Each month, I will take on an issue that matters to me. It might be to do with social justice (for example, feminism), environmental issues (for example, palm oil), or something slightly different (for example, volunteering). I hope this series will encourage me to think more about why I make the choices I do, but also to learn more about the issues addressed.
In my mind, volunteering is simple – you give up a little of your time to benefit a particular cause, charity, or individual. The beauty of it is that it can take so many forms. It can be one-off or regular, labour-intensive or thought-intensive, big or small, but regardless, it will make a difference. Whatever you want to change about the world, I truly believe that volunteering in the right place can create change. Call me naive!
For example, Oxfam is a huge part of my life. I started volunteering at my local Oxfam bookshop in 2008 while I was an au pair & it’s hard to believe that is 6 years ago. Obviously the bookshop part was an attraction, but I did also actively want to help Oxfam. I think their approach to working with local communities and funding projects that can grow on the ground (so to speak). I also grew up without much money in a first world country, and am aware of the opportunities I’ve still had purely because of the country I was born in. I felt, and still feel, very strongly that this is wrong, and I think Oxfam works really hard to try to change this, project by project.
So what’s it like being a charity shop volunteer? Random, and fun! There are over 70 volunteers in the Oxfam bookshop now, ranging in age from about 14 to 80+. We all do different things. Most volunteers take care of a particular section (pricing it and filling the shop shelves); others operate the till; some sort Gift Aid stock; and so on. Pricing is slightly strategic – we’re keen to raise as much money as possible for Oxfam, so anything that seems to be of value is looked up & generally priced at 40-50% of the typical listed price. Last year the shop earned about £60,000 (after overheads; about £20,000 came from Gift Aid, in case you ever wonder if that’s worthwhile), and it was great to know I helped make that possible. I’ve done a ton of different things for the shop while I’ve been volunteering – helping organise a poetry slam, pricing vinyl, pricing poetry, building flat pack furniture, operating the till, emptying book banks, running a knitting group…I think I’ve pretty much run the gamut!
As the manager’s wife (yup, we met in his shop & I eventually won him over :)), I must admit that now I kind of think of myself as emergency relief. When I started volunteering, I did two 3-hour shifts a week, whereas now I do about one shift a month and ad hoc cover as needed. I have some brilliant friends with diverse backgrounds (Mauritian, Canadian, English folk who lived in Africa for years) and see some pretty cool things. I also love seeing the younger volunteers grow up and grow more confident – some of the transformations are amazing.
There are flaws with charities, it’s true; fundraising tactics (which are awful at the moment for many charities) have been in the news recently, and there are regular pieces about CEO pay, and whether some corporate charitable movements are really helpful. But, while it is important to be aware of these issues so they can be fixed, I hope it won’t dissuade you from helping out regardless. If you do decide you want to volunteer, make sure you do your research; most charities are required to publish reports of how they spend their money, so make sure you are comfortable with it. Local charities will probably have lower admin costs (though I should point out that doesn’t necessarily mean a smaller proportion of income is spent on that) and may be more integrated into the community than a larger charity.
As for me, I will carry on volunteering with Oxfam, and am hoping to start volunteering at a nearby cathedral library to put some of my more specialist skills to use. Oh, and I’m following my local shop on Twitter. Maybe you can do the same? 😉 You have to start somewhere, after all.