What has volunteering ever done for me? - Interview with Linda Cairns

It was only when Linda was asked to write a mini Ted Talk for Good Gym about her volunteering past that she realised how much of her life journey and all the jobs she'd got had been dictated by her volunteering work. It had all fallen into place without having a plan. She just did what she wanted to do, what she could do, wherever she was at the time, with what she had. In this interview I ask Linda why she started volunteering, how it shaped her career, when she makes time for her other interests, and at the end she puts a question to you!

We met up for a hike up Kinder Scout on a fine day, September 2020

Why did you first start?


In 1995 I was a Biochemist with PhD in Food Science and my world changed when my husband’s job moved to Brussels. I was dropped in Belgium and I couldn’t work – plus I had little Andrew and then baby George and a husband who was always away on business. My support network was an organisation called the Brussels Childbirth Trust. I wasn’t very good at all the light-hearted social stuff and to keep my brain occupied I took on the role of volunteer editor. I ended up leading a team of 15 producing a monthly newsletter which was the communication channel to expat families all over Belgium.


How did your volunteer work influence/shape your career?


I’ve had an amazing life of different careers shaped by volunteering. Looking back now I can see my volunteer work followed my developing interests, and it gave me skills, credibility and connections to the right people and opened up new opportunities.


As an example, my editing role in Belgium developed my IT skills so when I was dropped back in England just before the millennium, I built my children’s primary school a website. I started training to teach adults IT. And while on my Level 2 Teacher Training course they spotted my previous TEFL experience (teaching English as a foreign language) and invited me to develop and teach a new course on IT with English for international students entering higher education. As well as the nerdy IT stuff, I also spent a lot of time helping at the school and got involved in the athletics club and cross-country events; this was a game changer – I took up running!


I started entering races, and volunteering at events and then in 2007 I set up a community running race to raise a bit of money for the music department at the boys’ secondary school. If I’d known then what I know now about organising sports events I would never have been brave enough to do that first one! We had 1000 runners each year and the event is still going. It did support the music department and went on to raise £1000s for school infrastructure projects including a floodlit astro pitch. This activity shaped my next career step when the Secondary School employed me as School Sport Coordinator organising blind/VI sport which - was a personal passion, training young leaders – which became my new passion, and organising big events for the feeder primary schools. As a bonus, as School Sport Coordinator I had the chance to be a Games Maker Team Leader at London 2012 Olympics and led a group of my Young Games Makers distributing results for swimming and diving. And three years later, after a parkrun, a junior parkrun and a World Championships I landed the role of Event Lead at my County Sport Partnership – my dream job.


I was taken away from my profession in 1995 and I’ve had 25 years of new opportunities, new careers and lots of friends. I’ve got no regrets.


What are your most memorable experiences?


Memorable because of the effect on others: London 2012 because of the life-changing experience it was for my team of Young Games Makers; Memorable for me: The Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games because I lived and loved it for 24 hours a day for nearly 3 weeks. I cycled everywhere, I had responsible roles in the middle of the action, supported superstar athletes and was very well looked after by the people of Glasgow.


And memorable for teamwork: The camaraderie and collaboration of my Volunteer Management Team as we organised 600 volunteers for the World Orienteering Championships in Scotland in 2015.


How do you choose who you volunteer for?


Fundamentally I believe that we volunteer to make things we believe in happen. And ideally, we volunteer in a field that really grabs our interest and where we are able to contribute. The things I volunteered for changed over the years as my circumstances and those of my family changed.


Where have you found out about opportunities?


By researching relevant organisations. Make start with a charity you know or a brokering organisation such as https://do-it.org/. Once you get started, you meet people and new opportunities soon open up. And I should sneak in here two organisations that I think are the BEST at looking after volunteers https://www.parkrun.org.uk/ and https://www.goodgym.org/.


What have you found to be challenging throughout your experiences?


As a volunteer I’ve been most challenged when I’ve been badly managed – usually this meant turning up and having nothing useful to do. I hate being rostered and not occupied.

Have there been any unintended consequences?


All the way through! I never imagined my life would take the path that it has. I did what I enjoyed and what felt worthwhile to me at the time and each step led to another job and even more exciting opportunities. One unintended consequence has been the impact my volunteering has had on our two boys. I was there for them but busy enough to neglect them and make them self-sufficient! They got involved in my early events and I’ve no doubt that this gave them confidence and skills that are helping them now.


When do you make time for yourself and your other interests?


Well I am a bit driven and when I am focussed on a project it takes over my life. I’ve always made time for outdoor exercise but I drop things like TV, I’m lucky that I don’t need a lot of sleep and I never do any ironing! The boys did the food shopping online and quite a bit of the cooking. “But you should see the state of her house” said my mum in response to a friend of mine who was singing my praises after my first big sports event!


What question would you ask somebody who is thinking about looking into volunteering but feels overwhelmed by choice or worried about it taking up too much time?


What do you want to change? What matters to you? What organisation or initiative do you want to dedicate your energy to? And just check - do you really want to volunteer for its own sake or do you have some pre-planned agenda or expectation because if you do it might not work out too well for the organisation or you.


Ask questions before you join about how the organisation manages and supports its volunteers. Good volunteer management means supporting each volunteer so that they can commit the amount of time they plan for. You should not be pressured into taking on too much and you should not take on more than you want to. Be prepared to say no.

I first came across Linda when I read her blog post on the Good Gym website about Mike Jones, a runner from GoodGym Sheffield, who ran a Fastest Known Time around the Peak District Boundary in June 2020. We followed each other on Twitter and Linda got in touch with me to suggest meeting up for a hike together as we both live in the Hope Valley. We enjoyed a hike up Kinder Scout via Crowden Clough on a hot day in September, and I was fascinated to hear about Linda's volunteering experiences.


You can follow Linda's outdoor adventures on Twitter and Instagram. If you have any comments or questions about this interview please email: sarah@sarahventurer.com and if you've enjoyed reading this please subscribe to my newsletter for more interviews.


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