There are two main pursuits to which I have dedicated my life: the act of helping other people and the equally sacred art of shopping. Once I graduate from college, it’s my ambition to get a charity job in a non-for-profit organisation and to make sure I stand the best chance of achieving gainful employment, I was told that I had to volunteer for charitable work as much as I could. The trouble was I didn’t know where to start. I gave it some thought and, as I was passing by an Oxfam shop window populated by embarrassed-looking paisley-clad mannequins, I suddenly knew I had found my calling.
The First & Last Rule Of Philanthropy: Work What You Love
“This business is tough and we don’t have time for martyrs. Live it, Love it or Leave it.”
This rather rhythmic advice was given to me by Terri, the large and elaborately tattooed woman who runs the the soup kitchen where I volunteer once a week and I think it’s the best advice anyone’s ever given me about jobs, and indeed about life in general. Human beings are pretty amazing but we all have finite resources and if you force yourself into doing charitable work that you are not suited for and do not enjoy on some level then no matter how worthy the cause, you’re going to burn out. Charities benefit from kindness but they run on consistency. When I saw the mannequins my heart leapt because I knew that I had found something that I could to do to help people that I would effortlessly enjoy. I was going to use my fashion acumen to help turn my rather dowdy Oxfam into a place people would be excited to spend money in.
Working The Floor
So what does working in a charity shop entail? Well, I volunteer 15 hours a week in store for which I am unpaid, although Oxfam does contribute to my transportation costs – this is not unusual and is worth asking about if you find yourself volunteering in a similar position. During the 15 hours, I am usually out working the shop floor, operating the till and taking customer donations. I do love a bit of till work and I am one of the proud few that actually feel comfortable using the credit card machine. Training was given but it was fairly minimal – the most difficult part of the job is arranging to have larger items delivered to customer’s homes as this often involves a great deal of cross referencing and referring to scribbled pencil notes stuck to the counter. One thing this job does teach you is how to utterly style out any situation where you are completely unaware of how to proceed. Certainly you have to be incredibly patient and unafraid to deal with any given situation, even the unpleasant ones – our shop has a secret ‘bell’ system, wherein if one of us spots a potential shoplifter, we ring a doorbell that sounds in the back room and the entire staff start circulating the shop floor like ninjas in order to psyche out the potential thief.
Behind the scenes
However, the best and bulk of my work actually happens once the shop has closed. Every volunteer usually has a specialist subject, be it books, furniture, toys and, in my case, clothing. My job is to go through all the donations and identify the important pieces – designer items, interesting vintage garments and, best of all, the most disquietingly insane 80s garb. The shop plays host to quite a large student clientele so I make sure to keep up with both high fashion and local street style and highlight clothes that are likely to sell quickly and price them according to a sliding scale. I’m also in charge of window dressing and display and I’ve put together some truly awe-inspiring denim themed extravaganzas. The best one was a Japanese-style cityscape with a pair of dungarees playing Godzilla. Live it, love it or leave it. I have never once been late for a shift.
My best advice for people like me who are at the beginning of their non-profit career is to keep a record of all your pursuits. I’ve got a special binder and I make sure that I note down every time I do something new, unusual or go out of my way. It’s no effort at all, I love my job and it’s creating a portfolio that shows potential employers that I’m organised, creative and ambitious. And happy. And making a difference in the world. Yes, all in all, I have a lot to thank those paisley mannequin for – I really wouldn’t want to be doing anything else and how many people can say that about their career?
Deena Murphy writes about Third Sector jobs and making a living in the not-for-profit sector.
Photo credit: Alinoubigh