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Volunteer

Why

Volunteering your time helps you to build skills and gain experience. Some people simply want to put something back, whatever  your reason you need to find a cause that interests you. If you are between contacts volunteering is a great way to keep your skills up-to-date or even learn new skills and meet new people.

Unlike the commercial sector, your passion and commitment to the cause are important so you need to think what are you passionate about. This should form the baseline in your search for a development placement.

Many people mistakenly think it is easy to volunteer; 'if I offer they will say yes' is not always true. It is often easier to find volunteer work in a small organisation than a large well-know one.

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Charity

Here are a range of web sites that list and give information on UK registered charities:

www.workingforacharity.org.uk

www.ukworkforcehub.org.uk

www.ncvo-vol.org.uk

www.navca.org.uk

www.dsc.org.uk

www.guidestar.org.uk

www.charity-commission.gov.uk

www.institute-of-fundraising.org.uk

UK

Most boroughs have a local volunteer bureau and this is often a good place to start your search. These sites specifically list volunteer opportunities in your area.

www.volunteering.org.uk
www.csv.org.uk
www.do-it.org.uk
www.timebank.org
www.volwork.org.uk

Overseas

A very common mistake (and waste of time) is to assume that all the well known international agencies e.g. Oxfam, Save the Children, World Vision, etc., send volunteers overseas. They don't! Some may have volunteer opportunities in their head office; their websites will give further information.

www.bond.org.uk Bond is the umbrella body for UK NGOs, has further ideas.

 

VSO (the largest volunteer sending agency) send skilled and experienced 'volunteers' overseas however in the truest sense of the word they aren't volunteers as the workers receive a local salary.

www.vso.org.uk

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FAQs

Here are some frequently asked questions that we often answer:

Where do I start?

What can I do?

What do I want to achieve?

What types of agencies exist?

Does my age matter?

How long can I go for?

What costs are involved?

I'd like to be an aid worker

Will I be safe?

Can I go with a friend or take my children?

How do I organise my own placement?

What else do I need to consider?

Where do I start

The simple answer is, spend time doing your research. There are thousands of ways you can volunteer and there are thousands of agencies out there. The more research you do, the better informed you will be about your choices and your ultimate decision.

Research is easily done through the Internet; however, typing in 'volunteer overseas' in Google will give you over 2,090,000 results! This means you need to give yourself plenty of time to research your options. Most of the top listings are from businesses that are specialists in the industry and have considerable advertising budgets. Many of the small charities or social enterprise agencies will only appear further down on the Google list.

Generally, there are two types of organisation which send people overseas. Firstly, volunteer agencies offer short-term placements to people regardless of qualification or experience and you will have to pay. Secondly, Development or Aid agencies who might have vacancies for qualified and very experienced people to work overseas on paid fixed-term contracts.

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What can I do?

There are thousands of things that you could potentially do and the choices can be overwhelming, so the real question to ask is: 'What do I want to do?' Do you have a special skill or experience that you would like to use? Or, do you want to do something new and completely different?

Start by narrowing your thoughts down to one area and begin your research there. You can always rethink, once you have investigated some of the possibilities. There are opportunities in many areas, including: teaching English; working and caring for orphans, children and adults; working and caring for animals; scientific surveys; working in conservation; HIV/AIDS education; agriculture and horticulture, etc.

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What do I want to achieve?

This is an important question to ask yourself, as the answer will guide you to consider what opportunities you eventually consider. If you simply want to 'put something back', then find something that you are really passionate about and put your energy there. That way you'll get the greatest satisfaction.

If you are considering a career in development, then you need to ask yourself, 'Is this placement going to significantly contribute to my experience and my CV?' For example, if you want to be a Programme Manager, then you need to gain experience in an overseas programme environment and not teach English.

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What types of agencies exist?

In the UK all agencies will be registered companies. Many of them are businesses and as such make good profits; others are registered charities who are not allowed by the regulatory body to make unnecessary profits; others may be working on a non-profit model (but not registered as a charity) and some may be a social enterprise.

Some companies are large and have slick operations, with overseas offices and representatives, just like a travel company; whilst others will have no in-country staff or local support mechanisms. This could be important to consider, depending on how much support you feel you will need and how risk-adverse you are. Do you want adventure and excitement or do you prefer to be looked after?

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Does my age matter?

This will depend on the agency. Many gap year agencies only offer placement to people aged 18 to 23. Generally, you will need to be 18 plus to volunteer overseas.

Older people will find that there are lots of agencies who will offer you a placement, providing you are physically fit and healthy. Over 65s may find it more difficult to obtain budget insurance.

