Developing your Career beyond Volunteering

5 Oct 2022 | Articles

Are you pondering your next career move and considering taking on a senior leadership position? Maybe you’re thinking about a role in the People / Organisational Development arena? Perhaps you’re lacking confidence and feel your skills won’t be recognised next to candidates with an HR background? Morven MacLean is here to "challenge that thinking and encourage you to go for it!"

That’s exactly what she did when she returned to work from maternity leave in January 2022. A year away had given her the space to reflect on her career. She loved her job as Head of Volunteering at Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS) but was craving the stretch of a broader portfolio and the opportunity to influence more widely in the organisation.

Morven says, "When my maternity leave ended, I was delighted to see the role of Director of People and Strategy advertised. Excited by the scope of this role and the opportunities it presented, I applied, went through a rigorous selection process and I am happy to say, was offered the job, which I started in April 2022.

I was so pleased to see in the recruitment pack for the Director of People and Strategy role that CHAS was open to applications from candidates from a range of professional backgrounds. In my experience, most People Director roles stipulate an HR background. Another plus point was that it specifically mentioned volunteering development as an area of interest to the panel. CHAS is an organisation that values volunteering and understands the unique skills and contribution of staff in the volunteering function, so I was unsurprised to see this open-minded approach in the recruitment of the People and Strategy Director role."

How did I get here?
Having been a Head of Volunteering for seven years in a fantastic Scottish charity the options for my next move if I were to stay in volunteering were limited. Another Head of Volunteering role elsewhere – few and far between in Scotland – or moving to London, an option that was not on the cards for me! I loved my role but for some time had been considering taking on a new challenge that would broaden my experience and allow me to use the skills I had honed in relationship management, motivation, people engagement and strategy development.

During the pandemic, before I went on maternity leave, I seized the opportunity to take on some new challenges, leading pieces of work that I might not otherwise have had the opportunity to do, such as the establishment of the UK’s first virtual children’s hospice service. This allowed me to test my skills beyond volunteering and develop my confidence leading programmes of work in areas that were new to me.

My advice to you
If you’re thinking of moving beyond volunteering to a wider People role, I’d really encourage you to look for internal opportunities to develop your experience. Change doesn’t have to be a big step. You can start to broaden your experience incrementally through initiating and leading new and different projects across your organisation. Volunteering to take on a project outside of your usual area of focus will help you to broaden your knowledge and experience, as will joining a Board of Trustees outside of work. The experience of being a trustee at two charities over the years enabled me to develop my experience of governance which has really helped me in my transition to a senior leadership role.

The move from functional leadership to systems leadership is without doubt a big one. However, the advantage of coming from a volunteering background, is that I was used to operating across the system, bringing together volunteers and staff to deliver results. There are so many skills that volunteering professionals can bring to the wider People agenda that is directly transferable to People/ Organisational Development Director roles.

There is critical experience that can be obtained from working in volunteering that can’t be gained readily elsewhere.

As a volunteering professional you:

  • Need to have amazing relationship management skills to work with volunteers and manage emotional labour.
  • Understand that volunteers are an integral delivery partner and you are experienced at influencing others to understand that.
  • Are used to developing flexible opportunities that fit around peoples’ lives and still deliver results for the organisation. Most organisations work in a more agile way with volunteers than paid staff.
  • Are used to juggling a large workload and overseeing risk, health and safety, strategy development, leadership & development, the volunteer life cycle from planning and recruitment through to exit. This is something that is often shared by multiple teams when it comes to paid staff.
  • Are adept at influencing across, up and down the organisation.
  • Are innovative and creative, working efficiently (most volunteering teams don’t have vast budgets) to deliver results.

We know that talented people don’t work in our sector for the money. Connecting people with impact and building connection with the cause is what volunteering professionals do daily. This is as important for paid staff as it is for volunteers, especially in the charity sector where money is not generally the primary motivation.

At CHAS, we know from our last three engagement surveys that staff are hugely motivated by our mission – ensuring that no family in Scotland faces the death of their child alone. I’m keen to apply some volunteer engagement approaches to the employee experience in CHAS. Given that our staff are so motivated by our cause, it’s a no-brainer to ensure that a connection with the mission is explicit and embedded in all stages of the employee life cycle.

I would love to see more organisations being open-minded about the skills and backgrounds required for a People Director role. The volunteering development sector is full of innovative, inspiring, and creative people who could have a transformational impact on the people experience in so many organisations.

My top tips
In conclusion, having made the change of role recently, my top tips for anyone considering a step up from Head of Volunteering to People Director are:

  • You don’t need technical HR knowledge – you need to know how to lead and draw that out in others. The Head of HR has that technical expertise and a strong relationship between you and that person is key.
  • Grow your network – attend conferences, tap in to [leadership development] courses, events, and networking groups.
  • Find a mentor who has taken a similar path. I’m fortunate to have three people in my network who have moved from volunteering into broader People/Organisational Development roles and their experience and insight has been invaluable to me.
  • Surround yourself in specialist volunteers (the bread and butter of a volunteering professional!) to help develop your knowledge and skills in areas where you have less experience.
  • Seek opportunities in your organisation to lead projects outside of your team. Identify opportunities for secondments and demonstrate your skills beyond volunteering.
  • Join a Board and use your experience as a trustee to fill knowledge gaps and develop experience in areas you haven’t yet been exposed to.

If anyone is considering moving beyond volunteering to a broader role in People, Strategy and Organisational Development and would like some advice, Morven is happy to chat further. You can connect with her on Twitter — @MorvenMacLean — or LinkedIn.

Writer: Morven MacLean, Director of People and Strategy at Children’s Hospices Across Scotland (CHAS)
A dynamic and values-driven leader who has worked at a strategic level in the third and public sectors, successfully leading and developing a broad spectrum of service and development functions. Expertise in organisational development, partnership working and volunteering with a record of influencing, innovating to transform organisational culture and motivating individuals and teams to deliver ambitious strategies. Qualified as an executive coach, I am passionate about supporting others to fulfil their potential and find inspiration, purpose and meaning in their work.


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