Finding a match for your skills

Volunteering overseas has come a long way – from graphic designing in a Tanzanian college to policing in Cameroon, every skill can be applied

Dan Linstead | Issue 98 | October 2008

'No experience required’. Look in the recruitment column of most volunteer projects and these are the three friendly words that will greet you. Once the preserve of doctors, teachers and engineers, international volunteering is now open to all; whether you want to teach English in Guatemala or tag turtles in Australia, you’re most welcome – for a price.

All very well, you might think. But what if you actually want to use your experience when travelling? Although some group volunteer projects will try to use any specific skills you have – for example, in construction or conservation – in general you’re better off seeking out a suitable role just for you.

But how do you find a project that needs your specific help, rather than just some extra muscle or the services of an English speaker? According to a survey by Voluntary Service Overseas (020 8780 7200, www.vso.org.uk), 37% of people in the UK would like to use their professional skills to help those abroad, but until recently there have been relatively few opportunities. VSO itself still focuses largely on traditional volunteering professions, and generally asks for a two-year commitment, although it also recruits for shorter-term specialist assignments – one current vacancy is for a ‘Swiss Wool and Quilt Trainer’ in Mongolia.

Your life skills in their hands

If your skills are less exotic, there’s still hope. A new breed of placement agencies has sprung up, aimed at matching volunteers with relevant projects worldwide.

“It’s rare that someone will have a skill we can’t use,” says Katherine Tubb of not-for-profit agency 2 Way Development (020 7378 9600, www.2way.org.uk), which has placed a graphic designer in the art department of a Tanzanian college, and a police officer with a human rights NGO in Cameroon. “We work with about 100 vetted organisations in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and they tell us exactly what they require. We then work like a recruitment consultancy to match that up with a volunteer.” Placements are for a minimum of three months.

The skills required for a project might not even be professional ones. “There are also needs for practical and life skills,” says Kate Stefanko, Placement Director of another non-profit agency, People and Places (08700 460479, www.travelpeopleandplaces.co.uk). She asks prospective volunteers to write up a mini ‘life story’ to help identify their strengths – even a parent’s home-making experience can be put to use.

“We have a project in South Africa with a new community-run guesthouse, but nobody had taught the women there how to make the beds for visitors. They were confronted with these strange sheets and blankets, and they were making the beds with the sheets on top. One volunteer was able to say: ‘Here, I can show you’. It only needs doing once, but it’s vital – and then we can move onto the next skill.”

Other projects involve skills as diverse as bicycle maintenance, dressmaking and gardening, and typically run from four to six weeks. What’s more, the emphasis on life skills means that those who want to take a break from their day job can. “We get teachers coming to us who work hard in the classroom all year, and want to do anything but teach when they volunteer,” says Kate.

The business of sharing

The buzzword for this kind of volunteering is ‘capacity building’ – the process of giving local people the skills to help themselves rather than relying on overseas staff and funding. As such, business skills are much in demand. “Why send a tax specialist to paint a school?” says Will Snell of Skills Venture (020 7871 4485, www.skillsventure.com), which gives volunteers with five or more years’ business experience the chance to mentor entrepreneurs in Kenya.

“Our projects are typically small businesses that have made it so far on instinct, but have now hit a glass ceiling. Our mentors bring skills in marketing, IT, HR or finance, and can help them professionalise.” Snell claims such mentoring can make a real difference in even just a few days, and can be combined with other travels in Kenya as a worthwhile example of voluntourism. None of these options is free – you still pay for accommodation and travel, and a placement fee to cover administration costs – but they do offer a real sense of personal contribution. For anyone wondering, “Can I really make a difference in a few weeks?”, skilled volunteering may be the answer. 

For more on overseas volunteering, visit www.wanderlust.co.uk/volunteer. To discuss related issues, visit our forum at www.goWander.com/volunteer

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