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Grow your own through volunteering – the RSPB approach

Logo: RSPB

I write this on a calm and sunny day at Dungeness, a real rarity for the unique open waters and shingle plains of this part of south Kent. Dungeness is slightly unbelievable in itself, but I still find it hard to believe that I’m the Site Manager of this beautifully uncompromising landscape.

The work party at RSPB Dungeness taking a break from meadow  management (RSPB Dungeness Staff)
The work party at RSPB Dungeness taking a break from meadow management (RSPB Dungeness Staff)

Becoming a Site Manager had always been my ambition, so in order to develop the skills and experience I needed I have taken on a variety of paid roles at some of the best nature reserves the UK has to offer.

But, as anyone in the conservation sector can attest to, competition for paid employment in this sector is fierce, so in order to make that first step on the ‘conservation career ladder’, I knew I needed as much experience as I could get. There are many ways to go about this, but the route I took was through the RSPB’s Volunteer Internship Programme.

I was part of the scheme’s third year in 2006.   Then it involved three reserves in the north of England and three Intern placements, which rotated throughout the year term.  Now, of the 42 RSPB reserves with residential volunteer facilities, 12 are involved in internship schemes, offering 23 placements each year.

In contrast to standard long term residential volunteering placements, volunteer internships look for a greater level of engagement on the part of the intern. They also involve a more rigorous selection programme.   But in return the participants receive a tailored training and development programme, including land based skills, careers coaching, habitat management instruction and project management.

For me the element that sets volunteer internships apart is the responsibility that is offered to participants.   The aim of the scheme is to develop future members of staff, so the best way to do this is to treat interns as members of staff as soon as possible, with the associated trust and expectation.

Chloe Goddard, one of RSPB Dungeness’ 2015  volunteer interns, assisting in the building of a  cattle handling pen (RSPB Dungeness Staff)
Chloe Goddard, one of RSPB Dungeness’ 2015 volunteer interns, assisting in the building of a cattle handling pen (RSPB Dungeness Staff)

However, internship schemes come with no guarantee of employment.   I vividly remember my first line manager telling me during my induction “you’ll get out what you put into this scheme”.   He was right and I still believe this.   I’m now in a position where I manage volunteer interns who are gaining the skills they need and those who apply themselves fully doubtlessly find they get the best results.

One such Intern who has recently been through this process at Dungeness and has subsequently found employment with the RSPB is Alan Kell: “The RSPB Internship provided the perfect platform towards a career in conservation by offering the opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience of working as part of a team managing a nature reserve. The diversity of the work meant that every day was different, ranging from estate management and wildlife surveys, to aiding and running visitor events. All experiences provided opportunities to develop. The programme offered me an array of coaching and training, which in partnership with working alongside the experienced staff (many of whom started as volunteers themselves) helped me develop the necessary skills and knowledge required to take that step into employment. The practical training allowed me to become adept at using a host of machinery, whilst coaching was provided in key areas including job applications and interviews. All the way through, the RSPB team were brilliant at encouraging and teaching me the fundamentals behind the management of a nature reserve!”

The unique landscape of RSPB Dungeness (Ben Hall (rspb-images.com))
The unique landscape of RSPB Dungeness (Ben Hall (rspb-images.com))

So the internship scheme has worked for Alan and me, but how effective is it? The answer would have to be ‘very effective’.   Of the

interns who have been through the scheme, 59% have gone on to paid employment with the RSPB, with a further 23% working in the wider conservation sector, giving an 82% overall success rate.

Embarking on a volunteer internship is a big undertaking.  But for those looking to develop their skills, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  The RSPB places great value on the development of its staff and volunteers, an ethos shared by all throughout the organisation.  So, if you’re looking to start your journey in conservation, check out the RSPB’s volunteering opportunities at: rspb.org.uk/volunteering

Martin Randall, Site Manager, RSPB Dungeness Nature Reserve

First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with the National Trust on 24 August 2015