Today kicks off an extended national Volunteers’ Week in the UK. Here, our own Steve Dudley explains how he founded his career on volunteering and recommends you give it go!
I’m in my late forties, and when I look back on my early career I do so with some pride. With no qualifications I identified volunteering as a way to carve a career working with birds, and eventually ornithology, working for the RSPB, BTO and Leica on the way to running the BOU for the last 19 years.
I was 17 and mid-course at art college studying graphic design when I dropped out due to illness. Waiting to return to college I had my epiphany moment. Bored, I took up birding and, totally hooked, I rather naively decided that I could make a career showing people birds. I know, I know, but come on, I was only 17.
So how was I going to get paid showing people birds? There was no internet back in 1984 so I wrote to organisations like the RSPB, WWT and the BTO. When the RSPB replied they sent me details of their voluntary warden scheme. Bingo! I spotted a route in.
Some months later I took up what was to be a three-month residential volunteer position at the RSPB’s Fairburn Ings reserve in Yorkshire. Even though I was a weedy 17 year old I loved the whole thing. The birding was great, showing people birds was fabulous, and even the graft was OK. I loved it so much I extended my stay for a year. The reserve had only a single warden, so I became his de facto assistant helping to run everything on the reserve – habitat management, the reserve education programme, managing volunteers, running the reserve centre and occasionally showing people birds. You name it, I got on with it. At the same time I started to make a noise to anyone of note visiting from regional or national HQ – ‘give us a job’ being my mantra. A year later my volunteering and persistence paid off when I was awarded a contract at Fairburn (at the time the youngest ever RSPB contract warden). I was in!
I spent a couple of happy years wardening with the RSPB when I decided to take a winter off. Not wanting to be bored I took up another volunteer position, this time at the BTO, processing ringed bird recoveries in their Ringing Unit. Six months later I was offered a job doing what I’d been doing for no pay.
I loved being at the BTO. There I discovered I loved ornithology and not just birding, so I decided to stay and forgo my fledgling wardening career with the RSPB. The Ringing Unit job wasn’t what I wanted to do long-term, it was simply another means to an end, another ‘in’. So in my lunchtimes, evenings and weekends I volunteered to help out in the Membership Unit promoting the BTO and ornithology, recruiting new members, helping at conferences and with BTO News and other media and communications. My volunteering again paid off, for within a couple of years I found myself as the BTO’s Membership Development Officer – at the heart of spreading the word of the BTO and recruiting birders to the fold.
Volunteering is not only philanthropic, but it can be used to aid your career and gain vital experience to help your career path. With no further education qualifications, I’ve successfully used volunteering three times in my early career to help me along and take me in the direction I wanted to go. Volunteering works.
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Volunteer birdwatchers on survey © Daniel Schwen | CC-BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons