Make a Difference - CSV motto
Community service has rather a bad name in the UK, with some people tending to view it as a soft alternative to prison. Applying to join Community Service Volunteers (CSV), however, is a long way from being forced to paint railings. Instead it is about choosing to spend time helping others.
CSV is a UK charity that was founded by Mora and Alec Dickson in 1962. Its current president is Lord Michael Levy, who is an advisor to Tony Blair1. However, it should be noted that CSV has no political affiliations.
CSV's aim is always to place volunteers with projects that need their help. The volunteers are given accommodation away from home, pocket money, and either food or a food allowance. In return, they work full-time for their designated project.
CSV helps many different people. Volunteers might find themselves working with young offenders, the elderly, children with special needs or other vulnerable people. Similarly, their duties might include befriending, or providing intimate care, or doing something completely different. Every project is unique, and serving the community can take on many different forms.
Who Can Volunteer?
Any UK national, between 16 and 35, can apply to become a full-time volunteer, provided they are willing to commit to a project for between four and twelve months. CSV has partnerships with organisations from many different countries - overseas volunteers can look at the organisations international page to see what opportunities CSV can offer them.
Having a criminal record could be a barrier, although CSV treats each case individually. Another issue might be age - although volunteers will be accepted by CSV as soon as they are 16, many projects will only accept volunteers who are over 18. Having a driving licence, relevant experience and suitable qualifications may all have the potential to increase the desirability of the volunteer, but CSV will always find placements as quickly as possible for all their volunteers.
Why Should You Volunteer?
Everyone has their own reasons for volunteering, but there are some that crop up time and time again:
Giving something to the community - You're giving a great deal of help to someone. It's a practical way of making the world a better place, and gives you good cause to feel pleased with yourself.
Valuable experience - Whether they wish to go to university or straight into a job, today's school-leavers are up against fierce competition. Spending a year helping other people not only looks good on your CV but gives you valuable life skills. Maturity, responsibility for your actions, the ability to manage your own finances or empathise with vulnerable people are all marketable qualities that can be acquired through volunteering. It certainly gives you something more interesting to talk about in an interview than how you got on in your 'A'-level classes.
Getting some independence - For some CSVs this is the first opportunity they get to leave home. Being provided with accommodation, food and support makes this step a lot easier.
Nothing better to do - If you aren't sure what to do with your gap year, or where your career's going, then why not join? You won't be independently wealthy at the end, but you'll almost certainly get something valuable from the experience.
Why Shouldn't You Volunteer?
There are obviously downsides to any opportunity, and being a CSV is no different. Of course some will see these as a challenge, rather than a negative aspect of the work.
It's hard work - You might be doing it for practically nothing, but that doesn't mean you'll be playing games with happy children while the world thanks you. Whatever it involves, there'll be times when you wish you'd taken that bar job.
It's a big commitment - When people rely on you, you can't just take off when you feel like it - you have to stick with it.
You could be getting paid for the same work - Fair enough, you probably could find a similar position that pays more. However, positions like that are more likely to go to people with relevant qualifications or experience.
Ultimately, there are plenty of pros and cons. Becoming a CSV is a big decision and if you are interested you should undertake far more research than just reading this article. The CSV website is a good start, and you can contact them with any questions you might have.
CSV recognise that although some people may be suited to volunteering, they may not be suited to a particular project. They therefore support volunteers who wish to change their project partway through their placement.
How To Join
For those seeking to join up, all the details, and the application form, are on the CSV website. Once you've applied, you will invited to an informal interview at the CSV office nearest to you. They'll then try to match you to a placement that will suit you as soon as they've checked your references - of which you'll need two. Be warned that in busy times - especially during the summer holidays - this process may take weeks, or even months, although they'll always try to keep you informed of the situation and progress.
Although this article focuses on full-time volunteering, there are plenty of opportunities within CSV for people who aren't in a position to give up a big chunk of their lives.
CSV can set up employee volunteering for companies that wish to contribute some of their time or raise funds, for the community. They have part-time schemes for people who can give a few hours a week to their local community. For fifteen years they have run the Retired Senior Volunteer Programmes for volunteers over fifty, and in certain areas of the UK they have set up GO projects - commitment-free weekend volunteering for busy people. This is by no means an exhaustive list - to view the full range please visit the Volunteer page.
A Volunteer's Testimony
I had a brilliant time as a CSV. The work was much more difficult than anything I'd ever done, but there was always support there if I couldn't cope or didn't know what to do. My time with CSV really changed me, and it's fantastic to know that I improved people's lives.
I was lucky because my project used lots of volunteers, so there were plenty of people to socialise with. When we weren't working, we lived the student life - but without the exams or the debt.