In a nutshell, I support colleagues within the technical teams to coordinate the different volunteering opportunities that are on offer.
Volunteering is a huge growth area for us as an organisation, and we have a dedicated team of volunteer leaders and coordinators across England and Wales to support local volunteering at a waterway level – myself and my colleague Rebecca work at a regional level instead. This involves liaising with colleagues about the technical team volunteering opportunities that they have coming up– they can range from the heritage team to the environment team, to the engineering and water management team. I then help with the recruitment process.
This can range from advertising the roles through to meeting with potential volunteers and inducting them into the role. My job also involves speaking to existing volunteers about things like their expenses and anything else they would like to discuss, for example additional training, what days they would like to come in, and how things are going (usually the feedback is good!). I also talk to universities about students that are seeking work experience and projects such as sediment sampling, environmental surveys and anything else that supports their studies.
I’ve been working in the charity sector for a number of years in people engagement – my first break was working as the Project Coordinator on the UK Phenology Network at The Woodland Trust about ten years ago. I began at the Woodland Trust as I wanted to work for a charity, and then I discovered that I really enjoyed the people engagement side of things.
While I was there I decided that I wanted to take the next step, and I started studying for a degree with the Open University, so I did that alongside working. I then worked in marketing for a couple of years, before starting as the People and Wildlife Officer at the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts (the UK office for the Wildlife Trusts movement). I then started working at Canal & River Trust in July 2012, first of all as Volunteer Leader in the East Midlands Waterway, and then my new role as Technical Team Volunteer Coordinator (South) in November 2013.
First of all people skills and listening skills – we have individuals volunteering from a whole range of backgrounds and for different reasons, so listening is a really key thing. We want to offer the best experience, and to do that we really need to get to know people. These skills are also useful if there is a problem and we want to get to the bottom of what’s happening.
You also need to be organised, friendly, approachable and able to put people at ease, as well as being able to work with a variety of people. That applies to colleagues as well as volunteers. In this role you also need to be hard working and flexible, as you may be required to work out of hours, and you also need to be very organised – we work with a lot of different teams and there is a lot to juggle!
There was always an element of the unknown, as this was a new role set up towards the end of 2013. We’ve had a lot of success with waterway volunteers in the past – but we realised that there was a bit of a gap in the technical teams. We had small pockets of volunteering within the environment and heritage teams, but there was no overall strategy. So we decided we wanted to make volunteering in the technical teams more formal and have a bigger push to get more colleagues included.
It’s a very different experience working with the technical teams than working at waterway level. I’ve seen a lot more graduates, students and professional people coming in to volunteer with my new job, and it’s really nice to be able to work with them and help them get that experience which will complement their CV and help them get their first step.
I would say that for the wider environmental sector that if people are willing and able to volunteer and can get skills in a real working environment then it is hugely valuable
I do get a huge amount from that. We had a big survey that started earlier in the year called the Canal Discharge Survey, and we had such a good response: with graduates from geography or environmental science who wanted to get involved.
Lots of these graduates have since been able to find a job, and I think it’s because they were able to put that work-place experience on their CV. Sometimes I think it’s a bit of a shame to lose such great volunteers when they leave, but ultimately it’s really great to see them go onto other things!
It is a cliché but I think you need to be a people person, have a friendly attitude and be willing to work hard, quite often for little or no money at least at the start of your career.
I have found that being organised (I try to be) really helps too as often there a lot of balls to juggle! Remember, a smile uses less muscles than a frown and it always puts people at ease.
I would say that for the wider environmental sector that if people are willing and able to volunteer and can get skills in a real working environment then it is hugely valuable.
You learn a lot at university, but being in the workplace is very different, and volunteering shouldn’t be underestimated. It gives an insight into the workplace, being around people and able to benefit from colleagues’ experience is very useful. It’s these sorts of skills which can help you get your first step on the career ladder.