A change of direction


Working as a freelance marketing consultant in Edinburgh, Fiona Gilmour decided it was the right moment to take time away from work and volunteer with Challenges Worldwide. Fiona took the opportunity to complete an assignment in Belize, where she established a communications strategy for The Belize Red Cross.

“I had wanted to do a volunteer assignment to quickly broaden my skill base and gain more experience. The Challenges assignment was also an opportunity to work in an environment where the focus was on beneficiaries and not shareholders, which was important to me.Challenges offered so many options that choosing a project was a hard choice but I finally decided on Belize. The preparation training course was excellent at establishing a group of people all with the same thoughts and feelings of nervousness and excitement that we had an opportunity to share and discuss. Many of us kept in touch in person and online providing a good support network while we were away.

Creating a communications strategy for The Belize Red Cross was important to them as it was part of their business plan and now allows them to communicate better with their audiences about what they do and will hopefully allow them to secure more funding enabling their sustained existence. I reported directly to the Director General and had a desk to work from in their HQ. I was generally working on the strategy on my own but needed input from most people in the organization with whom I met on a one to one basis to ensure I represented all views.

On a personal note I learnt a lot. Working in a different culture, and also temperature, ensures that everything slows to the pace that they are comfortable working at, not me. Each individual had a lot to share and contribute and listening rather than talking proved the best way to learn from others.

The work plan I completed in my first 2 weeks enabled me to track my own progress and ensure that the majority of objectives were fulfilled in the available time. It was essential to the organisation that the work was completed and they were delighted when it was. They would not have had the capacity or skills to do it themselves. There is a communications officer in the organiasation who, with The Director General, will ensure that the communications plan is implemented. There is also now a guide for each staff member within the strategy which should mean that anyone in a new role should be able to pick it up and know what their communications responsibilities are.

While in Belize I lived with a host family who had other foreign volunteers also living there. It allowed me to properly live in the middle of another culture rather than just observe it from outside. It was great to come home to a houseful of people and to be part of their weekend and evening activities.

Belize took some getting used to but by the time I left I was desperate to stay! Initially it appears to be shambolic and chaotic but beneath the exterior the people are warm hearted, friendly and there are some quite incredible places to explore. It proved to be a relatively expensive place to live and travel around but with some careful planning and preparedness to stay in basic accommodation weekends could be quite brilliant.

Outside of work the highlights were discovering pilates and yoga classes which ensured the battle against the delicious food was won and some good friends were made. Attending most events at the National Arts Centre also ensured a good range of cultural insights. Settling in was fine with the family being instantly welcoming you, work took some getting used to though with the main problem finding time to talk to my director who was continuously under pressure from all angles as she had to fulfill many roles that there was no funding to fill.