If you have ever considered volunteering for a good cause, Volunteers Week – which begins today – is the perfect opportunity to revisit the idea. “Many accountants have nice lifestyles and want to give something back,” says ICAEW life member Helen Burrluck. “It’s good to help people on a little bit in our very unequal society.”
Burrluck has taken on several volunteering roles since retiring at the end of 2016, most recently as a mentor for prisoners through the Longford Trust charity, which provides educational support to prisoners.
“During lockdown I completed a personal development coaching qualification, but rather than use my new-found skills to earn money I decided I wanted to give something back,” Burrluck explains. “Because I’m a chartered accountant, I was matched with someone in prison who wants to do accountancy training.”
The Longford Trust’s Scholarship programme was set up in 2002 and has since supported more than 300 young people, most of them in their 20s, to rebuild their lives through education after serving a prison sentence. 78% of those it has supported have graduated, joined the workforce and got on with their lives. A further 5% have dropped out mid-degree to take on jobs related to their degree studies. Fewer than 5% have returned to prison, against a national rate for younger prisoners of more than 50%.
Burrluck hasn’t yet met her mentee in person due to the pandemic, but the pair have spoken on the phone many times over the past few months. “He lets off steam to me. He finds it very frustrating; he’s a bright young lad with a good education who went off the rails, but he is very determined to make good.
“The people we mentor may have a reasonable relationship with their family, but they are often embarrassed about what they’ve done and don’t want to trouble them all the time so we’re a neutral sounding board where they can express their frustrations. You know when you get off the phone that they feel better.”
Burrluck says the experience to date has been incredibly gratifying, while also revealing the flaws in the penal system. “It’s a real eye opener – you can leave prison with about £50, no job and nowhere to live. It’s very moving to hear the stories of what people have had to go through. The whole prison system is pretty broken and so the little things that I can do to help my mentee are very rewarding.”
In a previous volunteering role, Burrluck put her accountancy training to good use as a trustee for Westminster Befriend a Family. She has also done some money management mentoring for Barnardos. Her advice to finding the right role for you is to look at the many charity volunteering websites, including ICAEW Volunteers, to see what appeals. Charities are always looking for financial trustees, but if you’re interested in something more people-orientated there are lots of opportunities.
“It’s about distance and time commitment, and obviously it’s got to be something that interests you,” Burrluck says. Once you’ve found a role that piques your interest, she suggests you go and meet the organisation to get a feel for it and to ask any questions you may have.
She used to speak on the phone to her Longford Trust mentee once or twice a week for around half an hour each time. “Now things are a bit more stable, it's more like every couple of weeks. You have to think about what you’re prepared to commit to,” she says. “For volunteers who might be retired, a regular commitment to something you have to do every week could be tricky, but the way this works fits in with what I do.”
For Burrluck, the volunteering experience has been incredibly positive and continues to give her huge satisfaction. The prisoner she is mentoring is in an open prison and is due for release later this year. “He’s doing a university degree so he’s allowed out to study. I shall follow him closely and I hope to mentor him right through.”
For anyone keen to give up some of their time to volunteer, there really is something for everyone and the opportunity to give as much or as little time as you have to offer.
Find a voluntary role today. ICAEW Volunteers is a dedicated website to connect charities with finance professionals looking for volunteer roles. The service is free for all not-for-profit organisations and volunteers to use.
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