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How long can I go for?

Short-term placements can be from 2 weeks to one year. The most popular placements are 3 months long. You can normally negotiate the duration of your stay with the smaller independent agencies, but it may be limited due to visa restrictions.

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What costs are involved?

If you want to volunteer, then you will have to pay for the experience. There are very few agencies who will pay you to go. Businesses charge to make money, whilst most agencies charge to cover their costs. The most expensive element will be your airfare - so the further afield you travel, the more it will cost. Most placements provide accommodation and food. This may be included in the fee, or you may have to pay locally.

The length of your stay will also determine the cost. Don't be fooled into thinking that it's cheaper to live in a developing country - some have high inflation and can be just as expensive as living in the UK.

Always ask your placement agency about their fees and what's included. More importantly, find out what's not! In Volunteer for Development we list the minimum costs that the agency charge, and their website will give more details.

Don't be put off volunteering simply by the costs. Many agencies expect you to fundraise for your placement as it helps to raise awareness about the cause and they often provided help with ideas for fundraising.

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I'd like to be an aid worker

After a national disaster or emergency has been in the news many people phone agencies asking how they can go and help. In such situations agencies will always work with local people and deploy their own staff (if needed). Aid workers are highly experienced, skilled and familiar with working in adverse conditions. They are known to the agencies, are often on their register and able to leave their normal employment at short notice. You can find out more by looking at the DEC member websites.

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Will I be safe?

Yes. No volunteer agency will place you in an insecure or dangerous environment. Being in a strange environment and culture, of course, involves some risks, but common sense and reading about potential problems before you go will help you remain safe. The FCO site has lots of useful tips and you can check for information about your destination country.

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Can I go with a friend or take my children?

Many volunteer agencies have placements for friends or groups who want to volunteer together as placements generally are not based upon specific skills or experience.

If you have children, and want them to see and experience another way of life, the acceptance criteria is often based upon their age or whether they are dependent. If they are, then you need to consider how effective you will be in your volunteer position and consider the amount of time you will need to give to them. There are, of course, additional questions about their health, well-being and other practicalities while overseas, however some agencies do have placements for parents and children. These are noted in Volunteer for Development.

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How do I organise my own placement?
If you love excitement and want to live 'on the edge', then it is possible to organise your own volunteer placement. Many overseas organisations have web pages where you can directly contact them and organise your own placement, thus cutting out the middle man.

This type of volunteer experience runs the greatest risk and it could go drastically wrong or turn out to be phenomenal! Narrow down your research to the country you want to visit. Look to see if there is a government or similar listing of NGOs or charities. Then contact them with an outline of your planned travel and your offer of voluntary service.

An alternative is to consider any connections that you, your friends or family have to a professional association or civil society group which has international connections, such as a place of worship, Lions club, trade union, etc. It will take a great deal of networking to organise but may lead you to opportunities undreamt of.

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What else do I need to consider?

Going alone or with a group
Being in a new culture can be a very isolating experience; would you cope by yourself or do you need the company and social involvement of others?

Insurance
You must arrange adequate and compressive insurance. Some companies offer specialist volunteer insurance, such as Endsleigh, check the details of the cover, especially if you are going to do manual work. If you're not sure whether a particular policy is right, then ask the broker.

Visas
Some visas are expensive and take time. Check the embassy or consulate website for details. Your placement agency should be able to advise on what you need. Most volunteers travel on a short-term visitor visa.

Vaccinations
Check what is recommended for the country you are travelling to. Check the FCO for advice. If you need antimalarials, then take them as prescribed, including upon return.

Allergies and health problems
Do take sufficient medication or supplies for the duration of your trip. It may not be available locally. Ensure your insurance provides adequate cover or medical emergency cover. InterHealth has support services.

CRB Disclosure
This can be helpful if you are planning on working with children or vulnerable adults. It can take up to 3 months to obtain. Get a CRB Disclosure.

Coming Back
Returning home can be the worst. Don't expect your family and friends to understand you or your experience (unless they have travelled). You could put your new energy and knowledge to use by joining a campaign or advocacy group such as WDM.

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And they said...

Many thanks again for all your help in getting me this far! MH
Just to say thanks again for all your help and for looking at the CV and covering letter. The help was much needed and is much appreciated! PO
Your advice was absolutely perfect. I feel I have come on leaps and bounds now, thanks to you. SSB

Thanks for yesterday. It was definitely an eye-opener. ZH

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Kevin Cusack
London England UK
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International development jobs, volunteering overseas and international development career advice for people in transition: new graduates, career changers and international development workers. Working with you in support of the Millennium Development Goals.