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A volunteer performs services for a charity, community or non-profit making organisation and will not normally be paid, although out-of-pocket expenses may be reimbursed.

Many charities rely heavily on volunteers, whether this involves performing administrative tasks in an office, manning their shop or working in the field. Other organisations such as schools and hospitals also rely on volunteers, either to fundraise or to interact with pupils or patients, perhaps hearing children read, helping with after-school sports coaching or, in the case of a hospital, working at the information desk or shop or talking to patients who are distressed or lonely.

Voluntary work can be done on a formal basis through a charity or other organisation or can be done informally, for example helping a neighbour who is elderly or house bound. Whatever your background, you can be sure that there is a suitable position for you and for those who cannot get out to volunteer or want to help a charity which is geographically remote from their home, many charities have online volunteers.


A volunteer is unlikely to be paid, although some organisations will refund expenses such as transport costs. If the voluntary work is being carried out abroad you may find that you have to pay a placement fee which can be hefty but this will cover accommodation, food and a small amount of “pocket money”.

Rewards, however, do not come purely in the form of monetary recompense and volunteers invariably feel that they gain enormously from their work, whether it be in terms of personal satisfaction from helping others, personal development or useful experience for their CV. For instance, medical students often volunteer in developing countries and this can look particularly impressive, from the point of view of personal and professional growth. Knowing that you can cope in primitive living and working conditions can give the individual huge confidence.

Would-be teachers might consider a spell of teaching English abroad as a volunteer and, even if travelling abroad is not an option, schools in the UK are always on the look-out for people who can spare a few hours a week to help on a one-to-one basis with children with reading difficulties etc.

In a recent survey, carried out by a leading employment agency, three quarters of all employers said they would favour an applicant who has had volunteer experience over one who has not. In addition, it can provide you with new experiences, new friends, good networking opportunities and the confidence which comes from meeting a challenge.


It is impossible to generalise about a volunteer’s responsibilities but they can include the following:

  • Working in a charity shop – sorting and arranging goods donated by the public, serving customers, cashing up
  • Working in a church cafe – preparing food, serving it, clearing tables, washing up, taking money
  • Working in a school – listening to children read, helping with arts and crafts, assisting with after school sports clubs, transporting children to away matches, becoming a school governor and fundraising
  • Working in a hospital – manning the information desk, taking the trolley with library books, stamps, toiletries etc round the wards, talking to patients who are facing surgery or illness of which you yourself have had personal experience, serving refreshments, fundraising
  • Working in an office – undertaking basic administrative tasks, performing more specialised jobs (eg marketing) of which you may have suitable professional experience, answering telephone
  • Manning a helpline – talking to people on the phone eg Samaritans, ChildLine, university crisis helpline
  • Working as an environmental volunteer – doing everything from menial tasks such as clearing overgrown areas to tasks which require more experience of gardening
  • Working abroad as a teacher – teaching English to children and adults, providing education on HIV prevention, setting up after school clubs, organising fun activities
  • Working abroad as a medical professional – setting up vaccination programmes, dealing with casualties of war, educating local population on health related topics, performing surgery, setting up clinics and training local staff
  • Working online – internet research for charities, website developing, webmaster duties, internet marketing
  • Informal volunteering – helping a sick neighbour with household tasks, taking an elderly person to visit a friend in hospital, babysitting for a stressed mother, shopping for a housebound person, lending a friendly ear to a lonely neighbour


The qualifications required to be a volunteer vary greatly depending on the work you do. Obviously if you want to volunteer, for instance, in a medical environment, you will be required to have appropriate training and experience. If you are an undergraduate medic you will be restricted in what you can do but will still perform a valuable role in providing support to the doctor in charge eg taking blood pressure, administering injections, processing urine samples.

Some charities will require you to undertake training at your own expense before the placement eg a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) qualification for those about to teach English abroad whilst other charities will provide their own training.

Organisations such as VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) look for well-qualified and experienced professionals such as head teachers, business development consultants, engineers, IT specialists and biomedical scientists.

Other placements, for instance helping in an administrative role at a charity’s office, may require nothing more than basic office skills. Working in a charity shop will not normally involve anything other than a willingness to muck in, a friendly approach and the ability to handle money.


  • A desire to help others
  • Impartiality
  • Humanitarian ethos
  • Ability to listen
  • Suitable professional skills/experience if required
  • Physical and mental stamina for some jobs
  • Flexibility
  • Good team player
  • Ability to work independently where necessary
  • Ability to improvise, especially in developing countries where resources may be scarce
  • Friendly and approachable nature
  • Ability to relate to the young, the elderly, and the incapacitated, depending on the work
  • Willingness, for some jobs, to live in primitive and sometimes dangerous conditions

Working Conditions

Working conditions for a volunteer will vary greatly according to the work done and the location of the placement. You could, for instance, be working in a warm comfortable office or in a war-torn third world country where disease and danger are rife.

