“You’re doing what!?” Was a question that often followed when I told my colleagues what I was doing for the next 12 months – volunteer work on the tropical islands of the Kingdom of Tonga.
Accountants don’t typically like to do anything for free, so the idea that I would volunteer my time in a developing country came as a bit of a shock to some of my colleagues, family and friends. A few of them talked with me and said that they too were thinking of doing something similar and that they were looking for a way to ‘make a difference’ in their communities or the world at large. This was not only reassuring but also I think in recent years has become a bit of trend that I think is forming in some of us Gen Y’ers, as we become more ‘socially conscious’ and in particular are looking to blend a ‘traditional’ career with something a little more meaningful.
I began my volunteer work with an open mind and with an understanding that not much will ‘go to plan’ and that I would need to be patient to take into account ‘Tongan time’. A fellow volunteer and I were able to conduct several sessions of training with our colleagues on Microsoft Excel which we both felt was a valuable contribution we could make and one that our colleagues really appreciated. I was also exposed to some high level bilateral and multilateral international discussions, an experience I wouldn’t have thought possible prior to leaving Australia. My Tongan counterparts instilled in me an understanding of relationships and their importance in a tight knit community, and also a focus on the little things in order to motivate people to get a job done. It is surprising how powerful a block of good quality chocolate can be!
I also learnt the importance of priorities. In Tonga the priorities of most people could broadly be described as Family, Community, Church and Work. The first three may have been inter-changeable but work was never the number one priority. A good example of this was when one of my colleagues who had got married and was trying to settle back into work, was shooed out the door at 4pm because she needed to focus on starting a family and not worry about her work so much!
My time volunteering helped me to decide on what direction my career would take when I returned to Australia. Only a few months after returning back to Australia I have found myself in a rather privileged position of being able to utilise my skills in finance and accounting in a sector and an organisation that is making a real difference as the Financial Accountant at Social Ventures Australia.
To anyone who is thinking about volunteering, or making the career change into the not for profit/Social sector – in the famous words of Nike “Just do it”!