If you want to work in development or the third sector you’ll need open eyes, willing hands and more than a hint of stubborn determination. I caught up with Isobel Wilson-Cleary to find out more about her experience working as Volunteer Co-ordinator with the Deep Griha Society. Isobel graduated from Warwick last year, with a degree in History of Art, and has decided to steer her career towards a development role.
What did your role as Volunteer Co-ordinator involve?
I came to Deep Griha Society through UK charity Development in Action, already a long-term partner of DGS so I was asked to take on the position of volunteer coordinator – not perhaps not your typical volunteer role. From an administrative side, my main tasks were responding to questions, looking over applications and fielding other enquiries to relevant staff members. I was able to get to know each programme, its team leader, ongoing projects and needs, by helping out with their events and participating in staff meetings so incoming volunteers could be assigned tasks and roles to make the most impact and be of most use.
It was my responsibility to ensure that prospective volunteers:
- Had a full introduction and orientation to all aspects of Deep Griha and their work across the Pune area
- Understood the rules and expectations for their conduct.
However, my role wasn’t limited to this and DGS’s broad scope meant there was always something to do. I was interested in fundraising and helped implement a system to document local companies and businesses with relevant CSR policies, attend promotional events such as NGO fairs and keep up with DGS’ online presence. I also helped organise and participate in HIV/AIDS awareness events, helped out with classes and fundraising research at the rural school and occasionally putting my gardening and UNO playing skills into practice staying at the boys group home.
Were there any surprising elements?
Mostly, I hadn’t fully considered the amount of responsibility I would have as VC! It was surprising how interested people were in listening. Myself and the other volunteers were encouraged to use our initiative and share any suggestions for ideas with the relevant staff member. Obviously, not being part of the culture or area can be a disadvantage in this respect as it can be difficult to understand something when when you’re outside of it, but it can also be an asset, especially when you can bring a new perspective.
Did you ever feel out of your comfort zone?
On the flip side, it was sometimes uncomfortable to be asked for my opinions on matters, where I didn’t feel any more qualified than the local staff. In hindsight, the first few weeks were a little overwhelming. Though my interview and training days with DiA prepped me for the different (in many ways slower, but also crazier) rhythm of life, first hand experience was always going to be the real test. Arriving in a brand new place, meeting lots of people, assimilating new information and becoming accustomed to the differences in culture (and the harshness of everyday life for many people), it’s a lot!
What skills and experience did you bring to the role?
I had experience of volunteering in a few different settings, mostly in the arts, which helped set expectations for this role. All my previous experience had been very people-orientated where communication was key and so, definitely useful when navigating the language barrier – I can count on both hands (and maybe toes) the number of things I can say in Hindi – and engaging with people. Though obviously a different environment, spending 5 months in Italy prepared me for spending so much time away from home. I also knew that working with children was a huge part of the work DGS does so figured my experience of that would be an asset too.
However, I didn’t have any direct experience of charity work or international development and this was my main reason for wanting to do something “hands-on” before continuing with a Masters in that area. My degree came in useful as I’m able to look critically at what’s going on in all areas of society; art isn’t produced in a vacuum and neither are social injustices – there’s always a history.
And what did you leave with?
I certainly feel I left with a more concrete understanding of how global issues play out on a local level and how local initiatives are working in surprising and innovative ways. I was able to work on my communication skills not only personally but online too, something I’d only done professionally through research or sporadically as careers representative for History of Art whilst at Warwick. I was able to put my slightly OCD organizational skills to good use keeping track of volunteers and applications but also management skills through delegating tasks and observing staff dynamics in various settings. I also had the opportunity to evaluate my role and the volunteer programme more generally which was a really good way to think more in terms of sustainability.
Did the experience shape or change your career aspirations?
If anything, I think it confirmed them. I’d decided on a masters and wanted to be sure it was the right thing for me by testing the water with some practical experience. I wouldn’t use the phrase life-changing but it certainly changed my worldview; I learnt a lot which I think will continue to inform both my work and personal life. It’s made me more determined to continue travelling so if I could make it part of my career, it’d be a great bonus!
What would you say to other students and graduates considering this route?
If you’re wanting to go it alone or through an organisation then be prepared to spend some time looking and speak to people you know who may have some insight. Most of the volunteers who came to DGS independently had heard about it word of mouth and said this was reassuring in an ocean of possibilities.
I’d trawled through a lot of organisations and companies who offer some variation of volunteering, it was tiring! I had a good feeling about DiA; the application form was in-depth, followed up with an interview, and then a training day; the placements fit with a wider mission here at home and they had long-term, close links with their Indian partner organisations all of which were locally set-up and run.
1. Check your motivations
Recently there’s been a lot of debating ‘good volunteering’. I think it’s important to be aware of this and to think honestly about your own motivations, as well as the charity you’re interested in. Ask yourself:
- How sustainable and ethical is it?
- Is the work actually useful to the community you’re working in?
- Could your work be carried out by someone local?
- What are you hoping to get out of it?
- How much time can you commit? I was there 5 months but I didn’t feel this was long enough.
2. Start local, before you go global
Don’t underestimate organisations who work both here and abroad, maybe see if you can get involved with the ‘home’ side first whilst you’re studying or saving.
And just to get you thinking….
You might have spotted Daniela Papi’s article in the BBC last week, discussing whether gap year volunteering is a bad thing? If so, you’ll probably be interested in her earlier TEDx talk, ‘What’s Wrong with Volunteer Travel?‘
Isobel has also been blogging about her experiences for the Stanfords Travel Blog.