How volunteering helped me get a career in the arts

I started volunteering when I was 19 - which is 12 years ago - and I believe it's what sparked the start of my career in the arts. Find out more about how volunteering can help spark kick-start your career! 

How volunteering helped me get a career in the arts

I’d always been interested in literature and known that I wanted a career in literature development, although at that age, I wasn’t sure exactly what career (I still don’t quite know!). When I left school I decided to study what made me happy, instead of following a more practical route, because, although I didn’t know where those interests would take me I felt that as long as I was perusing something I loved I would end up somewhere I wanted to be. I decided to study performing arts in college, which is got me interested in script writing and led me to study creative writing at university.

It was at university that I was first introduced to the idea of volunteering. I knew nothing about the literature development industry in the Midlands (I studied in Derby), until someone called Alex, who was the council funded Literature Development Officer at the time (the role has since been cut due to funding restrictions), came to give a talk to our class about getting involved in the arts. There was an arts festival coming up that Alex was looking for volunteers for and he wanted us to sign up.

A few weeks later I was helping set up events and greeting guests at lots of exciting arts events over the city! I got to network with people who were working in the industries I aspired to work in and I got to be involved in some fantastic events with professional artists from all over the country. I enjoyed my experience so much that I continued volunteering with Alex for around four years! I worked on the World Horror Convention in Brighton building an art display, selling tickets and being a ‘runner’ for events, I worked on Alt Fiction, a local festival for genre fiction, I worked in libraries, theatres and other arts organisations. I then expanded my network and volunteered with other art festivals and organisations, even if it was only one day, to help me gain a broader understanding of the industry. Volunteering for a number of different companies enabled me to test out different roles and shadow various professionals to gain an understanding of the various types of jobs available to me.

By the time I left university I had enough work experience on my CV to build a strong application for my first paid job in the arts world, and although all of the work was done on a voluntary basis it helped my application stand out above others and showed my passion for the industry. As I was feeling confident from the variety of experience I had gained, I decided to run my own arts groups outside of my paid work as another way to showcase to employers my skills and ambitions. I co-started the live literature night - now award-winning! - in Manchester called Bad Language Manchester and I took over as General Editor for the new writing magazine publishing work from under the 30s called The Cadaverine. My first real job in the arts was programming a literature festival in Lancaster - Lancaster LitFest - and I’m sure I got the job based on my huge range of voluntary arts experience and the fact that I’d been able to showcase my project management and organisation skills through the work I’d done on a pro-active voluntary basis. My career really started from there, leading from one arts job to another, and although I felt that I outgrew the volunteer roles once I’d gained enough paid work experience, I would still recommend it to anyone as a way to kick-start your career. Here’s why I think volunteering is a great place to start your arts career.

The benefits of volunteering:

  • You gain work experience in your desired industry
  • You get a taste of what it’s like to work in a particular industry or for a particular company
  • You build a network of professionals already working in your desired industry
  • You gain a good reputation (hopefully!) with people who could potentially hire you or recommend you for a paid position in the future
  • You often get to meet professional artists or career experts in your industry - which is great for personal goals and also to ask questions about how they got into their art career
  • It showcases your passions and ambition for the industry you want to work in - a lot of employees will value enthusiasm just as much as direct experience.

However, I knew that I needed to be careful about over-working or taking on ‘unpaid’ work that should be delivered by a paid member of staff. I valued the work experience I was getting and the network of professionals I was building, but I couldn’t afford to work full time for free. So, I educated myself about the difference between volunteering and unpaid work.

The difference between volunteering and unpaid work:

Volunteers tend to work on a more casual basis with no strict allocation of how many hours they must dedicate to the employee (some places give guidelines but they will not be contractual). You won’t have a contract of employment although you may be given an agreement that lines out any supervision, support or training you’ll get. Volunteers must not replace the role of a paid employee and will not be under a compulsory agreement. Although you won’t get paid some organisations are able to pay expenses for things like travel and food.

Unpaid work is generally frowned upon because it’s seen that you’re replacing the tasks of a paid role. If you’re unsure about anything you can check out HMRC’s guidelines here.

Careers in the arts:

There’s such a HUGE variety of careers in the arts, whether you want to be an artist or working behind the scenes and making it all happen. Here are just a few examples of roles within various arts industries:

  • Runner for television
  • Ticket seller
  • Tour manager
  • Project manager
  • Volunteering coordinator (organising the volunteers for a festival, NOT a volunteer role)
  • Fundraiser
  • Producer
  • Director
  • Lighting technician
  • Teacher/workshop leader
  • Editor

There’s so many more! Can you think of any more behind-the-scenes arts careers?

Check out the Want My Job? section on Voice for interviews with inspiring professionals working in art careers. 

Where to find volunteering opportunities:

If you’re looking for volunteering opportunities to kick-start your career, a great place to start is to search arts organisations you admire and see what opportunities they offer. You can also search our range of Arts Award supporter, many of whom offer arts opportunities all over the country. Lots of festivals ask for volunteers to help run stalls, clean up and the artist green rooms, so check them out too. To help get you started, here are some arts organisations that regularly offer volunteer opportunities:

Get Involved

An Arts Award (What is Arts Award?) is another way to grow your talents, explore the arts, be a creative leader and get a qualification. If you’re already participating, go you! Head over to our Bronze and Gold hubs for more inspiration and support. 

Join our Arts Award alumni network 

We’re on the lookout for Arts Award alumni everywhere! We’re here to help support you in your next career steps and offer some useful and interesting benefits! Find out more and sign up

Write for us 

Help others like you get through their Arts Award qualification by writing about your tips and experiences. Become a Voice Contributor today. Or come along to our FREE workshop on Saturday 7th April 2018 and find out how to cut it as an arts writer! Book your place here.


Nici West

Nici West Voice Team

Nici is the an editor for Voice. She loves all things books, theatre, music, art, visiting other countries, anything creative, and sometimes attempts to make YouTube videos. Alongside Voice she writes and edits through her own pursuits.You can occasionally find her running marathons dressed as a black dog.

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  • Luke Taylor

    On 9 March 2018, 11:13 Luke Taylor Contributor commented:

    Volunteering is such a beneficial way of boosting up your skills!

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