5 things I learned from volunteering at a not-for-profit

Neil talks charity and why devoting time to a special cause is worthwhile.

In this listicle, I review and evaluate my part-time role as Technical Director of Chatterbox – a Norfolk-based charity which produces a talking newspaper for those with visual impairments on a weekly basis. 

According to the TNF (Talking News Federation) – which started over 40 years ago – talking newspapers serve “more than 60,000 listeners” across the UK but with many of the country’s biggest titles inaccessible to those who rely on this medium, there is still considerable work to be done.

Though many regional papers provide a spoken counterpart, most wider reaching publications do not. To this end, I hope this piece encourages other titles to follow our lead, raise the profile of talking newspapers and provide you with a little more of an idea as to why charity work is worthwhile. In my case, it’s beneficial for a number of reasons:

1. Every little helps

I hate to quote Tesco but their tag-line rings true. Every little helps. Even though my role is relatively small, I feel that my contribution helps. It keeps a small community project functioning as smoothly as possible (from a technical point-of-view) while providing an invaluable and entertaining service to an appreciative audience. For those with visual impairments, the opportunity to bring themselves up to speed with what’s going on in the world via a familiar voice can provide comfort and, if the issue isn’t so Brexit-heavy, a chance to smile and/or lose themselves in an extended feature.

2. Tech adoption is slow but worthwhile

When Chatterbox first emerged, the paper was distributed on audio tapes. This was extremely time-consuming while in regard to quality, there was room for improvement. We now use USB thumb drives - with over 800 recorded, manually checked, packaged up and sent out in the post each week.

For Chatterbox, USBs are great - they are a simple technology with no moving parts but of course, technology has moved on again. The Amazon Echo, Google Home and a host of similar smart speakers offer an alternative route to delivery for spoken publications.

Online delivery would bypass much of the manual labour involved and simplify access for our listeners but we must consider the pros and cons of a digital transition:

Once we feel a suitable solution is made available, the wider team will consult with each of our listeners to find out if change is the best and most appropriate way forward for everyone concerned. After all, just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should.

3. Devoting time to charity is mutually beneficial

Devoting a portion of time, whether that’s large or small, to something bigger than yourself can be hugely rewarding for volunteers and listeners alike. Although our talking newspaper is designed to improve the welfare of its listeners, it provides welcome relief and a lovely social environment for its creators too. Giving back in this way utilises my spare time well, ensuring I’m productive and contributing, in some small way, to my local community.  

4. I have developed professionally 

By interacting with those who use Chatterbox, I have developed my understanding of accessibility and the issues which arise if, throughout the design process, it’s overlooked. I’m now also thinking about the future and how we can better cater for those with specialist requirements. In my mind, voice interaction design is the way forward and so my immediate attention is on how we make this work at scale, across an array of domains.

5. Thoughtfulness is key to success

To fully comprehend a problem, you have to care about what it is that you’re trying to improve and/or fix. If compassion is lacking, end results/products can often fall short of the mark and raise more questions than answers. In regard to Chatterbox, a wider sense of community is everything. If any one of our forty or so volunteers lacked this, we wouldn’t be in the position we are today, serving 800 listeners right across Norfolk.   

For more on my work with Chatterbox, visit their website here.

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