All you need to know: Volunteering in international development, humanitarian relief

Australian volunteer Aaron Watson explains what HIV and AIDS are and how the the former is transmitted in Cambodia. Volunteering is a great way to break into international development. Photo by: AusAID / CC BY

Volunteering isn’t just a great way to break into international development and humanitarian relief work. It’s also a great way for career professionals to sharpen their skills and for near-retirees to pass on knowledge.

Today, there are more ways than ever to advance social causes and reduce poverty and hunger around the globe by volunteering. Assignments can range from a few days to several months or even years, and may be offered by nonprofits, companies and many other institutions that relish the chance of expanding their talent pool.

Kickstart your international development career. Photo by: Devex / SamsungTomorrow / dlbezaire

Recruiters and seasoned aid workers agree: Volunteering is one of the best ways to break into the field of global development. With overseas placements, volunteers gain valuable experience working with local communities and often enjoy networking opportunities that may pave the way for future full-time positions.

But you can’t just rely on volunteering. You need to make the most of the experience. Look at the skills required for jobs you hope to land in the future and work on getting those skills while on assignment, even if it means requesting specific posts or offering to take on extra duties. Beyond the skills and experience, a volunteer gig can help you get exposed to a network of business contacts. Focus on building relationships with colleagues and associates — they can be an invaluable resource for referrals and recommendations later on.

How does volunteerism open more opportunities for you?

Volunteers are commonly perceived as young and inexperienced individuals who are eager to give back and make a difference with programs offered by organizations like VSO, the Peace Corps and Austraining International. While many people fall into this category, it doesn’t quite encompass the many volunteers — and volunteering needs — out there.

Director of Bankers without Borders Shannon Maynard broke down the Grameen Foundation’s global volunteer initiative, where more than 60 percent of volunteers are currently employed, 24 percent are studying full-time, 3 percent are retired and 11 percent are looking for employment.

For more established professionals, volunteer activities are no longer seen as something to bury at the bottom of a resume. The right opportunity, in fact, can act as the first step for a career transition to development.

Take, for instance, UNV’s online volunteering program, where professionals with experience in writing and editing, design, translation, training, IT development, research, and project management can contribute from the comforts of their own home. For midcareer professionals looking to expand their skills or apply their technical expertise to solve global development solutions, this is an excellent way to get involved without having to uproot your life.

Irish Aid is working on a new volunteering initiative for middle-aged, retired professionals in their 50s and 60s who will be placed with nongovernmental organizations and U.N. agencies that oftentimes need volunteers with specific skill sets. The goal is twofold: to better engage the public in Ireland’s aid program, and provide experienced professionals with opportunities to share their expertise with people in the developing world.

Other aid agencies, such as the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Korean International Cooperation Agency, have similar programs.

Where do you go to get opportunities in volunteering?
Click the slideshow to view a quick list of the 10 no-fee volunteer programs.

The volunteer opportunities available today are as varied as the profile of the volunteers who take part in them. No matter your area of interest or expertise, there is a volunteer organization who would love to put you to work.

While many are familiar with two-year Peace Corps placements, there is also now room for physician and nurse educators, as well as short-term assignments for returned volunteers or experienced professionals.

While a VSO volunteer might spend two years as a marketing adviser helping to improve the dairy value chain in a town in Malawi, someone devoting their time through Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance could travel to Uzbekistan to promote dialogue between the government and private industry. And those placed through Cuso International might collaborate with local groups on projects focused on anything from climate change to health to education, depending on a volunteer’s skills and the needs of the community.

Cuso also takes advantage of “e-volunteering,” or virtual volunteering, which has emerged in the past few years as the availability of innovative, Web-based technologies expand. The plus? It’s possible to become an e-volunteer from anywhere in the world.

Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development program, on the other hand, places young Australians ages 18 to 30 on short-term assignments in developing countries in Asia, the Pacific and Africa.

Challenges such as migration, violence in communities and health programs, including HIV and AIDS, await those who get placed with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Find corporate volunteering opportunities worldwide.

Corporate volunteerism, still in its infancy, is growing fast. About 39 companies around the world now have international corporate volunteering programs, up from about 26 in 2013, according to PYXERA Global, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO that works with businesses to run volunteer programs. And the skills-based pro bono work, where the time employees spend overseas can last anywhere from several weeks to several months.

