Considered as both an excellent way to break into international development and a medium for experienced professionals to make use of their skills, volunteering is development’s relied-upon catalyst and chameleon: Funding agencies, corporations and nongovernmental institutions operating locally and internationally routinely expand their staff through skilled volunteers.
The profiles of today’s international development volunteer — from recent graduates to career professionals and retirees — are as diverse as the contexts in which they work. And social changes such as urbanization, migration, economic crises and technological advances are rapidly changing the way people volunteer.
A VSO International volunteer might spend two years as a marketing advisor helping to improve the dairy value chain in a Malawi village. Someone devoting their time through Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance could travel to Uzbekistan to promote dialogue between the government and private industry. A Cuso International volunteer may not even need to leave their home given the increasing popularity of virtual volunteering, and those looking for both short- and long-term projects can find placement with Austraining International depending on age, skills and interest.
For a recent college graduate, a volunteer position with a noteworthy nonprofit may be just the ticket to land the next paid gig, and a two-year stint with the Peace Corps can open the door to the development network he or she has been searching for. 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 be the first step in a highly anticipated career transition.
And if someone is unsure where he or she might be best suited to start “experteering,” organizations like MovingWorlds help to match professionals with opportunities based on their skills and the causes that most interest them, much like a dating site.
But volunteerism, of course, is more than a way to get a foot in the door of a competitive industry. It’s a force of like-minded people who come together to listen, share ideas and work alongside their host organizations — and a force that can enact long-lasting social change if properly tapped into.
“By enabling people and, in turn, their organizations and communities to play a more active role in development, volunteering provides the means through which the essential preconditions for systemic and sustainable change — ownership, participation, empowerment and inclusion — can be realized,” said Matt Foster, director of strategy and program effectiveness for VSO.
It’s no wonder, then, that new players entering development have likewise immediately made use of this space to further their initiatives.
Alongside traditional volunteering programs from the likes of the Peace Corps, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Austraining, corporate volunteerism continues to take off. About 39 companies around the world now have international corporate volunteering programs, up from about 26 in 2013, according to Pyxera Global. 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 tenth anniversary of its Global Health Fellows that has involved 300 employees.
Several businesses and nonprofits are now pushing forward in establishing metrics to determine how volunteer programs may achieve social and business goals. IBM, for instance, has been looking at measuring the value of their program to the company, to the community and to the participants in a triple-bottom-line approach, while VSO in 2012 launched “Valuing Volunteering,” an initiative using participatory action research in five countries to understand how, when and why volunteering affects poverty.
“A lot of studies have tended to focus on the impact volunteering has on the volunteer,” said Katie Turner, global research and advocacy advisor with the Volunteering for Development program at VSO. However, Turner noted, it’s also crucial to involve community members where volunteer work is being carried out in order to log constructive feedback and strengthen the development impact.
In 2013, IFRC, which welcomes volunteers to engage in their local communities, commenced the largest and most thorough review of its volunteering ever by conducting interviews and surveys in more than 160 countries. Likewise, 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.”
But as the number of diaspora, youth — approximately 50 percent of IFRC’s 17 million volunteers are youth — and corporate volunteers continues to rise, it seems volunteering will hold firm as a central aspect of development initiatives even as the field continues to evolve.
There will never be a shortage of people “who want to make themselves, their knowledge and their country known to the rest of the world,” said Eric Wallace, farmer-to-farmer program director at VEGA.
Volunteers often serve as first responders in times of crisis, as we’ve seen recently in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated parts of the Philippines.
One of the biggest advantages of expert volunteers is that they bring no agenda to their assignments beyond helping as best as they can, Wallace suggested. They work alongside their hosts by building trust and empowering them to make significant changes.
“They’re listening more to what hosts are saying, not trying to fit it into an approach that’s already been decided,” he said. “And they’re willing to say things that host organizations or implementers don’t want to hear.”
This level of expertise is not generally available to the international development industry at large since high-level volunteers, like the kind VEGA programs utilize, typically charge two to four times the USAID maximum daily rate for their services.
And the role of volunteers in the post-2015 agenda — from crisis prevention to climate change mitigation and the rights of minorities and the disabled — will be as valuable as ever within the greater development framework.
“So much good work goes unnoticed, but we’re trying to get to the point where there is recognition that volunteerism is part of the development measuring framework and acknowledgment that a healthy society is one that supports volunteers and civic engagement,” Kevin Gilroy, head of the UNV Peace and Development Division, said during an exclusive interview with Devex last November.
In an effort to uncover good work as well as prompt healthy conversation about what needs to change for the better, Devex — alongside Austraining International, Cuso International, IFRC, MovingWorlds, Peace Corps, United Nations Volunteers, VEGA and VSO — is hosting “Doing More,” an online series showcasing the evolution and importance of volunteering. It’s a dedicated space for leading volunteer organizations to pose questions, offer new solutions and spark collaboration. The series, which will run for the remainder of 2014, will feature stories, advice and commentary that showcase the best of what’s happening — and what needs to happen — in the world of volunteerism.
Throughout our Doing More series, we’ll explore questions like:
• Who is the international development volunteer of today?
• What is the role of volunteers when it comes to local capacity development?
• What is their role in the post-2015 development agenda?
• What does the future of South-South volunteering look like?
• How can volunteer-involved organizations better measure their impact?
• What are best practices for skills-based volunteering overseas?
• Why will volunteering remain a central aspect of development, and what might need to change to ensure volunteers better serve the broader development agenda?
Make sure to tune in to hear real stories from people volunteering their skills and tips for planning your own experience of a lifetime.
Doing More is an ongoing conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Austraining International, Cuso International, IFRC, MovingWorlds, Peace Corps, United Nations Volunteers, Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance and VSO.