Volunteering can provide valuable experience. Gwyn Owen looks at the ethical and practical implications
Voluntary work – giving unpaid help to individuals, communities or organisations – can benefit the volunteer as well as those they serve. It can enrich volunteers’ lives at all stages of their career, and in retirement.
But in terms of continuing professional development (CPD), it is particularly valuable to students and graduates who aren’t yet employed. It provides useful experience of non-academic work and promotes skills that will be useful in their future workplace.
Universities have a history of promoting volunteering opportunities to staff and students, seeing it as as part of their civic responsibility as well as recognising the potential benefits to the volunteers.
The ethical and practical issues raised in this article are equally relevant for volunteers of all ages. It explores some of the things to think about – to ensure that your activity makes a positive difference not only to your life, but most importantly to the lives of those you’re aiming to serve.
Statistics collated by the charity Volunteering England show that about three-quarters of the population in England and Wales do some form of voluntary activity at least once a year.
These figures suggest that, despite the economic situation, people feel moved to offer their help to others without payment.
This can be informally to an individual, or more formally through a group, club or organisation.
For more regular voluntary work, the organisation’s statistics present a slightly different picture. A little under half the population report taking part in a voluntary activity at least once a month.
Obstacles to more regular activity included work and family commitments, or that people were simply using their available spare time to do other things.
Taken together, the figures could suggest that, while people are willing to participate in voluntary activity, the practicalities of juggling work or study, family life and other priorities can limit what people feel able to offer.
So what are the potential benefits of doing voluntary work? Depending on the activity you choose, it is possible to develop new interests, knowledge and skills. Or you can use those you already have, but work with them in unfamiliar environments and contexts.
Most volunteering, whether working in a charity shop or building a dry-stone wall, requires you to develop high levels of communication, team-working, personal organisation and problem-solving and decision-making skills.
Some opportunities will provide space to help others learn and develop in ways that value diversity and promote person-centredness. All are highly relevant for physiotherapy practice.
Voluntary work can also offer a chance to understand, by working with people of different backgrounds, what their experience of life is like.
Depending on how the activity is organised, it may help you establish a new social network – valuable to a student moving into a new area.
But voluntary work should be a two-way street, which is why the ethical dimension is so important to consider.
The new CSP code of members’ professional values and behaviours, due to be published in October, provides a framework to explore the impact of voluntary work. The principles underpinning the code lead us to question four aspects of volunteering activity.
- Am I taking responsibility as a volunteer?
- Am I behaving ethically?
- Am I delivering an effective service?
- Am I striving to achieve excellence?
Working through these questions allows CSP members to demonstrate the behaviours necessary for professional practice.
Gwyn Owen is the CSP‘s professional adviser – CPD
How to use this article towards your CPD
These questions are designed to help you think about the practicalities of volunteering, so that you can make an ethical decision about your voluntary activity.
- How much time can you put in, and when?
- Have you got time available to commit to voluntary activity?
- How much time do you have to offer? Be realistic here. Volunteering, just like paid work, requires commitment. Being unable to fulfil that commitment will have a negative impact on other volunteers and the service provided.
- If you do have time to offer, when is this time available? At weekends? Or would weekday evenings offer a more sustainable pattern of working? Or would it be more realistic to offer your time as a block – during your summer holiday, for example?
- Think about other demands on your time, such as study, paid work, caring or family commitments, for example. How might those demands change over the course of a year?
What, other than time, can you offer?
- What behaviours, knowledge, skills and experiences could you provide as a volunteer?
- Do you have any other resources you could share? A laptop and printer, say, or specific software to produce promotional material?
- Or could you provide transport for carrying equipment to events?
- What do you hope to gain from volunteering?
- What behaviours, knowledge and skills do you hope to develop?
You might want to look at the CSP’s Physiotherapy Framework (www.csp.org.uk/physiotherapyframework) to explore how this list could relate to those that are required for physiotherapy practice.
- Are there any other personal benefits you hope to gain?
- Use the information you have gained from this activity to explore the opportunities available to you, and to think critically about the relative benefits of your proposed activity.
- For example, if you were to offer your unpaid services, who will get most benefit? Would you be gaining more than you’re giving? Or is the relationship mutually beneficial? Will your volunteering have a benefit beyond your immediate contribution?
- This process of thinking critically about the options and the consequences of your proposed action should mean that you are able to make an informed decision.
- It is also an opportunity to develop the behaviours and skills required for ethical practice.
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