Volunteer's week was at the start of June 2015 and is an annual event that celebrates the essential contribution made by millions of volunteers across the UK. The Localgiving office was abuzz with inspiring stories and anecdotes about the fantastic work that 90,000 volunteers were doing with our 2,000 member charities.
Listening to these stories made me think about my own experiences as a volunteer: the people I have met, the skills I have garnered and the sense of wellbeing I have gained. Reflecting on these experiences gave me a new perspective, indeed pride, in the work I have done. Moreover, it infused me with a renewed appreciation and passion for the role of volunteers in our communities.
Between 1996 and 2005 I co-founded, built and eventually sold Holiday-Rentals.com, a website for advertising private holiday homes. On selling the company I found myself in the position to make a real, positive difference. After attending The Philanthropy Workshop in 2008, my vision took shape and I subsequently set up Localgiving, an organisation dedicated to safeguarding the sustainability of the local voluntary sector by helping charities to connect with supporters, fundraise online and take control of their future. However, the foundations of my interest in the voluntary sector were laid long before.
A strong sense of community responsibility was instilled in me from a young age. My mother encouraged me to build relationships with people around us: to talk, listen and learn. This helped me to see beyond the parameters of my own world.
Many of the inspirational stories that I hear in the Localgiving office relate to the skills, knowledge and confidence picked up by volunteers. I too have benefited in this way. My experiences of volunteering gave me skills that fed directly into my career successes, first as a business person and entrepreneur and later as a philanthropist. Volunteering taught me to harness and form my visions into something real and effective.
In the summer of 1988 I was trying to donate to the Sudan Emergency Appeal run by the Disaster Emergency Committee. I could not get through as the lines were permanently engaged; I knew this was going to reduce the amount of money being raised. At the time I was working for American Express and I realised that we could use our lines to support the campaign. Members of our Executive Committee manned the lines alongside the call centre staff, creating a real 'feel good factor' within the organisation and raising over £55,000. This year I discovered that American Express is still running similar donation telephone lines.
I have often mulled over the relationship between the private and voluntary sector, occasionally getting the opportunity to put my thoughts into action. During the Boscastle floods in 2004, we used the resources we had at Holiday-Rentals.com to offer short-term emergency accommodation to people who had been affected. This showed me that volunteering needn't be about formal activities, it is just as much about a creative mind-set and the resolve to make positive changes.
In 2005 we sold Holiday-Rentals.com and I found myself in the fortunate position of being able to dedicate my life to helping others. I have spent the last decade looking into effective mechanisms for philanthropy - both in the UK (including an appearance on 'Secret Millionaire') and abroad.
Each experience was valuable. Whilst involved in projects in Nepal, I came to understand the importance of cultural sensitivity. Moreover, that imposing ideas on communities from the outside can have unforeseen, sometimes disastrous, consequences. Subsequently, I become a strong advocate for local, grassroots organisations that understand the needs and nuances of their communities.
Volunteering has given me the opportunity to meet and learn from people who I would never have encountered in my day-to-day life. Whilst participating in 'Secret Millionaire' I met a group of Hell's Angels - a group seldom depicted positively. In no time they had me on the back of their bikes, on a charity ride for Jeremiah's Journey, a charity for bereaved children. They were amazing people, challenging my assumptions and opening my eyes.
Looking back, my various volunteering experiences have been invaluable; helping me to develop the skills that led to my successes and indeed, the skills to give back. Volunteering has inspired me and has ultimately made me a stronger, happier, more fulfilled person.
To anyone considering volunteering, here is my advice:
● Different people can volunteer in different ways, all of them are equally important. Think about what you can bring to a cause and also about any skills you may wish to develop through volunteering.
● Choose a cause you are passionate about and a charity you believe in.
● Enjoy yourself and share your experiences! Tell other people about your cause, why you care and the difference that they too can make. This way you we can encourage more people to take positive community action.