Posted by: alexswallow | April 21, 2013

What made you get involved with charities?

Something that always fascinates me, when I meet people who work in the charity sector, or who volunteer, especially those who have been doing so a long time, is what started them off? This was a key issue for the Growing Giving Inquiry that I went to last week.

I often find that once people have got involved with charities in a meaningful way, they rarely stop doing so. They may change their support from charity to charity but they have a general commitment to the idea of supporting charities.

I can’t personally put my finger on what it was that made me get involved, but I can think of a few early examples. I was a member of the Nautical Training Corps for ten years. As a young man, dressing up as a sailor in Kemp Town, Brighton was an education in itself, but I particularly remember the zeal with which I undertook my duties at a jumble sale. A rather tight-fisted lady wanted to buy a 5p dog bowl off me for 2p, and even as a child I was having none of it.

Despite not being a Catholic, I went to a Catholic secondary school and charity was quite a big part of our year. For this I had a small ‘business’ twice, once selling stationery (‘Swallow’s Stationery’ I believe) and once selling Brighton rock, which saw me mainly chase my friends through the school who were stealing from my stall to annoy me.

I was also involved in a variety of youth organisations in representational roles, including being Mayor of Hove Schools’ Council and even having a chain of office. I then carried on volunteering into University, where I also got involved in RAG.

I think that for me, one crucial thing was that charity never felt like something entirely separate, I got involved with it in the course of being involved with other things. The reason I was involved in those things to start with is because I had a supportive family.

I’d be fascinated to know what started off your engagement with charity and whether you think that this could be used to encourage others.





  1. Thanks Alex. One of the many wonderful things about the charity sector that I’ve learned over more than two decades is the remarkably varied backgrounds of people who have come to work in the sector, and their reasons for doing so.

    I look forward to learning about other people’s reasons.

    You kindly asked me to comment, so here goes.

    I was involved as a child in fundraising activities – Bob a Job week as a Cub Scout, a local fun run for a community centre, and regular flag days at school where children took round the RNLI or Royal British Legion collecting boxes.

    So, charity was a given, if not particularly noticeable background to my childhood.

    My grandparents were Salvation Army members, so often went collecting themselves, especially with the band, and were involved in various charitable works, such as attending the Hither Green and Lewisham rail disasters. That inspires me now, but didn’t very much when I was younger.

    But they didn’t involve me in fundraising. And no, religion plays no part at all in my fundraising career or motivation.

    My fundraising career started at university, I reckon. In the months after Live Aid, it struck me that such sums were going to be needed on an ongoing basis to help prevent such problems recurring. So, with Oxfam up the road, I helped form a group which came up with an entrepreneurial idea to raise substantial funds. We did so, for Oxfam, got to learn a bit about the charity, and got a kick out of raising a lot.

    I nearly ended up in arts administration as a career, but the opportunity to apply for a job at Oxfam came first. And that’s how I got started in my fundraising career.

    In short, I wanted to make a difference, chose fundraising as a means to do so, and found that, with good friends and colleagues, I could do so.

    I hope that, if I hadn’t been too good at fundraising, I’d have had the good grace and common sense to withdraw from the sector.

  2. It was my escapism from my chaotic (Jeremy Kyle style) family. That, and it meant I had a real chance to implement change that I think my local area needed, I don’t mean in terms of street lighting but actual strategis issues; mainly the delivery of health, transport and statutory children services.

    I started as a member of my school council and was soon elected Chair, this was great in itself because it meant I could stay at school even longer and away from home. I attended a local youth councils annual conference and loved it so much I joined that very day. It has all snowballed from there. To avoid lengthy repitition and bore your readers to death, you can see what the snowball turned into on LinkedIn:

    Never in a million years did I expect it, 8 years later, to consume my life and give my the oppotunity to meet so many fantastic people, learn about so many fantastic causes and to develop all the skills they gave me. Plus an awesome network.

  3. Hello Alex,

    I kinda got involved by chance. Our family moved to the Seattle area in 1998 and I was looking to network within the business community. I found my alma mater, Brigham Young University, had several groups in the area including the Management Society. This chapter of the Society is a non-profit that encourages networking, but also raises money for college scholarships.

    Through that association I found that my community work centers largely with young people and their education.

    The Management Society awards scholarships based on academic achievement and need and our chapter alone awards ~100 scholarships per year.

    Work Force Development Center’s focus is with at-risk high school kids and we’ve served over 1,000 students since it’s inception.

    Lastly, as a volunteer with Scouting, I have the opportunity to help young people grow into adults.

    So, beginning with the desire to serve my networking needs I found tremendous joy and a chance to give back to our community by volunteering and leading these organizations through serving on their boards.

    I encourage others to get involved and help through offering their time and talents.

  4. Thanks all for the brilliant comments so far, I hope that a few more people share their experiences. It’s great to see that there are so many routes to taking an interest in the sector and for staying connected to charitable causes over a long period of time.

