During grad school, I did what a lot of students end up doing; waiting tables and working as a waitress. You learn a lot about how to treat people when you work in the service industry. I’ll never forget one customer, after I’d cleared her and her husband’s plates from the table, engaging me in conversation. Upon telling her I eventually wanted to work for a charity, she said ‘But that’s not going to make you any money. What are you going to do as a career?’ I politely explained that actually, it IS a career. It’s not economically advantageous, sure, but it’s a way to work passionately instead of just furthering plutomania. Dazed and confused couldn’t accurately describe her face. She rolled her eyes. And I bit my tongue and smiled.
The voluntary sector is many things to many people and there are wide and varying forms: aid agencies, service-delivery and community/grass-roots to name a few. First thing’s first, if you want to work in the voluntary sector, you’ve got to be clear about which type of organisation will resonate the most with you as an individual. I’ve seen great people with enormous expertise and passion come to a frustrated impasse working for larger organisations because of bureaucracy and the hampered agility that comes with having that size and reach. I’ve also known the more corporately-indoctrinated to be driven to breaking point at community-based organisations where the cause often needs to trump the business in some’s opinion.
Once you’ve figured out what type of organisation best suits you and your skills, work out what cause is going to motivate you the most. The voluntary sector pay threshold when compared to the public and private sector is still lacking. Unless you’re the Chief Executive of a larger, nation-wide charity, chances are your income will be nominal at best. There are no bonuses, no ‘incentivisation’. But there is a focus on issues, and a camaraderie of people working with you, that’s inspiring. If your interests run to women’s rights, children’s issues, eradication of poverty, fair housing – whatever – you’ll be able to find an organisation that advocates for this platform and spurs you on professionally.
When you’ve found your place, remember that your job isn’t just to be worthy and do good. You’ll need to figure out your function and what part you should play in your chosen area. There is an enduring misconception that the voluntary sector is devoid of its own experts, that we rely on, and are grateful for, people from other careers to see the light and cross-over to the world of the altruistic 9-5. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether you’re an accountant, a researcher, a campaigner, or an IT specialist, the voluntary sector is its own Big Tent and it benefits from in-house expertise of career-long charitable workers constantly.
Like most jobs, the voluntary sector isn’t immune to burn-out and boredom just because it provides that perceived ‘feel-good factor’ of lending a helping hand. It’s hard work and it’s often misunderstood and under resourced.
Having said all that, I know for myself there is no other sector I’d rather work in. It’s been a more rewarding experience than I could have possibly imagined and a far better education from the people I’ve worked with and the places I’ve been than my many years at University. And though I do still frequently lament the size of my pay cheque, I quickly get over it. So when our waitress last week mentioned she’d love to be a women’s rights advocate one day, instead of rolling my eyes and doling out cynicism, I gave her my card and smiled.
Laurie works at Save the Children in Edinburgh.