As Volunteering Week 2019 continues, here we have an excellent guest blog from Chris Catchpole, Officer for North West Kent Countryside Partnership, with his personal take on how volunteering helped him begin the process of a career change.
Today I was on in the woods, on my hands and knees, trying to identify a small pink-leafed flower with acrid smelling foliage (answers on a postcard). A year ago, I was in a similar position, doing a very different job. I spent almost a decade as a sports photographer and I’d lost count of the hours I spent laying in mud waiting for a cyclist to whizz past. I loved my previous career; it was exciting, the work always interesting and the people were amazing (much like working in conservation!). But after almost a decade in the job, I needed something different.
For me, it began with a feeling that I wanted to spend more time outside. More time with nature. Fewer hours in a car, traveling the length of the country. My time spent in the woods was always my happiest, my most peaceful. I was given the great idea of trying as many different volunteering opportunities in Kent as I could (my heartfelt thanks to my partner for that nugget of wisdom), with the hope that one of them would spark a special interest and eventually lead to a new career in the garden of England.
Whether you’re looking to change your career or begin your first one, in this sense ‘conservation’ (to use the term very generally) is an industry which is ideally suited for volunteering. To be honest, there isn’t much money flying around the industry, so many projects rely on generous volunteers to be able to run efficiently. Without them, many organisations simply would not survive. Compare that to other industries, and the difference is obvious. Want to be a surgeon? Not many volunteering opportunities for that. Want to be a pilot? Nope. Want to save the world? YES. An almost infinite list of possibilities awaits you.
It may sound counter-productive to some people, offering your time for free to an industry from which you’d ultimately like to be paid, but it works. Not only is it the quickest way to find out whether you’re cut out for the job, but it’s also the best way to learn new skills, make industry connections and most importantly – find out if you really enjoy it. When you look at it from that angle, it’s a worthwhile investment of your time. The fact that you will be working on a project designed to help local nature and wildlife is an obvious bonus!
As a volunteer you’re not expected to have any specific knowledge or experience, just a good amount of common sense, and a desire to get your hands dirty! Training is always provided, and if the organisation is half decent, then so will the tea and biscuits.
I spent some time with a local non-profit organisation – the North West Kent Countryside Partnership – and learned very quickly that I was on the right path. We cleared trails, we installed ponds, we cleaned rivers and we had a lot of fun. The organisation put me in touch with other local community projects who had funds available for training, and I expanded my knowledge even further. When a job opportunity became available with NWKCP, I jumped at it with two dirty hands. That was last autumn, and now I’m the one leading volunteers and in charge of the tea and biscuits. Volunteering helped get a job I love, and I’d encourage anybody to find one the same way.
How to find volunteering opportunities
As you’re reading this article, then you’re already off to a good start. But for a little more help, below is a list of organisations who offer volunteering opportunities throughout Kent. Begin there, then let your keyboard run wild with online searches. If you’re looking something a little more specific, like river restorations, or animal protection, then try some key words relating to those too.
Kent Countryside Partnerships (https://kentcountrysidepartnerships.org/)
Explore Kent (https://explorekent.org/get-involved/)
Woodland Trust (https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/get-involved/volunteer-with-us/)
Kent Wildlife Trust (https://www.kentwildlifetrust.org.uk/volunteering-opportunities)