Ask a professional: Volunteering

Sophie AtkinsonAs Head of Community Investment at the Sanctuary Group Sophie Atkinson (MA Shakespeare and Theatre, 2013) works closely with many community groups which are volunteer led. The Edge asked her advice on the impact of volunteering on career progression.

Can you tell us a little about your role at the Sanctuary Group?

Sanctuary is one of the UK’s leading housing and care providers. We own and manage over 96,000 properties including social housing, care homes and student accommodation. My role is Group Head of Community Investment and I am responsible for managing Sanctuary Group’s community investment projects and initiatives across the UK. Each year we invest around £1.5 million in supporting projects in the neighbourhoods where we operate. These are wide ranging – covering anything from sports programmes for disadvantaged young people to arts projects aimed at older people living with dementia.

What is your experience of volunteering?

In my role, I work closely with community groups up and down the country, many of which are led by volunteers, so I understand the valuable contribution they make to their neighbourhoods and society as a whole. They give up their own time to make a difference to the lives of others in their community and act as champions and enablers in the areas where we operate. I am in the fortunate position of being able to provide them with the financial and practical support they need to achieve their goals.

Why is volunteering important for today’s graduates?

Working for a charitable organisation means that our employees have a strong sense of community and we look for these qualities in our graduates too. Volunteering demonstrates that a potential job applicant is committed to using their skills and talents to make a meaningful contribution to society and with so many highly capable people competing for a small number of roles on our graduate programme, volunteering can really help them stand out from the crowd.

Do you think volunteering can provide graduates with a professional advantage?

The right kind of volunteering can definitely provide graduates with a professional advantage. The key is to find an opportunity which will help them develop useful and transferable skills. Most volunteering placements will provide this. I’ve sat in several interviews where applicants have downplayed their volunteering experience when they should really be selling the benefits of the skills they have developed during the process. This will include important qualities like team work, communication and good organisational skills which employers will be interested in.

Where can people look for volunteering opportunities?

There are a number of different websites which signpost opportunities (here's an example). This site allows you to put in your availability and then brings up openings that might interest you. There’s nothing like the direct approach though, so try approaching organisations you want to work with. Find out more about how they work first and then you can make useful suggestions as to how you can help out. We manage student halls of residence in some areas and have run volunteering events to introduce students to charities working in their area.

Do you think it is more important for people to volunteer in areas which have a personal interest or professional benefit?

It depends on your motivation. If you’re volunteering for professional benefit only I’m not sure your motivations are right. You can always develop volunteering skills in other ways, like getting work experience, but I think it’s much more rewarding and enjoyable if you can find an area which interests you. You won’t be fooling anyone if you are just turning up to get some experience on your CV, as any lack of motivation or commitment will soon be picked up on.

How much time do you think people should expect to devote to volunteering?

Be sensible. If you’re studying or working you also need to devote enough time to this. There is also a financial implication – some people aren’t able to work unpaid so also be on the look out for other opportunities which allow you to develop your experience but which may also pay. Sanctuary’s internship programme, for example, allows people to receive paid employment across several business areas and they also get the opportunity to join our employee volunteering programme. It’s not only hugely rewarding, they gain valuable new skills in the process.