Employee volunteering: A force for good

Many charities say more people outside the sector should volunteer - but do they support volunteering within their own organisations? Tim Gillett visits the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst to meet a Mind employee who is also a member of the Volunteer Reserve Forces.

Volunteering is big business these days. According to Volunteering England, 22 million adults are involved in formal volunteering each year, and more than 90 million hours of formal volunteering take place every week.

This is worth an amazing £40bn each year, but charities are still aiming to recruit more volunteers. The current Year of the Volunteer, meanwhile, has seen the Home Office, Volunteering England and Community Service Volunteers join forces to persuade more people to give up their time for charity.

Businesses in particular are being urged to play their part. The Year of the Volunteer aims to persuade businesses to show the extent of their community involvement programmes by recognising the "benefits that employee volunteering can bring to local communities". Firms that support volunteering are being asked to contribute to the campaign's stated aim of raising a billion minutes of volunteered time for good causes by the end of 2005.

But what about full-time, paid charity workers who want to volunteer for other organisations? And what if those workers' volunteering involves being sent away to war-torn Iraq for nine months as a member of the Volunteer Reserve Forces, with the possibility that they may not even return at all?

Voluntary organisations are well versed in the rhetoric of the advantages of employee volunteering for businesses. But few apply it to their own organisations, let alone more gruelling volunteer options such as joining the reserves. Third Sector visited the famous Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst to meet Rob Fellows, an employee of the mental health charity Mind, who is also training to be an officer in the Volunteer Reserve Forces - with the blessing of his employers.

Joining the Volunteer Reserve Forces is different from any other type of volunteering. The VRF comprises the Royal Naval Reserve, Royal Marines Reserve, Territorial Army and Royal Auxiliary Air Force. There are Territorial Army units of the Parachute Regiment and the SAS. Reservists drive Challenger tanks, and they form part of specialist fighting units such as the Royal Artillery. Putting it bluntly, part of their training is in killing people.

Of course, Sandhurst has been in the spotlight recently. Prince Harry is currently part-way through the legendary 10-month training course designed to convert recruits into British Army officers. The reservists are only at the academy for three weeks - the bulk of their officer training is done during evenings and weekends - but the Sandhurst ethos, teaching qualities such as leadership, self-reliance, loyalty and flexibility, remains the same.

We watched as trainee officers tried (and failed abysmally, it has to be said) to remove a Land Rover from an imaginary minefield. We saw a team of six men and women drag a wet, fake 'body' and a heavy box of ammunition over a series of obstacles and through a fast-flowing stream, before hauling their load through a water-filled tunnel - being screamed at by their training officers all the while.

But what is the relevance of this to charities? Major General Andrew Ritchie, commandant of Sandhurst, says: "You don't have to get wet to be a good leader, but leadership in adverse conditions is a key skill, whether in the armed forces or within other organisations."

Although Sandhurst has long been recognised as one of the world's foremost leadership academies, Maj Gen Ritchie explains that it has been focusing on management even more in the past few years. He says: "What we are doing is combining the art of leadership, which is largely intuitive, with the science of management, which relies on having the correct tools at one's disposal.

"The focus on what we call soft skills - such as team-building, communication and loyalty - means that the training received at Sandhurst is transferable to civilian employment. Principled leadership is extremely important to us - integrity is key."

But do employers really benefit? "We recognise that it is tough on employers," says Maj Gen Ritchie. "But the investment of having an employee in the reserves will pay them back in spades. Reservists get a real buzz from being part of a team - it's something they never lose and goes straight back to the workplace."

Rob Fellows is equally enthusiastic about the training at Sandhurst - he is convinced it has helped him make progress in his job with Mind.

Fellows, 22, admits that he joined the Lewes District and Wealden branch of Mind because he was "at a loose end" - he already had military experience as an air cadet. He was taken on in an administrative role, but is now an Asist (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) co-ordinator - largely, he believes, because of his forces training.

"I think my superiors at Mind could see the benefits of my training with the reserves," he says. "In fact, I'm sure I wouldn't have got the job in the first place if it had not been for my military training. But the crucial thing for Mind was that I had skills in the delivery of training.

"My time in the reserves has taught me to have confidence in myself, which has helped enormously in terms of giving presentations and generally communicating with people.

"Certain aspects of the VRF and Mind are worlds apart, but there are similarities too. Charity work is not a nine-to-five job - there's a real feeling of 'giving of oneself', which is also true of the reserves. You just get the job done, whatever it takes."

While many would not associate army life with the 'caring' professions, Fellows is adamant that there are connections. "It's essential that you work as a team in the forces, and that involves caring for those around you," he says. "When you are trying to complete a task, it is vital that the whole team completes it, so care for others is paramount.

"Reserves training - and army life in general - puts you in situations that can be morally harrowing. Physical and moral courage is very important, as is the need to control one's emotions - which is crucial in certain areas of my work with Mind."

Fellows' manager at Mind, Paddi Mobbs, is full of praise for his work with the charity - and is convinced that many of his skills have been developed and enhanced through his experiences in the reserves. "There are only 15 trainers in the country doing the same job as Rob, so he is certainly a front-runner in that regard," she says. "This is definitely because of his military training. It takes a lot to stand up in front of people and have the confidence to talk about suicide, but Rob has taken it in his stride.

"He is a military sort of person - very well organised and insightful - and this has benefited him and us as a charity. For example, we have 'ideas days' on Fridays, when we devise off-the-wall ideas for promoting what we do. I know I can pass on these ideas to Rob in the knowledge that he can take them on, assess them, develop them and come up with well thought-out plans for their implementation."

She adds: "Rob has developed some rare skills from his time in the reserves and I would certainly not hesitate to recommend that other charities consider taking on reservists."

THE RESERVIST'S COMMITMENT

- Members of the 40,000-strong reserve forces are civilians who train for their military role in the evenings, at weekends and for a two-week period each year. The typical training commitment is about 30 days a year

- Since January 2003, about 11,000 reservists have been mobilised for full-time service in Iraq

- The length of mobilised service can vary according to military requirements, but it is typically six to nine months. Legally, reservists cannot be mobilised for any more than a 12-month period every three years

- In the case of mobilisation, reservists are able to request a postponement or cancellation - exemption is granted where it can be shown that his or her absence would cause serious harm to the organisation

- It is illegal to terminate the employment of a reservist at any time because of his or her liability to be mobilised

- There is no obligation for employers to pay reservists while they are mobilised - but many do so as a gesture of support

ROB FELLOWS' SANDHURST EXPERIENCE

"A typical day in the barracks would start at around 5.30am, preparing my uniform for the day ahead and then having breakfast. By 7.30am, training was under way - it normally lasted until about 7pm and combined classroom study with more practical exercises, such as the obstacle courses.

"After an evening meal, we would get about two hours to ourselves. But there was plenty to do, such as ironing, preparing for the next day and personal administration. If we were lucky, there might be time for a quick beer.

"When we were not in the barracks, we would be out on exercises, which would last for anything from 12 to 72 hours, with hardly any sleep or rest along the way.

"We were on the go the whole time; which, I suppose, was the true test of whether we were suited to being officers.

"I am very glad I went to Sandhurst - it was a fantastic experience and a real privilege, even if it was extremely hard work. I am sure that my experiences here will stay with me for a very long time."

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