In this guest post from Laura White, you have a fantastic opportunity learn first had about volunteering in Berlin and gains ’em insights that you can apply in your own organisations wherever you are in the world.
Over to Laura…
It’s rare that someone gets to drop out of their normal life for twelve weeks, but thanks to Sustrans’ career break policy, that’s exactly what I was able to do between April and July this year. I put cover in place for my job for three months, packed my bags and travelled to Germany with literally zero plans, apart from to try to volunteer.
I wasn’t sure how easy it would be – I can speak a bit of German, but I wondered if volunteering opportunities might be limited by the fact that I couldn’t commit long-term. In my job looking after volunteering on Scotland’s National Cycle Network, I’ve seen a huge growth of interest in episodic and short-term, flexible volunteering – would the same be true abroad?
To skip to the happy ending…YES, it was. Incredibly true. I was able to volunteer for many different projects in Berlin, for different lengths of time. It was easy, fun, fulfilling and, quite frankly, a real eye-opener.
Most of this was thanks to a volunteering platform called Vostel – after a simple registration I could search for opportunities based on my level of German language (“basic”) and my preference of activity (“hands-on”) and was immediately given nearly fifty opportunities in the Berlin area. For many, you simply read through the task outline and signed up for a shift, after which you receive exact details of where to be and who to ask for.
My first choice was to try to give time to a project supporting the huge number of Ukrainian people escaping the war and arriving into Berlin. I signed up for a three-hour shift with Berlin Caterers for Good at the main train station, where they distributed food and drink donated by local companies – I was welcomed, given a short briefing and put on the sweets and drinks stand, where I quickly learnt the Ukrainian words for juice and water, found out that people of all ages like a lollipop, and was reminded how much a smile can bridge a language barrier. I returned again a couple of weeks later.
Through the same shift sign-up process, I started volunteering with Bikeygees – a project supporting women from across the world to learn to cycle. For the twelve weeks I was in Berlin, I joined them nearly every week, and made new friends, helping women from Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria progress from not being able to ride at all, to cycling solo around the park and repairing a puncture. Each week I simply registered for a shift and turned up. I had chosen to commit, but the admin was no greater.
With a slightly different start, I volunteered regularly for Berliner Stadt Mission at their Haus der Materialisierung – a collaborative zero-waste project based in an old multistorey carpark. They had advertised on Vostel for people to help upcycle old textiles into bags, and invited me along for an initial chat where I was shown the Haus and the task, and then we worked out what time commitment I could give and for how long – I chose four hours every Wednesday for ten weeks, and filled in their volunteer registration form (with a bit of translation help from Google Lens). They were the only project to ask me to report my hours and how much I had done, but also the project where I gained the most skills, thanks to one-on-one support from the project officer.
A commitment of a different kind came in June when I applied to be a volunteer with the Special Olympics National Games – a week-long competitive event for 4,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities, supported by 2,000 volunteers. I had a role in Volunteer Management, which required training, a uniform and a commitment to a number of shifts that week, but which also gave me the opportunity to volunteer alongside people from all over the world, practise my German, and dance at the Athletes Disco under the Brandenburg Gate.
Between these commitments, I also joined Clean River Project for a litterpick on the Landwehrkanal where I was put in a double kayak with a pharmacist named Nina, who gave me an informal tour of Berlin neighbourhoods as we paddled along and pulled bottles, plastic and an Oktoberfest Mickey Mouse from the water. (The latter won the Best Piece of Litter competition, judged by a volunteer clapometer…).
And I took on a stint volunteering to give out finish tokens at parkrun at Hasenheide Park. As I take part in the runs, I already knew the task and that these events rely on parkrunners volunteering themselves – a mutual-aid community.
What did I learn from all of this?
Taking part in every single one of these opportunities felt frictionless. There were no barriers. When I was asked to do more admin in order to volunteer, it was after I had a clear idea of what I would be doing and it was in return for support, skills-development or feeling part of a team; sometimes all three.
Almost every opportunity was based around the activity, rather than a volunteer role. In most cases I wasn’t asked to ‘become a volunteer’ for any organisation; I was supported and welcomed to undertake a task, at that moment, for the duration that I had committed to. I felt free to try new things and to step away from those that weren’t for me. But I could also commit to those that felt right. My time in Berlin was limited, and therefore precious. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on interviews, inductions, and getting started on something I didn’t know if I would enjoy and want to continue.
But this is always true for a lot of us. Time is a scarce resource for those of us who fit volunteering around other commitments and we need to maximise our use of it. Since I’ve been back in Edinburgh I’ve decided to step down from a voluntary Committee role I’ve been doing for thirteen years, and try some new voluntary activities, inspired by the things I did in Berlin. Many projects I contacted asked me to go through time-swallowing admin, including reference checking, lengthy handbooks and in-person inductions before I had a chance to try out the activity and decide if it’s something I want to do. It has taken ten weeks from starting to look, to be actively volunteering anywhere new – almost the length of my whole career break.
All of this is fuelling the fire of things I’ve been thinking about recently, as we’ve been implementing the Sustrans’ Five-Year Volunteering Strategy. How do we move to a more person-centred human approach for volunteering that removes friction and makes the most of people’s time? One that recognises a person’s unique strengths, interests and needs, and gives them choice and flexibility from the start? And how do we do that in a way that continues to take account of important volunteer processes, such as safeguarding and data collection, but that feels appropriate to an individual’s involvement?
I’ve been really pleased to see all of this referenced in the Systems map in the Scottish Government’s new Volunteering Action Plan – ‘fit’, ‘less bureaucracy’ and ‘accessible opportunities’ all feature in the system. Martin J Cowling talks about the same in his recent Engage article, suggesting we may need to “repackage elements of our volunteering to give people ‘taster’ experiences of volunteering in more supervised environments with fewer checks”. I’m excited to bring this all together in my own work with volunteers, and aim to give more people the same fulfilling volunteering experience that I had in Berlin.