WANTING IT ALL: So don't believe what you read in the business press: toddlers really do have shorter attention spans than CEOs

WANTING IT ALL: So don't believe what you read in the business press: toddlers really do have shorter attention spans than CEOs - Bringing up babies is fulfilling and frustrating in equal measure. Since stopping work 18 months ago, I've spent far more tim

by DEBBIE SANDFORD formerly worked at McKinsey and Random House
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Bringing up babies is fulfilling and frustrating in equal measure. Since stopping work 18 months ago, I've spent far more time playing in the park and wiping noses, cuddling, reading stories and picking up the tops of felt-tip pens than I could possibly have done if I'd been working full-time. But I have to report that, rewarding though it can be, spending long periods of time in the company of small children can be mind-numbingly dull. Don't believe what you read in the business press: toddlers really do have shorter attention spans than CEOs.

And so, as I'm in the fortunate position of having some childcare and not having to worry about income-generation, it may be time to look for something that will help relieve the occasional tedium of looking after children full-time. I'd also like to have a chance of putting something back, but how do I choose what to do?

Volunteering seems like an interesting option. Figures show that in 1997 almost 20% of the UK population volunteered in some way; in the developed world, only the Netherlands boasts a higher proportion.

If I wish to join these ranks of volunteers, it might help to have some sort of established connection to the type of volunteering I might do. I once helped with some reading in my daughter's school - rewarding in itself, but made doubly so because of my background in children's books publishing.

Yet if I am to make a more extensive commitment, I would like it to be in a capacity that uses the skills that I spent all those years developing.

So just what opportunities exist to use managerial or professional capabilities as a volunteer?

Schools and hospitals are an obvious place to start; being a school governor or a non-executive of a health authority are the equivalent of senior, board positions. As education and health provision has become more decentralized - with devolved school budgets, for example - the importance of the governance role has increased. According to Annie Brown, appointments officer for the London Region of the NHS, you need many of the same skills you would need for a similar post in the private sector - leadership, analytical skills and team working. Financial expertise will also help.

Becoming a JP is another option. I had thought that the magistracy was overrun with white, middle-class women like me and that, as the lord chancellor would like to appoint people who reflect their community, my chances of selection would be slight. But apparently they might not rule me out.

Besides the intelligence and lack of prejudice needed to listen to both sides of an argument and draw rational conclusions from the evidence, patience is also a key virtue for magistrates. The hard work is rewarded by an intellectually satisfying and varied job.

Then there is the charity sector. Anyone can register with Timebank or ring their local Volunteer Bureau, both organisations that aim to match voluntary pursuits with specific interests. As mine were to use my professional skills, I was put in touch with Reach, a charity that matches people with such skills to volunteering opportunities. It covers the entire UK and last year placed more than 1,000 volunteers with 800 organisations.

Reach was originally set up for retired executives, but development manager Andrew Phillips reveals that the average age of volunteers is now 52, with people on career breaks or made redundant coming to them in increasing numbers. In fact, Reach boasts a number of volunteers in their twenties, particularly people keen to put their IT skills to good use. Once again, financial know-how is in greatest demand, but marketing, HR, legal, IT and general management skills are all needed, and, as I write, organisations as diverse as Crime Concern, Opera Italiana, the Prince's Trust and the British Federation of Women Graduates all have registered opportunities.

Starting your own charitable organisation is another option. Twelve years ago, just after the birth of a healthy second child, Julia Lever saw a picture of a sick baby in the paper. That picture led her to found Chase, the Children's Hospice Association of the South East, an organisation that now supports life-limited children and their families to the tune of pounds 2.5 million a year of respite, palliative and terminal care. An MBA who worked for Reuters after business school, Lever knows how important business skills are in running a charity.

So why are the Brits so keen to put in all this effort into volunteering? In a 1991 survey, the benefit cited most frequently by volunteers was: 'I really enjoy it.' Says Lever: 'Most work is to make the fat cat fatter and yourself a little chubbier in the process. At Chase I can play a productive part with a group of like-minded people who make a difference.'

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