Ask not what your community can do for you...

Shooting the breeze - Donncha Foley, development manager, Galway Volunteer Centre

Donncha Foley. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy

Donncha Foley. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy

Volunteering is about making time for others and contributing to your community. Yet it also has personal benefits - it can introduce you to new ways to thinking, broaden your horizons and experience, and equip you with skills to make you attractive to potential employers.

Volunteering has many benefits - for the public, for society, and for the individual - and in these recessionary times it is essential in helping individuals keep in a work-minded routine, and for stockpiling their CV with experiences and references, as they search for paid employment.

In the words of the American artist and social activist Robert Alan Silverstein: “Some people are fortunate enough to earn their livelihoods in jobs that directly help to create a more peaceful, just and sustainable world. But much of the efforts to make life better for our communities and our world are done by volunteers - people who work for a better world without pay. Volunteers ARE creating a better world, one person and one act of kindness at a time.”

It is a sentiment Donncha Foley, the development manager of the Galway Volunteer Centre would endorse as he believes volunteering is a space where “everybody has something they can give”.

From Kerry to Galway

Donncha is originally from Tralee and his interest in community and volunteer work may be due to the influence and example of both his father and grandfather.

“My dad, Denis Foley, was an independent town councillor and was involved in setting up the credit union in Tralee in the 1960s,” Donncha tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview in the Galway Volunteer Centre. “My granddad was also chair of the local football club, so I think I probably get that civic understanding of what volunteering means from them.”

Donncha later attended DCU where he did Communication Studies. He also developed a taste for Galway during that period. “A lot of my friends were studying in Galway so on the weekends I would come down to see them,” he says, before laughing. “Some of my best times in college were spent in Galway.”

Donncha had an interest in working directly with people and was attracted to opportunities in the community organisation sector; he had also done volunteer work with the Galway Refugee Support Group and the Galway City Partnership.

He also worked with the Galway Traveller Movement and for a time with The Wheel, the support and representative network for the community and voluntary sector, based in Dublin. Then he read an advert about the establishment of the Galway Volunteer Centre.

“I always wanted to get back to Galway, so I kept an eye out the whole time,” he says. “When I saw the ad, a ‘light’ went off in my head and I said ‘That’s my job! That’s what I want to do’.”

Another factor that influenced his desire to work in this area was his ability to “connect the dots” between people who wanted to do certain things but were not sure about how to go about it.

“I had a lot of friends working in the arts sector and they would be stuck with something they didn’t want to do, or were unsure how to progress with and I’d say, ‘Well why don’t you talk to such and such a local businesses, as they might be interested in helping you?’ and I found my skill was being able to join the dots and being able to make connections between different sectors.”

That skill would be essential to working in the Galway Volunteer Centre as it underlines both the centre’s approach and raison d’être.

“The volunteer centre is about putting people together,” Donncha says, “creating the space where people can find out about what needs to be done, who is looking for a person of their skills, and help people to decide what they will do for themselves.”

The Galway Volunteer Centre has been in existence since 2006. Originally located in Westside, it moved to its current premises in 17/18 Mill Street in 2008. Given that the GVC came into existence at the height of the Celtic Tiger and is now operating in the depths of the recession, Donncha has, not surprisingly, noticed enormous changes in public attitudes to volunteering and in seeking help from the centre.

“When we started out you would get about 40 people seeking to volunteer a month,” he says. “Within two months of the recession hitting it was 250. These days we get about 100 people a month. We encourage people to come in to us, talk to us about what they would like to do. They don’t have to decide on something straight away. It’s about finding what is right for them and we will seek to match them up with an organisation that could use their skills.”

The question arises though, why does there have to be a middle man such as the GVC, why can people not do this of their own accord?

“Of all the people who have volunteered with us since 2006, 60 per cent have never volunteered before, so there was something missing,” says Donncha. “Most people don’t know what they want to do as a volunteer.

“You could be wary of ringing up an organisation and getting stuck doing something you don’t want to do. With the volunteer centre you know what organisation are looking for and we offer a space where you can decide what you want to do. Once people get the information we can provide them with, they know they have options.”

Why volunteer?

Volunteering can be seen as altruistic, as giving something back to the community, being involved in the community, and helping others. However in a time of recession it takes on another importance. In such times volunteering is a way of honing and improving skills, gaining experience, and being able to add these to your CV - advantages when jobs are hard to come by and employers are more choosy in who they take on.

“There is research out there that shows when two people, who both have the same qualifications, go into an interview, but one did volunteer work and the other didn’t, the employer will take the volunteer as it shows this person has initiative and that they are able to work with other people,” says Donncha.

“Volunteering is positive as it keeps you in a routine similar to that of work. So, when you go into a job interview, you can talk about what you have been doing now as well as what you have done in the past, as you will be asked about what you have been doing between jobs.

“Volunteering is also a way of doing something new if you are looking for a career change, and getting a taste of something before you commit to it long term. Many people who begin by volunteering later end up working for the organisation.”

“People today see volunteering as relevant. There is nothing worse that an empty space on your CV. Volunteering allows you to make an opportunity out of something.”

For Donncha, volunteering allows people to engage in a diverse range of activities.

“We advocate for non-profit organisations, from residents’ committees to Ability West to Simon and the GSPCA, but also we provide volunteers to the HSE, the Galway City Council, or the Brothers of Charity” he says.

“People are always looking for someone to help them with landscaping, to working with people with disabilities, to providing computer training, to web design, to helping a local group set up a Facebook page. Everybody has something they can give, and that includes people with disabilities, who are as able to volunteer as being volunteered for.”

Taking this into account also underlines the social benefits that result from volunteering.

“Times are tough and volunteering allows people to get out and do something in their community and that’s a good thing for the city,” says Donncha. “You learn more about your community, feel more part of it, and see life from other people’s perspectives, which is important.”

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