Last Summer I spent ten weeks working for Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) – a leading international development organisation. The not-for-profit organisation sends professionals to developing countries where they share their skills with those working in similar capacities. Volunteers include teachers who head off to train other teachers, or accountants who teach charities working in developing countries how to finance their own organisations – all manner of qualified people helping to spread knowledge across the globe. OK, enough advertising. My experiences with VSO UK highlights two points – work experience is valuable regardless of where it is or what you do, and the charity sector is somewhere well worth looking into for employment.Somewhat worryingly for a final year student, I have no clear idea of a career for myself, but that is the beauty of work experience. When I got offered a PR internship with VSO UK I was sceptical – I was interested in writing, journalism, and media, but was not sure about PR. To me PR was all about glossy mags, running around trying to sell toilet paper, or protecting self-important celebrities from themselves. I did, and still do, have an interest in working in international development however, so took the internship with high hopes. I worked three days at VSO UK’s offices in Putney for the ten weeks, for expenses only.
I quickly learned the ropes, and by the time two weeks had passed I was comfortable with my role, able to determine my own daily timetable of work and was one of the team. My role as Media Assistant involved, mainly, drafting press releases for VSO UK; interviewing volunteers who were about to head off on their two-year placements to turn their stories into news stories; contacting local and national media outlets to ‘sell in’ interesting stories about VSO volunteers; researching media outlets in search of places where VSO might get a story; and alerting my boss to any volunteer with a particularly interesting background story. (One woman I interviewed was returning to Cameroon for her second trip with VSO. On her first she met and married her now husband with whom she has two children! Prime ‘Take a Break’ material.)
VSO, despite being relatively well known and a leading charity in its field is still running on a restricted budget, and any publicity is good publicity. Finding ways into any type of media outlet provides the organisation with the free publicity that can place them in the public consciousness. Too often people think of working for a charity as the groundwork – collecting money, working in the developing world, delivering medical supplies. In reality, not-for-profit organisations need management, PR, IT, HR departments just like any other company. Getting work experience with such an organisation not only allows you to develop ‘soft’ skills and experience of a career that you might be interested in following, but gives you an insight into the work charities really get done. VSO offered lunchtime talks for staff given by volunteers, dignitaries from countries where VSO work, and all other manner of interesting people. It was an eye opener to see and hear directly from those working in the field about the benefits of VSO.
Furthermore, depending on where you work of course, charity organisations often have to keep their staff numbers limited as a result of limiting their spending. This means that you could well end up with more responsibility than might be afforded you in a big multi-national, and a small company may be a much more welcoming and friendly environment for your first taste of the ‘real’ working world.
When applying for internships, or jobs, don’t get too caught up in the big companies; the PriceWaterhouseCoopers or RBSes of the world. Experience is experience wherever you undertake it, and working for a charity organisation is a highly valuable option. You can really help them out, learn your way about an office, and raise your own awareness of the important work there is to be done in such a selfless sector.