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Why homelessness is simply wrong: Matching my passion with a profession and making volunteering meaningful – Chris Freed, National Volunteer Manager at Crisis

Crisis at Christmas

Chris Freed is National Volunteer Manager at the national charity for homeless people, Crisis. Chris has over 20 years’ experience in the voluntary and public sector, and she has carried out extensive work with small and medium sized, and regional voluntary organisations, both as CEO and Chair. In her current role at Crisis UK, Chris is responsible for the strategic development and delivery of Crisis’ volunteering programme across the UK, working with Volunteer Coordinators to ensure volunteering is meaningful, well supported and engaging. The charity works with hundreds of volunteers throughout the year and over 13,000 at Crisis at Christmas. 

Chris Freed
Chris Freed

“…Crisis has worked with tens of thousands of volunteers and with many organisations for nearly 50 years and we will continue to work with all those who, like us, believe homelessness is simply wrong…” 

My career in the voluntary sector – matching my passion with a profession

I have always been involved in volunteering and being involved in my community, whether as part of a youth group or through school. When I first left school I worked for a short while in the private sector, but that didn’t last long. My interest in working directly with people and making a difference in some way led me to the fire service for a while and from there into the voluntary sector.

I worked for the British Red Cross for a long time, which was a fantastic opportunity to learn about different elements of the sector and I also worked in international development, youth and education before moving into volunteer management. I found work in the sector afforded me the opportunity to match my passion with a profession (volunteer management) that would in turn build and develop my skills.

The amazing impact of volunteering for and with our members

I was then fortunate to be able to lead the setting up and development of a new volunteer centre in Lewisham, South East London, meaning that I got to work in my local community. This was ticking all my boxes – getting to work with such interesting people and influence really important areas of work. After a period working freelance which provided a real mix of interim CEO roles for small charities, to fundraising and volunteer development work, I joined Crisis as their Christmas Volunteer Manager.

CrisisI had volunteered for Crisis at Christmas for a number of years so I knew the project and this was an opportunity to get involved in helping it grow and develop. After a number of Christmases, I took on the role of National Volunteer Manager where I get to set strategic direction, work across the organisation and our regional offices and see the amazing impact of volunteering for and with our members.

Making volunteering meaningful

As National Volunteer Manager, I oversee the organisation’s engagement with volunteers; both at Christmas and year round. I work with an amazing team of Volunteer Coordinators across the UK, who deliver fantastic volunteer programmes helping to make sure that volunteering is meaningful and contributes to our vision to end homelessness.

My role involves setting out how we want to involve volunteers in our work (both Christmas and year round), what support and recognition we should put in place and making sure that all areas of the organisation understand the benefits and the opportunities that involving volunteers brings.

I work across the organisation raising the profile of volunteering and ensuring our members benefit from the opportunities that volunteering brings, both by having volunteers involved in our service delivery and by volunteering themselves. My role involves constant assessment of how we can improve our volunteering through new developments and measurement of the impact that it has.

I am also responsible for ensuring that our volunteering adheres to the latest good practice and that we are linked in to other relevant organisations and bodies working in our field.

Helping people rebuild their lives

Crisis at ChristmasCrisis helps people rebuild their lives through housing, health, education and employment services. We work with thousands of homeless people across the UK and have plans to work with many more. We are also determined campaigners, working to prevent people from becoming homeless and to change the way society and government thinks and acts towards homeless people.

Crisis has worked with tens of thousands of volunteers and with many organisations for nearly 50 years and we will continue to work with all those who, like us, believe homelessness is simply wrong.

Bringing temporary centres for homeless people to life at Christmas

From night shift workers to nurses, dog handlers to dentists, thousands of dedicated volunteers are needed every year to help bring Crisis’ temporary centres for homeless people to life at Christmas. 

