As the CEO of Octopus Investments, and with two children under the age of three, Ruth Handcock has a hectic schedule. So how – and why – does she make time for volunteering? We spoke to Ruth about her experience at FoodCycle, a charity that uses surplus food to serve meals to lonely and hungry people across the country.
You recently spent a day volunteering at FoodCycle with your team. Can you talk us through the experience?
FoodCycle is an incredible charity that organises free community meals across the country.
There were ten of us from Octopus volunteering at FoodCycle in North Islington, in a church hall. We arrived in the morning feeling slightly nervous. We had no idea what to expect, or what we’d be cooking. It’s a bit like a mass catering version of Ready Steady Cook.
As soon as the food arrived, we got to work planning a menu, then started prepping. We spent the first hour or so just peeling vegetables. It turns out that if you’re cooking for 60, there’s a lot of physical work to do. We had three hours before people started arriving, and we knew we were going to need every minute.
So what was on the menu?
We made a hearty soup, followed by a vegetable chilli and a fruit crumble (for which I’m proud to say I made up a recipe). The ingredients available, consisting of food which would otherwise have gone to waste, meant we had a get a little creative. For example, we only had gluten-free flour and low fat spread for the crumble. But overall, I think we were really pleased with the results. And we got it all ready on time, which felt like a big achievement.
Who came along to eat the meal?
When people started arriving, we divided into two teams: service and kitchen. I stayed in the kitchen, mainly because I felt rather protective of my crumble!
About 60 people came to eat that day. I was struck by the diversity of the diners – they were from all walks of life. FoodCycle doesn’t place any restrictions on who comes along, so it was a mixture of older people, young families, people who may be living on the street or in temporary accommodation, friends and colleagues. A lot of the guests knew each other, and there was a really warm community atmosphere. It was about so much more than the food itself.
How did you feel at the end of the day?
I found the experience really moving. Seeing everyone chatting while they ate the food we’d made was the bit that had the most impact. Many of them wouldn’t have had that meal or that conversation without FoodCycle.
It was also fascinating to see my colleagues in this totally unusual situation. Normally, you only see the people you work with in one context, but there’s always another side. At FoodCycle, I saw colleagues come into their own, greeting strangers like long lost friends. I definitely came out of it with a new respect for my colleagues and admiration for the positive behaviours we have at Octopus. I was proud of us, and I went straight home and told my kids all about what we’d done.
I want to mention the FoodCycle team here too. They are totally committed. I found the day exhausting, but their energy is off the charts. It’s very inspiring to see people just getting on with it.
Why do you think volunteering is important?
It’s great to support the charities and causes you believe in however you can. But I do think volunteering your time is special. You’re much more involved, and because of that, you get much more out of it.
I already mentioned how volunteering at FoodCycle helped me see my team in a new light. It also made me feel more connected to my community. It can be hard to meet people from different backgrounds in your everyday life, which is why I think community initiatives like this can be so powerful.
Most powerfully, I’ve found throughout my career that volunteering gives me a sense of perspective. If you work in an office, you spend a lot of your time rushing around, feeling like the sky will fall in if you don’t reply to an email within five minutes. That’s both unhealthy and unproductive. By stepping away from it, you can come back refreshed. And you do something positive for the world. It’s a win-win.
So you’d encourage others to make time to volunteer?
For sure. When you’re busy, it can feel impossible to make time for things like volunteering. But after you’ve done it, you realise you always become more efficient when you stretch yourself and exercise different skills and behaviours.
Because of us, 60 people had a hot meal and a conversation that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. It’s a small thing, but it’s so important. And when you do something like that, the experience stays with you for a very long time.
My advice would be, just go for it. Make the time, even if it’s only for an hour. You won’t regret it.
Volunteering is a great way to give back and support causes you believe in. But it can also have a big impact on your life and work. It can help re-energise you and bring you closer to your team. So as Ruth says, make the time to volunteer. Even if it’s only a small amount at first. It could make all the difference.