Thoughts on Choosing a Volunteer Role II

Right, on to the second (and I promise the last for quite a while) self focussed postings…

The second question I get asked is how I came to choose my volunteer role or more accurately how it came to choose me. I took my time and researched quite a lot so here are my learnings from the process:

The first thing to acknowledge is that I have a fantastic employer who went out of their way to support my application for a year’s sabbatical. None of the following would have been as easy without that support and comfort of knowing that I have a job to come back to next March.

At the outset I decided that the most important thing for me was to find a role where I could bring some value based upon the experiences I have to date. Being in marketing I thought that might be quite limited but there seems to be a growing realization that NGO’s require people with business experience to help them develop further, so I had more interest in my resume than I expected.

My second surprise was that I had many more contacts to the non-profit world through friends, family and colleagues than I ever imagined! So my first tip is to spread the word around about what you want to do and you will be shocked how many leads and contacts you will get. At the start of the process I naively believed that a good solid role, for anyone, based anywhere would meet my personal objectives for the year but a couple of key interactions taught me that I had some more specific goals than that.

The first contact I made was with Save the Children, Colombia. They are an excellent organisation and they were very interested in seeing what kind of projects we could work on together. However, my Spanish is very limited and with only a year to spend in country I realized I would take half the time learning the language which would be great for me but of limited value to the organisation. Lesson one: think about how suitable you are for the location on offer.

Next I got to talk to Concern Worldwide who are another excellent NGO based out of Ireland. They too had lots of interesting ideas but wanted me to spend at least half my time in their Dublin office. I hadn’t really acknowledged it but spending a year in the field was a really important part of what I wanted to do. Lesson two: be true to all your goals, even if they are sometimes a little more selfish than you would care to admit such as wanting an adventure, or to see a different part of the world. Looking back I am so happy I stuck to this one as so much of the value I have taken out of this year has been based upon living in the country rather than merely working there.

The third organization I applied to was Voluntary Services Overseas who are a large UK organization that take professionals on short and long term placement. I went through some quite extensive selection and training with them but at the end decided that their placements were not quite for me. They often take a ‘grass roots’ approach to placements which means that you are really on the front line (say working as a educator in a small rural community).

Don’t get me wrong, I really believe there is a place for this kind of volunteering and it is definitely a good place to start if you wish to make a longer term career of working for non-profits but I could see that it would not suit my temperament (fast, busy, lots of people around me) – Lesson three: be true to what you know you are like and what will inspire you or for that matter frustrate you.

Interestingly, one of the placements VSO offered was with the ministry of health in Sierra Leone which is an incredibly under developed state and I considered it quite carefully. In the end, a very wise and experienced friend helped me think through just how much (or little) I might realistically achieve in the one year I had to give and I decided against it – Lesson four: think about how long you have.

As I wrote last week, I have ended up in an excellent organisation working on projects that I feel I can add real value to. I stumbled across it through contacts in work (Karen and Jens thank you) and I was fortunate enough to get into a very interesting pilot programme for private sector volunteers. Be sure to take a look at PEPAL – it might just work for you too!


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