Over the rainbow or over the cuckoo’s nest? Life in a charity is definitely a bit of both!
A new colleague asked me a while ago, ‘what can I read to help me settle into life in the charity sector?’ My answer was, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’!
Just like my new colleague, I too have come into charity life after experience in other sectors such as education and the public sector. Life there was predictable, slow and, in my eyes, it all looked a bit grey. Stumbling into my first charity job I felt like Dorothy when she opened the door after the twister and found herself in Oz; technicolour had arrived. It was great to work somewhere that wanted to hear new ideas and to let you run with them. Now in my fourth charity, I can confirm that the colour hasn’t faded. Despite the constant worry about funding and crossing fingers that we manage to continue the work that we do, this fades into the background after a while as the difference that you make to people is the sharper focus and the driving force. You have to put the work in, it’s no ‘jolly’, but you’ll never be bored or watch the clock waiting for break, lunch, home, in fact, you won’t know even know what day it is at times!
Life is never dull in Charityland. I recall my first ‘event’ at Blackpool Carers Centre (We like an event, fundraiser, awareness raiser, any excuse really!). We were staging a ‘Family Fun’ day on our car park. A dismal car park, but nevertheless we got busy with balloons and homemade signs, slapped on the smiles, even when the gazebos blew away, rustled up makeshift ‘brew and biscuit stations’ and all was going well until a mishap with a blocked toilet (we only had two toilets to contend with the masses!). Sure enough it was our CEO to rescue with her marigolds, a plunger and a strong stomach to save the day. You see, that’s the thing with a charity, everyone has to have a go at everything. There is no Estates Team to call on, not even a Caretaker! Many a day I return to my desk to find the latest broken article with a scribbled plea for me to crack open the communal toolbox and fix it. Cleaners are few and far between too so it really is a home from home where you muck in, give the sink a scrub and the stairs a sweep if need be. Leaders most definitely lead by example; no job is ‘not my job’, we’re all in it together and that makes for a tight knit team, all heading in the same direction….most of the time!
Alongside the general mucking in and also, most importantly, running a service, there are other curveballs to contend with given the limitations of a small workforce juggling everything from marketing to mice infestations. It isn’t unusual to go from dealing with a safeguarding incident at a home visit, to picking up a car load of donated biscuits, to being interviewed on the radio about the work of the charity and then running a youthclub; don’t even think about getting home on time! A flexible workforce like no other I’ve seen, with ‘bonkers’ as the most used word around the place!
Another point of note is that should you decide to work for a charity, it very much becomes a family affair. Have a husband who can rustle up a barbeque?....He’s Head Chef at the next event, pending completion of his food hygiene certificate of course! A sister who can facepaint?...jolly good, there’ll be a queue for her at the children’s disco! You say your wife works in retail?....we need some prizes for the raffle. Your brother’s, girlfriend’s cousin twice removed works at a casino?...can we get an intro as we need a casino set up at our annual Ball? Our problem solving skills and innovation knows no bounds, there doesn’t even need to be a will, we’ll find a way. Along with our communal toolbox we definitely have a metaphorical one where someone on the team will know how to help whether it be a family in need, a DIY disaster in the building, a contact in a trade or an event planning conundrum, we’re on it!
I know that some people think that working for a charity means that you are either not being paid or not a professional (or both!). We do get paid and we are professionals, coming from many different disciplines such as education, social work, child development and banking to name a few. Not only do we have the wealth of skills and knowledge from the team though; we definitely could not do what we do without the talent and expertise of our wonderful volunteers who help us to run the service and all that comes with it, such as cleaning the minibus, dressing up as our 6ft donkey mascot and shouting about our work (in the nicest of ways!) One of the best bits about working in this sector is the attitude and comradery of workers and volunteers together; making ‘owt from nowt’, finding ways, running with crazy ideas and seeing the difference made in the community.
So please, if you get the opportunity, try out some volunteering at a charity, experience the technicolour or just watch One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest ;)