THE OUTSIDER: Charitable work is calling you

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Over drinks with two recently (and in both cases unexpectedly) unemployed friends, I realised once again how quickly even energetic, high calibre people can come unraveled in hard times.

Both pass what for me are two critical tests. If tomorrow I was hiring for my own firm, would I spend my own money paying them? Definitely yes in both cases. And when they enter a room to meet a client for the first time, what impression do they make in the first one and a half seconds, before they even open their mouths? Both are winners - confident without being arrogant, reassuring people to have on your side.

One is from the PR world, the other an investment banker. Both have done all the usual things people do when the axe falls. They have sprayed their CV's around the headhunters, called friends, contacts, former colleagues at other firms, and been as energetic and industrious as they would be if they were closing a deal or pitching a piece of business.

And they've failed. With their backs to the wall, they did what I always respect most in people facing adversity, they sounded the bugles and charged. Sadly for them they charged into waist deep quicksand and haven't come out of it yet. Logically, they know that this dreadful employment market won't last forever, but they are both increasingly reconciled to being unemployed for months to come.

And this is where they impressed me most. Having suffered what could have been a lasting blow to their self-confidence, they picked themselves up and both are working on charity projects. In doing so they join maybe half a dozen friends and acquaintances from the City who find themselves in this position.

One is providing advice on PR, marketing and a potential re-branding exercise to a small healthcare charity. The introduction came through a friend, he does not wish to commit to a long-term role there, for example as a trustee, not least because he remains hopeful of a return to 'normal' - ie manic - professional life, but he is prepared to put his head down and work solidly for several months, free of charge, and achieve something worthwhile, bite-sized but impressive on his cv, and rewarding in terms of self-esteem.

If I were a potential employer considering him, I'd rate this more highly than working on his golf handicap.

The other is organizing a fundraising event for an educational charity. As an investment banker he's accustomed to rejection, has a skin like a rhinoceros, and doesn't mind asking other people for money. In fact he quite likes it, even if the ask has to be smaller than it would have been a couple of years ago, and the rejections come a little more easily to people's lips.

Charities are undoubtedly having a hard time, just like the rest of us. In the good times, charitable giving came easily to the bull market generation, and in some circles it actually became inappropriate not to give generously. But hard times let people off the hook.

We're all more nervous now, the bonus round was dire, prospects for next year may be improving, but a lot of what we do get will be paper.

So, talented, energetic people who would not normally be available to voluntary sector organizations getting by on a shoestring, can suddenly make a huge, possibly strategic difference. We all have something we want to achieve in terms of charitable causes - I'm a trustee of a visual impairment charity, Action for Blind People, because blindness is my personal nightmare - and there is never a better time to tilt at windmills than when things are dire. That is when help is needed most, whether it is time, energy, leadership or ideas. And it beats sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring.

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