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Career Shifter: From Nursing to CEO of Own Charity

Holly Penalver had always written off humanitarian work as a pipe dream. But when she saw a problem that needed fixing in the sector, she couldn’t resist the challenge. Here, she shares why it’s been a long and difficult transition, and why she can’t imagine doing anything else.

What work were you doing previously?

I was a full-time paediatric nurse.

Prior to that, I’d trained to be a psychologist.

What are you doing now?

I’m the founder and CEO of a charity – indiGO Volunteers.

We place volunteers with projects abroad and without charging any money.

I’m currently based in Bosnia coordinating a remote team. I manage people and keep an eye on everything, basically. We now have 26 people in the team, mostly part-time because they’re volunteering.

Very occasionally I still do some nursing at Chelsea and Westminster hospital, so I’m able to keep my registration. I work on the paediatric high-dependency unit.

Why did you change?

There are so many elements of nursing that I love.

Being able to help a family during a difficult time is an absolute privilege. I often did night shifts, and my aim was to make the family feel confident that I would care really well for their child so they could get a good night’s sleep.

I love the pressured working environment and the teamwork needed every shift. It’s also a place where there is never-ending learning to do.

But the shift work pattern was tough, and I hated having no control over my hours.

When I’d been at university I’d helped out with charity stuff and I’d always wanted to get involved with the humanitarian sector.

The problem was I had absolutely no idea how to do that – no role models, no clue how to start. So, I put it on the back burner, thinking “Oh well, that’s a nice dream job, but it’s impossible to get into”.

I’m a big believer in listening to your gut and I just knew psychology wouldn’t make me happy.

So, later on I took a job as a PA to give me time to reflect. And then I decided to retrain as a nurse.

I was looking to volunteer abroad, but the only way I could do it was by paying an organisation thousands of pounds for a placement. I couldn’t afford it – and it didn’t feel right to have to part with so much cash. That’s when the idea for indiGO first came to me.