Employees draw on their core professional skills in everything from logistics planning to strategic communications to website design to assist local nonprofits, universities or other organizations that work directly with people in need. And while employees may receive their salary while participating in this type of corporate volunteerism, they are engaged in projects that don’t directly bring revenue to their company.

Two of the best-known corporate volunteer programs celebrated major anniversaries in 2013: IBM’s Corporate Service Corps turned five, having sent 2,000 volunteers overseas since 2008, while Pfizer marked the 10th anniversary of its Global Health Fellows that has involved 300 employees.

Learning how to measure the success of your goals.

Now, both nonprofits and businesses are pushing forward in establishing metrics to determine how certain programs are achieving social and business goals.

Measuring impact is critical not only in determining whether a program is effective in achieving social goals, but also in how the business goals are met — which is essential to the program’s sustainability. And the perception that measurement is impossibly hard is way off, according to Farron Levy, president and founder of True Impact, which specializes in helping companies and their nonprofit partners evaluate the impact of their social and environmental investments.

Most programs already have some way to get feedback from the beneficiary or the volunteers, so it’s about choosing the right questions to capture the key impact, he suggested.

For instance, IBM has been looking at measuring the value of the program to the company to the community and to the participants — a triple-bottom-line approach. And PYXERA Global conducts surveys of beneficiaries immediately after volunteers leave, at the six-month mark and after a year, when there is funding.

VSO in 2012 launched “Valuing Volunteering,” an initiative using participatory action research in five countries to understand how, when and why volunteering affects poverty. And in 2013, the IFRC commenced the largest and most thorough review of its volunteering ever undertaken, conducting interviews and surveys in more than 160 countries.

Meanwhile, United Nations Volunteers is working with U.N. entities and member states, volunteer-involving organizations, the private sector and other partners to jointly develop tools that enable recognition and measuring of volunteer efforts, such as a “global volunteerism index.”

Prime opportunities for U.S. citizens to volunteer: the Peace Corps.

Many Peace Corps volunteers relish their volunteer experience and return transformed. That said, the latest edition of the Peace Corps’ internal biannual survey suggests that fewer than one in two volunteers felt their job took advantage of their skills, interests and experiences. Ecuador volunteer Jeffrey Jackson, for instance, left his Peace Corps assignment early because, as he explained on his blog, “in a school of 35 students, with eight qualified teachers and four volunteers, the role of room checks and kitchen governor didn’t seem sufficient for two years of my life and service.”

The Peace Corps, America's alternative to armed service, has come under fire from many critics in recent years. But since then, the organization has pushed reforms, begun recruiting more mid- to senior-level professionals and struck up fascinating new cross-sector partnerships with donor agencies, companies and other institutions.

Volunteers tackle global issues

The thousands of local and foreign volunteers who converged in the areas affected by Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines were among the first to respond, and this is just one example of the invaluable contributions of volunteers in such a crisis.

While many volunteers in these situations are defined as youth, such as the 50 percent of IFRC’s 17 million volunteers worldwide, other programs benefit from experts. One of the biggest advantages of expert volunteers is that they bring no agenda to their assignments beyond helping as best they can, said Wallace of VEGA. They work alongside their hosts by empowering them to make significant changes.

This level of expertise is not generally available to the international development industry at large, as high-level volunteers, like the kind VEGA programs utilize, typically charge two or four times the USAID maximum daily rate for their services.

The United Nations Volunteers program advocates for the recognition and promotion of volunteerism globally, in order to create an enabling environment for volunteers and volunteer-involving organizations, and encourage governments to integrate volunteerism as an essential element of the post-2015 development agenda.

Volunteering remains a powerful and practical way to tackle global issues. And by working together — combining volunteers’ diverse and complementary skills and ideas with local knowledge and expertise — they’re able to identify and implement innovative solutions to development challenges.

Check out more career advice stories online, and subscribe to Doing Good to receive top international development career and recruitment news.

About the author

  • Devex Editor

    Thanks a lot for your interest in Devex News. To share news and views, story ideas and press releases, please email We look forward to hearing from you.