Crisis at Christmas 2015 runs from 23rd – 30th December and with more centres than ever opening their doors, over 13,000 volunteers will be needed to make Crisis at Christmas happen for guests this year. As well as warmth, companionship and hot meals, guests in London, Birmingham, Newcastle, Coventry and Edinburgh will receive healthcare and specialist advice on housing, work and benefits.

The centres are run by thousands of volunteers from all walks of life, with a huge variety of roles on offer, including:

  • General volunteers who chat to guests, serve food, sort bedding and make sure the centres are happy, welcoming places to be;
  • Night shift volunteers, who provide the essential support that keeps Crisis’ centres running 24 hours a day throughout the Christmas period;
  • Service volunteers, including medical professionals, hairdressers and caterers, who give guests access to services they usually miss out on;
  • Logistics volunteers, who drive vehicles, co-ordinate deliveries and provide translation services – all essential to making Crisis at Christmas happen;
  • Entertainment volunteers, such as musicians, artists and sports coaches, who use their talent to bring some Christmas cheer to guests’ lives.

People who volunteer to work with us at Crisis at Christmas

We have a whole range of people volunteer with Crisis at Christmas but what they all have in common is a willingness to give time to support other people, which is fantastic and incredibly motivating as a Volunteer Manager.  Some people have been volunteering for many years and now bring their friends and other adults in their family to volunteer with them; others do it just the once.

Here’s a video from Christmas 2014 so you can see what it’s like for yourself:

Many people are motivated to volunteer by an experience either they or a friend has had and want to be part of the solution, even if it’s just for a week. We also have volunteers who add Christmas to their other volunteering roles with Crisis. Some people bring their skills to volunteering. Each year we welcome hairdressers, chefs, podiatrists and advisors, amongst others, all of whom are very well received by the guests. 

How voluntary work for a charity can help you gain experience

Voluntary work has opened up the majority of opportunities I have had during my career. It has enabled me to try new things, to learn new professional skills and to stretch myself. I took on Chair of a charity four years ago and as I go into my final year of this role, I can’t believe how much I’ve learnt both about myself and the sector, but also how many strategic discussions I’ve been involved in and able to influence.

I am also now a trustee of a large charity and that opportunity has only come because I’d stepped out and tried new things and most of the time, they worked! You need to be prepared to take a risk and try something that you’ve not done before and that’s one of the things I love about volunteering. It takes time so be prepared to put energy and time in and then you’ll get lots out.

There is a fair amount of support out there and the volunteer management profession is a really supportive environment; with a number of peer led networks and opportunities to learn from each other. The voluntary sector is such an exciting place to work and have an impact; I wouldn’t swap it.

The most rewarding part of my role

I am motivated by stories of volunteers who have been impacted by their work. I try hard to find time to talk to volunteers – whether I’m visiting the Skylight offices or over the Christmas period – to hear more about what people have gained from their volunteering.

Christmas foodI love it when people who volunteered come back to the organisation as staff, or you get reference requests and you see that people have really been able to use their volunteering to help them take the next step in work or life. I am also motivated by guests or members who come back as volunteers – these stories are always shared with our other volunteers to encourage them to realise that their individual volunteering makes a difference.

Coming up next

I’m looking forward to Christmas and seeing the impact of all the hard work of the teams across the UK! This is the first time Crisis has run Christmas in Birmingham, Coventry and Warwickshire, so these are very exciting times. I shall be spending Christmas at Crisis in Newcastle and Edinburgh which I’m really looking forward to.

After Christmas, we have developed a new Volunteering Strategy which has some growth involved, but it’s more about refining and improving our offer. We want to be sure that our volunteering is linked in well with our other activities, such as campaigning, and that we are able to offer meaningful volunteering that contributes to ending homelessness.

We have a new Skylight opening in Croydon and I’m keen to see how we build the volunteer offer there, but also to see the Volunteer Coordinators involve our members in volunteering opportunities, particularly as Member Ambassadors, sharing their stories and promoting the work of Crisis to external audiences.

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