussell I would be able to get behind the scenes and uncover a raft of other potential non London, non office based jobs that I could pursue in the future. As it happens, I spent most of my first day with Trussell’s fundraising team listening to the conversations going on, observing what people were doing, and thinking ‘Hmm, this could be any office in any organisation anywhere in the world’.

It goes without saying that no organisation can function without people whose jobs involve emails, spreadsheets and Word documents. And without their hard working fundraising team, the Trussell Trust wouldn’t be able to reach the amount of people it does. Fundraisers may well feel that same glow of achievement when they’ve secured backing for a project as I do when I teach students something and they understand it. But personally, I need to be doing something practical and tangible to feel like I’m having an impact, and to combine routine, office based tasks with creative and people focused ones.

So lesson number one has been just because you work for a charity, doesn’t automatically mean you feel like you’re making a difference. That’s been a pretty important realisation for me. Lesson number two has been unless you happen to be a social worker of some description, there’s no getting around the fact that charity work generally involves sitting at a desk. Unless you’re somebody important, in which case it involves sitting at a desk, but only when you’re not in meetings.

As they say, knowing what you don’t like and don’t want helps you define what it is you do want, and volunteering at the Trussell Trust has helped to me build a much clearer picture of where it is I should head next. I’m always meeting people who have had what I call ‘previous lives’; jobs unrelated to what they are currently doing, which I find fascinating. I think there’s a lot to be said for evolving and moving forward in new directions… using the skills and experiences you already have to help you get there.

My top secret volunteering mission

Having been in contact with the Trussell Trust for a couple of months, last week I finally went to visit their head office in Salisbury and meet the volunteer coordinator to discuss how I might be able to help them over Summer. As my work with Southampton City Mission is giving me a lot of hands on experience of a food bank, I decided that my time at the Trussell Trust would be a good opportunity to see the bigger picture and to get an insight into how the UK’s largest food bank network operates in terms of fundraising, PR, marketing, and so on.

I’m not an office person by any means. I’ve somehow known this my whole life, even before I had any experience of working in an office. All the careers I’ve ever considered have been people based. But I’ve wanted to explore different aspects of working in the not for profit sector to see if I can gain some new skills or learn things that could help me set up my own business in the future. So when I turned up to work with the fundraising team at the Trussell Trust this week, I was prepared for some desk sitting and computer staring.

What I wasn’t prepared for was being sent straight back outside ten minutes after I’d arrived to walk around the nearby industrial estate! I was asked to compile a list of local businesses so that they could be approached as part of a project taking place next year in conjunction with Salisbury cathedral. Off I trotted, clipboard in hand, bewildered expression on my face, hoping I didn’t get lost and it didn’t rain, and wondering what on earth I’d signed myself up for.

Upon my return to the office, I was asked to spend the afternoon doing some research (ie. making extensive use of Wikipedia), which was more like what I’d been expecting. As the research I was doing will contribute to projects that aren’t yet ‘official’ and haven’t been made public, I’m not supposed to talk about it… How James Bond! All I will say is that trying to find a way of contacting an American rap artist with a net worth of hundreds of millions is a tall ask, even with Google on your side!

My next mission – should I choose to accept it – is to find out about a list of potential ‘major donors’. The major donor team operates separately from the corporate fundraising team, and approaches wealthy and well known individuals for funds. Of course, I’m clearly more Miss Moneypenny than James Bond in all of this. I’m sure I won’t be meeting any of the famous people on my list, even if they do agree to support the Trussell Trust. It does show though that, with the right role, working for a not for profit organisation could be more glamorous than you might expect.

images