The hours too will vary greatly, with some people spending only a couple of hours a week working in a charity shop, doing shopping for house bound people, clearing woodland paths for the National Trust or walking dogs for the Dogs’ Trust whilst others are working long hours in gruelling conditions, coping with natural disasters, armed conflict, and epidemics.

Although most of the work will be done during the day, organisations such as the Samaritans require their volunteers to do their fair share of night shifts.

It is also impossible to generalise about the physical and mental demands of the job. You could be involved with physical challenges such as having to lift people if you are a hospital volunteer or do heavy digging if you are involved in environmental work, whilst volunteers in humanitarian crises can find it difficult to switch off when they are off duty.


Some charities will require absolutely no previous experience, whilst others, such as VSO, are looking for people with extensive experience in the workplace. Whatever your previous experience, you can be confident that there will be a suitable placement.


  • Charities – major ones such as Oxfam and smaller local ones such as ALDAG
  • Schools
  • Hospitals
  • Community and church projects

Career Progression

It is relatively unusual for a volunteer to be overly concerned about career progression. Many volunteers are Gap Year students, taking time out before university or after graduation, whilst others are retired. At times of high unemployment many people volunteer in order to give a structure to their week, to keep their professional skills honed and to show prospective employers that they are motivated individuals who have done something useful.

Depending on the nature of the work done, there can be opportunities to move into a supervisory role such as managing a charity shop or overseeing other volunteers and the chance may also arise to apply for a paid position within the charity.

Also known as…

  • Unpaid charity worker

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What’s it really like?

Joyce Smith, who worked part-time for a firm of accountants and has recently completed a degree in Social Policy, was one of a group of parents and enthusiastic friends from the local churches who founded ALDAG (Ashtead Learning Difficulties Action Group) 13 years ago. She is still heavily involved with the charity.

Having a teenage daughter with learning difficulties made her aware of the lack of opportunity for young people like her, who are at college outside the local area, to do the things that others take for granted, such as making friends and having a social life independent of their parents. She was also anxious looking ahead at the problems surrounding these young people being able to become appropriately independent.

Various meetings were held, places visited to see what was needed and it was decided that a registered charity would be the best option since this represented a serious commitment. In order to gather together a group of local youngsters, Conquerors, a social club, was formed which gives those aged between 16 and their early 30s the chance to participate in activities like dancing and listening to music, pub trips, barbecues, arts and crafts sessions, snooker, table tennis, table football, bowling and parties. In addition to fortnightly meetings, a summer fortnight of daily activities was organised which has now, at the request of the young people themselves, become a five–day residential trip to a holiday camp.

ALDAG has also been instrumental in a supported living project for three young men and has recently started providing work experience for young people with learning difficulties at St George’s Church cafe for two days a week: Café ALDAG. This also provides a service to the community and allows the young people to interact with the local people of Ashtead. All participants took part in a hygiene course and wear a uniform. It is hoped that this will lead to employment in other cafes. There is also a Fairtrade stall selling consumables and jewellery. The Café ALDAG project is run by a paid manager and manned by the young people supported by volunteers.

Joyce volunteers as a supporter for two young people working at the ‘front of house’ but was quick to point out that she does very little of the work as they are so fantastic. She loves the way that the community has got to know the young people and the growth in their confidence and skills. In fact the only downside for Joyce is that she gets tired!

In addition to her work in the cafe, Joyce also helps with a Parents’ Forum, represents ALDAG at meetings, speaks to schools and local groups and has done some fundraising eg made and sold Christmas table linen, organised fashion shows, meals with entertainment and most recently a curry night at a local restaurant. Fundraising involves finding a suitable venue and caterer, organising the entertainment, gathering together a team of helpers (ALDAG is lucky in having a pool of very dedicated supporters), selling tickets and sourcing raffle prizes – the worst part for Joyce who hates asking for things!

Joyce hopes that ALDAG will continue to be a force for local awareness of the need for young people with learning difficulties to be integrated into the community, rather than simply being sidelined into learning disabilities services. Joyce firmly believes that providing the opportunity for interaction benefits both the young people and the local populace. She would also like to think that ALDAG can have an impact on what happens in terms of social policy. They are currently trying to provide supported living for another 2 to 6 young people and would like in the future to have a shop in Ashtead selling Fairtrade goods, where young people could work, supported by members of the community.

Joyce would advise anyone thinking of becoming a volunteer to be passionate about their cause. This type of volunteering is not always plain sailing and, according to Joyce, can often feel as if you are wading through treacle. When this happens you are bound to become disheartened if the cause is not close to your heart.

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