Volunteering – so much more than Charity

Written by Sarah Koedijk

September 5, 2018

In honour of the International Day of Charity on 5th September, we interviewed King’s student, Erika Hvistendahl, to learn more about her volunteering experiences, and how they have helped her break into a highly competitive job market.

  1. What kind of volunteering have you been involved with during or between your studies?

I took part in various volunteering activities during my time at university. However, the projects which predominantly shaped my personal development, have been two international volunteering experiences.

I took part in my first overseas volunteering experience during my undergraduate studies. Here, I volunteered with the Naankuse Foundation, just outside of Windhoek, Namibia. The organisations specialises in the conservation of the land, cultures and wildlife of Namibia. As a volunteer, I carried out a range of tasks within the Foundation’s wildlife sanctuary. I also supported conservation research efforts and assisted in the primary school for the local San Bushmen community.

I engaged with my second major volunteering effort through the social enterprise Balloon Ventures. The organisation works with micro businesses in Kenya, Uganda, Ghana and the Philippines and seeks to promote sustainable local business growth. In this, I volunteered with Baloon Ventures in Eldoret, western Kenya, during the summer of my penultimate year of University. As a global enterprise intern, I was part of a small international team with young, local entrepreneurs. We worked to set up or expand founders’ micro-scale entrepreneurial ventures through consultancy-based training and business education. All entrepreneurs then pitched their idea or established business to a panel. If successful, they could receive up to 50,000 Kenyan shillings for their respective businesses.

  1. How do you feel volunteering has shaped your skillset and enhanced your employability? 

My volunteering experiences abroad have shaped my skillset in diverse ways and I have found that they are the placements, which make me stand out most when applying for jobs.

Working and living abroad clearly demonstrates a wide range of transferrable skills that enhance your employability significantly. These include teamwork, dedication and passion for a cause and the ability to operate outside of your comfort zone and adapt to extreme environments, including language and cultural barriers.

Furthermore, I find that volunteering opportunities give you far more responsibility and challenging, yet rewarding tasks, than student-level paid employment. For example, during my volunteering project with Balloon Ventures in Kenya, I worked independently with six entrepreneurs across several industries. I participated in all business-stages from idea generation, to market research and testing, and conducting financial projections. During this process, I was chosen to sit on panel to which entrepreneurs pitched their business ideas. For this, I made recommendations and helped decide on how loans were granted. This gave me great exposure to the ins and outs of social enterprises and “development” work on the field. I believe that these types of volunteering experiences are invaluable both for your personal development as well as job applications.

  1. Do you think that it has given you an easier route into the international development industry?

The international development industry is one of the most competitive fields to break into and I believe that volunteering is a must. Often, a few years of volunteering is a basic requisite for even passing the first stage of an application process. More than that though, volunteering at different (international) organisations helps you develop key interest areas within international development. Learning more about these areas and being able to communicate this passion can make it far easier to break into international development.

  1. What challenges did you encounter on the way?

The main challenges I encountered were money – and time related. Even when volunteering (abroad) is subsidised, the costs of plane tickets, visas, and vaccines add up and can be difficult on a student budget. It can also be tough to balance alongside student commitments and deadlines. To deal with this, I started fundraising as early as possible. In addition, I planned my commitments thoroughly and set myself personal deadlines for volunteering, fundraising and coursework before the official deadlines. This made me much more efficient.

  1. What is your advice for students who want to start volunteering?

My advice for students is to get involved as soon as possible. However, don’t just volunteer for the sake of doing it. There are countless organisations and charities to pick from, so select those whose missions you are passionate about. This will motivate you to work harder and stretch yourself, making it easier to advance your skillset and stand out in interviews.

Doing volunteering placements can be expensive and time-intensive. If you are unable to find subsidised or sponsored experiences abroad, volunteering for local development and humanitarian organisations at university or in your community, can be just as valuable. I know several people who found full-time jobs at organisations they volunteered with for years after graduating. Good luck!

Erika is currently completing a MSc in Emerging Economies and International Development at King’s College London. From October 2018, she will join the UK Civil Service Fast Stream.