  5. Hi – interesting thought! For me, the beginning was meeting a youth worker in North Somerset when I was 14, who was looking for young people who would be interested in forming a local youth parliament. I’ve never really been into representation, but the project sounded interesting enough, and there were nice quiet background roles. We started developing campaigns, speaking at events, irritating local councillors – the usual sort of thing.

    Then my youth worker asked me if I wanted to help him write and deliver some training for school councils. Well, that was something special. Seeing a training course come together and giving other young people the sort of skills and knowledge that I’d been developing was great. When a job came up at a charity for a ‘young trainer’, my youth worker sent it straight to me. I worked for 5 years all over the country, training professionals, running consultations with young people, and campaigning for young people’s rights.

    But that also put me in contact with a huge number of new volunteering opportunities that I just wouldn’t have come across otherwise. I know a few people who’ve written and spoken about the problems of closed-off networks of young volunteers; another subject for another day, perhaps, but, well, frankly I was one of them. Similar faces would pop up on different projects all the time. In all honesty, whilst this isn’t ideal for the sector, what it gave me was a certain sense of continuity and community, at a time when I was experiencing a bit of a messy home and social life. Oh, and I suppose there was school too. But I never got the sense of achievement or of being valued there that I did from volunteering.

    I’ve had some amazing, exhausting, exhilarating experiences through volunteering. I’ve been to Geneva, New York and, er, Chelmsford (two weeks of workshops at the World Scout Jamboree), discovered a weird geeky passion for funding and fundraising, and made life-long friends. As graduation from University creeps ever nearer (this is epic exam procrastination right here, apologies for its length), I really hope I’ll be able to afford to continue.

  6. I’ve been involved with charities since I was about 15, when I had the opportunity to do some community visiting, as I think it was then called. Every week, for a year, I went to spend about an hour or two with a local chap called Paul who had severe epilepsy and other physical difficulties. We got on really well, and we spent most of the time listening to his 7″ record collection on repeat, which consisted almost exclusively of Chris de Burgh’s Lady in Red. After a few months, I went and bought him a Housemartins single – just to mix things up a bit!

    While still at school I also went to visit a local ‘Halfway House’ (more 1980s terminology!?) and helped organise a Mencap fun day. So it seemed a natural step to stay involved with charities when I got to university. I volunteered regularly for a great charity that paired students with children with a wide range of disabilities to play sport, do drama and go places, and then ended up running the charity as the only employee when I graduated.

    It was only at around this point that I realised I could work for charities as a career. It was never really mentioned in any school or university careers advice as a possibility in those days.

    And here we are about 20 years later!

  7. Hi Alex – you asked me what made me get involved in charities. Well the first charity I joined was the British Red Cross when I was 11 I signed up as a first aided junior cadet. I wanted to be able to help other people, and being able to do first aid seemed a practical way to help, and I have been doing practical stuff ever since. I am much happier using my technical and artistic skills to help than fundraising or generally “helping out”. Mainly it comes from a desire to give something back and also to help those who can’t help themselves. I think everyone should have the experience of helping someone else out, it doesn’t matter what ones skills are there’s always some way you can help someonelse. I also benefited from being involved with professional organisations in a non work related way. Skills learnt serving in voluntary committees and boards have been invaluable later on.

  8. Actually, I helped set up a social enterprise when I graduated from Poly in the 1980s. I was keen for us to become a workers’ co-op rather than a charity so that we could have more control over what we did. We set it up on the crest of a wave of naive optimism, particularly since it was in Nottingham, in the middle of the miner’s strike at the height of Thatcherism. Still, we told ourselves we were subverting that creed by making money to support social activities. Unfortunately the enterprise never worked effectively so it folded and I went to work at a gallery in London. That was my transition to working for a charity and after a good few years I realised I needed to do something more socially useful than massage artists’ egos. So, I looked at my CV, saw that the sector wanted fundraisers and made the match. I never really thought of myself as someone who could work in “sales” but I must have some skills after all these years of raising funds. But the main thing is that it fits my values and I love the chances you get to discuss things that are really important to society.

  9. It just happened, starting from a young age is how I’d summarise my start with charities. However reading other comments there is a resonating story. Scouting, Salvation Army, work when at University, start when young. Perhaps more than coincidence? My faith too is a driver as it means little unless it affects my actions too.
    My charity involvement is varied – both paid and voluntary. So the paid first – yes, I do it to earn an income, but I enjoy it partly due to its structure, aims and ethos. My voluntary – many hours – work though is different in many ways as I needn’t do it but do so because I feel I can help others. I used to be a School Governor and Parent Representative on a Local Authority too – that was initially because things were not right and I could help by volunteering to get them improved (school transport of special needs children including my own son).
    So a variety if drivers influenced I am sure by upbringing or childhood environment. Not all drivers are for the good of the human race – I need an income and at the time my son needed much better school transport. Other drivers are not self serving though – school finance committee, local authority committees and Counselling charity support.

