Discovering your path through skills-based volunteering: from banking to sustainability

Caroline Harris
Skills-based volunteer

Caroline Harris tells how she used volunteering to help in her career transition from banking to sustainability, from the private to the third sector, and how recruiting volunteers through Reach’s platform is helping volunteer-led organisation Changing Streams to grow.

Climate change is something that has interested me for over 20 years. I naturally don't like waste - I use and do things in the most efficient way possible; I guess that is just in my DNA. I found myself drawn to reading everything about sustainability in the news, feeling passionate to protect nature and animal habitats, and learning as much as possible about the impact human activity has across the world and sharing all that I learnt with anyone that would listen.

When talking about sustainability to friends and family, they would comment that my face would light up.

My prior career

I spent 18 years in the banking industry and during that time was involved in many CSR-type initiatives.

While working at UBS, which has a big sustainability agenda, I got more and more involved in that and less fulfilled in my day job. I found myself writing articles about sustainability in the department newsletters, I got involved in the #zerohero campaign and I learnt a lot about the impact of IT and how we can reduce our carbon footprint through the Sustainability in Technology Guild.

In 2022, I left my job and within days had enrolled in a Cambridge CISL sustainability course – a 12-week online course in business management and sustainability.

Soon after finishing I felt overwhelmed, not knowing where and how to use my skills to contribute to tackling climate issues. There's so much out there, and when you get overwhelmed, you can enter a state of paralysis, thinking ‘where do I go from here?’.

Volunteering changed everything

It was volunteering that renewed my enthusiasm and progressed my career transition

I was approached by Neal Maxwell, someone I’d met in CISL, who had set up an environmental nonprofit back in 2019. He was helping me to draft an ideal job description and invited me to volunteer with his organisation, Changing Streams.

Neal set up Changing Streams after taking a trip to the Arctic for his 60th birthday as part of a scientific expedition. He was shocked that they found polar bears dying and walruses dead - the scientists would bring them on board and their stomachs would be half-filled with plastic.

When Neal returned to the UK, he visited contacts at the University of Liverpool and asked ‘what can I do?’. They told him he was in the right industry to take action: construction.

I don’t think many people are aware – I certainly wasn’t - that the construction sector behind the packaging industry is one of the biggest polluters of plastics in the world.

Working with Changing Streams

I helped Neal with his strategy and fundraising income streams, and then data analysis and data research. By doing that, I discovered skills I have that perhaps hadn't been put into practice in banking. It also opened my eyes to another element of the climate challenge – before that, I’d been focussed on biodiversity and consumption.

We went onto the Reach Volunteering platform and recruited two volunteers to help us build an alternative materials database, to help the construction industry reduce its use of plastic and become more sustainable.

Both recruits were academics who enjoyed researching and were able to do it flexibly in whatever time they had free.

At Changing Streams we are mostly volunteers, all contributing in our own time, all the while building relationships, utilizing the skills we knew we had, and building new skills and a network at the same time.

It was great working in a team again, with a shared common interest and all channelling our passions into something good.

Using volunteering to explore new avenues

While exploring my career transition, volunteering helped raise my visibility and allowed me to try things out without the pressure of a full-time role or making a move in the wrong direction. Volunteering is a way to explore without having to fully commit.

Large corporations were what I had known all my working life. Volunteering opened an avenue to try out different ways of working.

Volunteering helps you apply the skills that you gained in your previous industry and to test them out, not only exploring the skills that someone might need from you, but also the environment.

Because working for a charity, or a start-up, or a social enterprise is very different from working for financial services. And you won’t truly know how until you try it out.

I decided to set up my own consultancy to help other purpose-driven founders in the same way that I've helped the Changing Stream's founder refine his vision, at a point where he had many ideas but needed to identify the most impactful to gain the necessary traction..

My message to other potential volunteers

The best thing that anyone can do is to network and volunteer – get out there and test out the things that you've learned and meet people that are doing what you'd like to do.

Be happy to explore, be brave to explore. That is when you really learn what it is that you really want to do, what lights you up. You can't do that with your head in a book or on an online course.

That was my greatest learning. I met lots of good people through the CISL course, but I wish I'd got out into the world sooner.

It can be quite overwhelming and sometimes you want to go backwards because it's safe. But sometimes it's just about being brave and taking the leap and testing the water.

Volunteering is a great way to do that.

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