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Make a difference differently: why not consider volunteering by sharing skills?

22 Oct 2020

Today we’re launching a new series of articles telling the stories of volunteers from around Octopus. Make a Difference Differently will feature volunteers who do things a little differently, finding innovative ways to help the charities we support through Octopus Giving.

First up, we talk to Ellen Hart. Ellen is a UX (user experience) Strategist at Octopus and has been using techniques she’s learned as part of her role to improve the websites of two of our charities. In the process, she’s made a lot of new friends and picked up a whole host of new skills to add to her portfolio.

Hi Ellen! Tell me about the work you’ve been doing as part of your volunteering…

I’ve been doing skill-sharing volunteering, which basically means I do the same job I do at Octopus for our charities. For me, this means mainly working on user experience strategies. So far, I’ve worked on several projects for two of our charities. First of all, I helped Downright Excellent (DEx) with a website redesign. I used some of the techniques I work on in my day job to help them work out what they wanted their website to look like and which key messages they wanted to get across. Then I had an input in the actual redesign work.

More recently, I’ve been working with Beyond Autism. I’ve done a couple of projects with them over the past six months. I’ve worked on short term stuff as and when they’ve needed, like running user experience workshops to help their team learn more about different strategies or helping with copywriting for their website. I’ve run design seminars bringing in other members of my team and created a strategy to help them improve their digital job ads and other bits of digital marketing materials, too. And I’ve also been part of a longer-term project to generally improve their website and work out how they can use it to increase donations.

They sound like such interesting projects! What made you want to get involved?

One of the things that drew me to Octopus before I started working here was the chance to do work for charity partners. It’s allowed me to strike a good balance, using the resources we have available in a big, private company to give back and help smaller charities.

It feels really good to be able to help charities who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to employ specialists. Most charities couldn’t stretch their budgets to hire someone to look solely at user experience, but spending time on it can improve how effective a customer’s experience on their website is and so can help them get more donations. Taking the learnings from a private business and applying them to a small charity can make a real difference. For DEx, for example, it’ll help them support more children with Down Syndrome.

The idea of working on the projects also appealed to me because I like working on lots of different things at once. Picking up charity projects alongside my day job has given me even more variety and allowed me to work on diverse things. I knew it would be a great opportunity for me to learn new skills too, so I could add to my portfolio of work.

What kind of things did you learn?

Working on something for a charity means you learn how to do your job for a completely different type of company. For example, I’ve learned how to apply my UX processes in an environment that has different constraints to the ones we face at Octopus. It’s been great for me to diversify my skillset by working on something totally different. I’ve also learned lots from watching the people who work at the charities do their jobs with limited resources. Often, one person looks after a whole bunch of different areas and seeing how they achieve success in a lean, flexible environment has taught me a lot.

Have you taken anything else away from the experience?

For sure. I started working with Beyond Autism at the beginning of lockdown so it was fantastic to be able to meet a bunch of new people when we weren’t allowed to go outside much. Chatting with all the different members of the team has been great. They’re amazing people who accomplish wonderful things and it’s brilliant to have them in my network.

Working on something that was doing good, helping a charity like Beyond Autism that does so much brilliant work, made such a difference to my wellbeing when things in the world weren’t feeling that great as well. Plus, it’s been a real confidence boost for me. Stepping outside of the comfort zone of my team and taking on the role of an ‘expert’ somewhere else has made me realise how much I know.

How did you find out about the projects and the charities’ need for specialised skills?

The charities got in touch with Octopus Giving to let them know they needed some work done. Then, the Giving team put the charities in touch with me as they know this is the kind of area I work in.

What would you say to other people considering this kind of skill-share volunteering?

I would say do it. I know a lot of people worry about finding time when it comes to taking on additional projects. But the benefits, both to the charity and the person volunteering, are so huge. And the reality of it is, you can find time if you think about what’s really important. It wouldn’t completely shake up your week.

If anything, working on different things will make you feel more inspired. In my experience, I had more energy for my day job because I was working on something separate alongside it.

If Ellen’s story has inspired you, why not reach out to charities near you to ask if they need help? For more ideas for creative ways to volunteer, read some of our other stories on the topic.


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