  10. Great post Alex, and it’s great to read the responses too.

    Unlike some of the commenters above, I’ve only recently gotten involved in the charity sector (4th July 2011 if anyone is asking). I used to work in digital & social media for a university (I also have some experience of local press and a range of other jobs), and as my contract was coming to an end, I happened upon an advertisement for a social media job at Girlguiding that felt like a great fit. I applied for the job and got it..

    Luckily the job was an amazing fit, and the environment I work in is unlike any I’ve experienced before. Given my relatively recent ‘first exposure’ to the charity sector, I still marvel at some of the differences s between it and my previous experience*

    1) The people I work with are passionate about Girlguiding and what Girlguiding offers to girls, young women and adult volunteers. This has helped to develop the most amazing working atmosphere – Everyone is committed to the same goals, and they are all, to a person, prepared to go the extra mile to help achieve those goals.

    2) By entering the voluntary sector, I’ve been made to feel immediately welcome by people from different organisations that already work in the sector. I’ve met amazing people that I would never have encountered had I not entered the voluntary sector, I’ve had chats and shared pints with people that have been immediately welcoming. The sense of comradery between people that work in the charity sector is amazing, and I hope that it’s something I never take for granted.

    3) Volunteers – As a paid staff member working in the voluntary sector, I’m highly reliant on the volunteers I work with. When I started at Girlguiding I was astounded by the commitment, time and effort that the volunteers give – I knew that volunteers were a key part of the organisation, but I’ve been amazed every time I meet them. They are amazing, and they are crucial to so many charitable organisations.

    tl;dr – I came in to the sector by chance, I love it, and I won’t be leaving anytime soon.

    * None of the items included on this list are a slight on previous employers, but I have found that the items listed exist in a way in the charity sector that you just don’t find elsewhere

  11. Fascinating comments by everyone.

    My parents both worked in General Practice and we lived next door to the surgery. At the beginning my Dad was on call every 3rd night. Seeing people in the surgery all night, driving to isolated fen villages in the middle of the night to visit people in pain and distress and then working all the next day. One night when Dad was out on a visit, mum was seeing a family whose severely malnourished baby was struggling to breathe. The parents had learning difficulties and the baby’s nappy had rotted on to its skin. With her children asleep alone next door, she dealt with this family compassionately, sensitively and managed to get the family to agree to go to hospital in the ambulance.

    I’ve never had the stamina of my parents but I have been imbued with their sense of duty to the community. It’s not self-sacrificing, it was well paid work, we were comfortable, we went on holiday, we had fun but it was a sense that underneath everything we do, we should always be aware that inequality and poverty exist in society. And GPs and Practice Nurses working in the Fens will see that as part of their daily work.

    So my involvement with the voluntary sector is informed by that but I only ever give or do in a way that is healthy for me.

    I have worked as a volunteer in many organisations to make friends, recuperate from illness, keep me busy, improve my career and get me work.

    I fundraise as a volunteer for various charities. It’s usually things that have touched me or my family.personally.

    I donate to 2 charities regularly, one was my step-dad’s favourite charity and the other an innovative homeless project in London which my friend runs.

    I give to other charities when my friends are fundraising, when I engage with a group via social media, when there are special campaigns, at Christmas and when prompted by people rattling tins. I impose a coffee tax on myself by making sure I donate 5p for every coffee I buy in a multi-national coffee chain.

    I’ve done paid work in the voluntary sector for 6 years and before that I mainly worked in the statutory sector. Ive enjoyed doing that work because I feel I’m working in a sector that is supporting the community (but like the person above said that is not to say the other sectors aren’t doing that too)

    The other important reason has been because I feel that charities/stat sector may be more understanding of mental health issues and operate mental well-being at work policies.

    • I like the self-imposed coffee tax idea, in an age when many companies avoid taxes.

  12. […] Presley has very kindly responded to my earlier post about ‘What made you get involved with charities?’ with a really personal and inspiring […]

  13. Well when I was 11 I raised money by running a jumble sale for charity.. so I guess I started quite young. I’ve worked in the private, public and non profit sectors. I must admit that by the age of 21 working in publishing I knew I wasn’t motivated by shareholder return – or not on its own anyway. By first job in charity was at Sadlers Wells Theatre where I worked front of house and was always interested in their activities supporting the local community. Then my first full time job at Save the Children Fund where I found my feet & did 4 different roles over 9 years.. the rest is history – working at Helpage International ,Big Lottery, CAF and then Unltd before setting up by own for purpose business Mix-Fits ( that mixes a company with a small charity.

    I guess I’m happiest working for non profit/social businesses that blend charitable with business, always whose primary reason for being is societal return.


  14. […] 2- What made you get involved in charities? […]

  15. […] This article is of course just a personal view and I am sure that Chief Executives in the charity/nonprofit sector who are a lot more experienced than me will have some important insights I have missed. Please share your own tips in the comments below and as ever I’d like to hear what it was that got you involved in charities in the first place! […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: