Our Make a Difference Differently series features volunteers who do things a little differently, finding innovative ways to help the charities we support through Octopus Giving.
We’re kicking off 2021 by talking to Sylvia, who works in the Octopus Renewables team, about her work with The Choir with No Name (CWNN). As an enthusiastic singer, Sylvia jumped at the chance to work as an Octopus charity coordinator for CWNN. The charity runs choirs for homeless and marginalised people, with weekly rehearsals where members can socialise and have a hot meal. They also help members to get back on their feet and make positive changes in their lives.
Hi Sylvia, can you tell me more about your work with The Choir With No Name?
I’ve been working with CWNN as a charity coordinator since they became one of our charity partners a few years ago. I act as the charity’s point of contact with Octopus, helping them with whatever they need. A lot of the time it’s not standard volunteering requests so I try to understand their needs and offer support wherever I can.
Because CWNN isn’t a charity that has a lot of traditional volunteering opportunities, they mostly ask for skilled people to help them with a particular project, like marketing, improving their website or working on their business model. We were even in the process of setting up a work experience placement at Octopus for one of the choir members but unfortunately had to put it on pause when Covid hit.
Occasionally CWNN does need traditional volunteers to collect donations at one of their events or to go along and cook at rehearsals (pre-pandemic). When they do need this kind of help, it’s my job to spread the word around Octopus and encourage volunteers to get involved.
Since the pandemic started, I’ve also been helping CWNN adapt to the changing circumstances and huge challenges facing charities. Along with other Octopus people, we’ve helped them come up with ways to keep the family-feel alive for choir members. For example, the CWNN team now calls hundreds of members to check in each week, keeping up the social aspect while in-person rehearsals can’t run. They’ve also set up virtual rehearsals and helped their members to access these. Plus, they’ve been working on new ways to raise funds, like running virtual corporate singing workshops (we did one at Octopus before Christmas and had a great time).
What made you want to work with CWNN?
I love to sing which instantly drew me to CWNN. I sing a lot outside of work, so I understand the connection between singing and helping people feel supported and uplifted. It was an easy decision for me to get involved, especially given how many people CWNN help. The weekly choir rehearsals are great to help members make friends and feel less isolated, but there are lots of other ways the choir helps too. They make sure everyone at rehearsals gets a hot meal, they help them with job or housing applications, and they support their members to make positive changes in their lives.
Have you always been interested in volunteering?
I love to help people. It’s a big part of who I am; if I can do something to help someone, I can’t imagine myself saying no. Since joining Octopus, I’ve worked with a number of our charities. Before working with CWNN, I was the charity coordinator for our previous charity partner, Grit, who, amongst other things, provide coaching for disadvantaged young people.
It’s been wonderful to get so involved with these two charities. What I love about the charities we support at Octopus is that they’re smaller organisations rather than big national charities. They’re charities you wouldn’t normally have known about but when you find out what they do, it’s heartwarming. This also means the work we do with our charities has a real, tangible impact on them.
What have you taken away from the experience of working with CWNN and Grit?
I think it’s definitely increased my confidence. Working with these organisations includes rallying people at Octopus to help out, whether through fundraising, volunteering, going along to events or even just raising awareness. You need to be quite bold to put yourself out there, shouting about the charity and persuading people to get involved too.
At the same time, seeing the positive impact these organisations have on people is just astounding. I went to one of Grit’s three-day workshops and the transformation of the participants had me in tears by the end of it. They had grown so much over the three days, it had changed their lives. It’s hard not to feel proud when you see the work our charities do.
Have you got any other highlights from the past few years?
There are lots to choose from! There was one occasion when I arranged for CWNN to come in and do a singing workshop in the Octopus office. Before we started singing, a couple of choir members shared their stories. One of the ladies was a recovering alcoholic and had depression. She told us the only thing that got her out of the house each week was the CWNN rehearsals and they helped her to feel so much better. Hearing the firsthand stories of people the choir have helped is wonderful.
The workshop itself was a lot of fun too. At the beginning, we were all a bit nervous and it was massively outside some of the participants’ comfort zone. But the choir director was hilarious and full of energy so, by the end, everyone in the room was singing their hearts out. It was quite surreal, standing in a meeting room in a work setting singing show tunes, but it was brilliant. It proved once again how impactful music can be at breaking down barriers.
Then earlier this year during Lockdown 1.0, we had our first virtual singalong with CWNN. It was interesting to see the way the session was translated to virtual, running it over Zoom with the choir director leading and everyone muted (as the sync issues would have been a nightmare!) It worked really well. Everyone was beaming by the end of the workshop and I got loads of messages telling me how much it had lifted their spirits.
It sounds fun!
It was! For any other companies who want to do something similar, CWNN are now running virtual workshops for businesses.
That’s great. Last question, what would you say to someone who’s a bit unsure about volunteering?
Just do it. A lot of people think they don’t have the time; I’ve thought that myself in the past. But the difference half an hour of your time spent volunteering or working with a charity makes to that organisation will be huge. The positive impact you can have will make it worth it. And if it’s hard for you to find the time to get out of the house and physically volunteer somewhere, find something you can do from home. Use the skills you have to add value to the charity and it will make a huge difference to them.