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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Chief encounters: Ingrid Emerson MBE on life on the Isle of coll

This feature is about 9 years old

​The charity chief tells all about looking after 300 overseas volunteers and the importance of a good cup of tea.

What time do you wake up?
The alarm goes off at 7am and I usually get up straight away.

What is your morning routine?
I always put the kettle on first, let our two dogs out and give them their breakfast, wake up my 10 year old son (I have two sons but the eldest is at school on the mainland, as there isn’t a high school on Coll) and we all get ready for the day. We always have breakfast together around the table and leave the house at about 8.30am for our respective destinations.

What’s the main difference in island life to living on the mainland?
The pace of life is totally different and is much more relaxed than living in a city on the mainland. It takes me about 20 minutes to drive to work along single track roads where the only delay is likely to be caused by Highland cattle! I can be home by 5.30pm on most days and usually walk on the beach at lunchtime.

What are you working on just now?
Our strategic plan is currently being reviewed and will lay outProject Trust’s aims and objectives for the next 10 years. On March 7 we’re very excited to be hosting our first ever education networking event, in partnership with the University of Edinburgh, which will be a conference on global citizenship. One of the big jobs at Project Trust in spring is to finalise the placements of the 300 volunteers we’ve selected to head overseas in the summer. Fitting the volunteers’ skills to the needs of the projects, and putting them all into pairs which will complement each other, is like a very big, very complicated jigsaw puzzle. In March I’ll be on the mainland with other members of staff running meetings with parents of volunteers who are currently fundraising. The meetings give parents the chance to meet Project Trust members of staff in person, and ask any questions they might have about what their child will experience whilst volunteering and how we will support them. We’re also gearing up for our annual ceilidh for returned volunteers, which is a chance to celebrate everything that has been achieved over the previous year.

Chief encounters: Ingrid Emerson MBE on life on the Isle of coll

Fitting the volunteers’ skills to the needs of the projects, and putting them all into pairs which will complement each other, is like a very big, very complicated jigsaw puzzle

Is going on a gap year not just for the rich?
Absolutely not, for example 91% of our 2013/14 volunteer cohort came from state schools. Project Trust aims to reflect the diversity of UK society in geographical, social, gender and ethnic background. Our volunteering experience is open to all young people with the desire, motivation and aptitudes required to succeed.

How many hours do you normally work in a day?
It varies a lot – if I am in the office then I work an average eight hour day if there is nothing pressing or urgent to deal with. However, with the overall responsibility for 300 young people in some of the most remote and challenging environments in the world I am on 24/7 emergency call. If I’m on an overseas visit to one of our country programmes then I work for about three weeks without a day off.

Is this a step on the rung to success or your final destination?
Difficult to say. I feel very privileged to hold this position for such a great organisation and to have the opportunity to work with such truly inspirational young people.

Is it better to work for a big charity or a small charity?
I don’t think it should make any difference – it is more about the importance of the work that the charity does rather than the size it is.

Do you have a high turnover of staff?
I think it is probably about average for the charitable sector; Project Trust has a good balance between staff who have been here for a number of years and a younger cohort who tend to stay for two to three years before moving on. Many of our staff have previously volunteered with Project Trust, demonstrating the strength of experience our volunteers have and the value they place in the placements Project Trust offers.

What is your perfect weekend?
Long walks on Coll’s beautiful beaches with my husband, two sons and dogs, followed by a mug of hot chocolate in front of the fire if it’s winter!

How often do you socialise with colleagues outside the Christmas party?
Coll only has a population of 230 people, so one of the unique aspects of working at Project Trust is that the people you work with are very often the people you socialise with. Having said that, everyone is very good at switching roles from colleagues to friends in the community, mainly because our staff are so involved in life on Coll. Although the majority of staff have moved from elsewhere to work for Project Trust, they are involved in the voluntary coast guard and fire service, help with running the community centre, have their children in the primary school, volunteer at Coll Kids’ Club on a weekend and much more.

What was the last thing you did that scared you?
I was recently visiting volunteers in South Africa and our jeep was chased by rhinos. I was terrified, but our volunteers found the whole thing very exciting. I’m regularly amazed by the adventurousness of our volunteers – deliberately putting yourself out of your comfort zone to spend a year working overseas when you have just finished school is an extremely brave thing to do.

What’s your favourite book?
The Poisonwood Bible had quite a profound impact on me. My children loved the Katie Morag story books when they were younger so it’s funny to think that we now live in the author’s old house on Coll, and two of the author’s grandchildren have been Project Trust volunteers whilst I’ve been chief executive.

Would your 16-year-old self be impressed with where you are now?
Yes definitely, I wasn’t very confident at 16 so didn’t ever think I would have such an interesting and rewarding career. To have the opportunity to travel the world so extensively is also something I didn’t ever dream would happen.

Describe yourself as a drink …
I’d probably be a good, old cup of breakfast tea – dependable, well-travelled and great first thing on a morning!

Brian Denis Cox or Brian Edward Cox?
Brian Denis Cox – he is one of the best things to happen to modern science and inspires a younger generation with his passion and knowledge.

Ingrid Emerson MBE is the chief executive of Project Trust