Volunteers for food security in Laos working with the Crawford Fund. Photo by: Scope Global

Australia’s aid program has had a long history with volunteers. First emerging out of the University of Melbourne in the 1950s and 1960s, the initiatives have had a range of names including the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development and now the Australian Volunteers for International Development. But the purpose is still the same: to allow Australians to share their expertise with developing countries and make a difference in line with Australia’s overseas aid program.

The benefits often run both ways. For volunteers, working on a development project can be a life and career defining opportunity for the broad range of people the program attracts. Volunteers include young people at the start of their career, taking a gap year from studies or work and more recently, baby boomers giving back as part of their retirement.

“The volunteer program is extremely appealing and interesting to a broad range of people,” Simona Achitei, volunteer program manager for Scope Global, told Devex. “I initially thought people who would want to volunteer were those with an interest in international development. To my surprise, the people who tend to volunteer come from all walks of life.”

Two-thirds of volunteers in the 2015-2016 cycle gained enhanced language skills and increased confidence, according to research by Scope Global and Flinders University on the program. Intercultural awareness, understanding of aid and development and self-awareness also ranked high among skills gained by a volunteer assignment.

“People come back profoundly transformed,” Achitei said. “They do gain a lot of experience in the process, both personal and professional.”

For potential recruiters, a person with international development volunteering experience is an easy standout.

“I understand, from recruiters and from our partner organizations, if someone in their shortlist has a volunteer experience they tend to pick that person,” Achitei said. “Firstly, it says something about who they are, what they want to do and their motivation. It also says something about the potential skills that they would have gotten while on their journey.”

A very low percentage of volunteers are international development workers. The program attracts doctors, nurses, students, scientists, technology specialists and even ornamental fish experts. To gain insight into the skills and opportunities they have garnered from their experiences, Devex spoke to three returned volunteers about how the work transformed their careers and their recommendations for future applicants.

Alexandra Kay, 31

Alexandra Kay graduated from university in 2008 with a bachelor degree in speech pathology. Her career took her to areas of regional Australian as well as the United Kingdom, where she gained experience as a speech pathologist in clinical practices.

In 2013, an assignment advertised on the AVID website sparked her next career move.

“My decision to become a volunteer was due to a combination of things,” Kay told Devex. “Timing was important as relocating somewhere for 12 months takes a lot of organization of commitments from home. I was also feeling really burnt out with my current clinical job and was doubting my skills and commitment to my work.”

Kay’s volunteer work took her to Denpasar, Indonesia, where she spent 12 months volunteering with Yayasan Peduli Kemanusiaan, a locally run and operated NGO providing services to people living with disability.

Initially, friends criticized her choice — some called it a holiday on an island paradise. But Kay explained it was a career defining experience.

“For me, the opportunity just felt right and I knew that the experience was going to teach me so many valuable things and also enable me to work out ‘where to next?’” she said. “On reflection, my 12 months volunteering was the best career move I ever made.”

Volunteering in a development helped Kay clarify her career aspirations and built up personal and professional skills that she might not have gained working in a developed country.

“My patience was challenged every day and I had to learn how to be creative, think outside the square and develop new innovations with limited resources,” she said.

Cross-cultural communication was a key skill that Kay pointed to as something she could not have learned in a classroom environment. She saw different ideas for training techniques and methods to apply in the workplace. “Above anything else, the most valuable skill I learnt through my time volunteering was how to connect to people,” Kay said.

Volunteering put Kay’s career on a new path focusing on international development. Today, she is a disability development officer for AVID at Scope Global. “It’s been one incredible journey,” Kay said.

“The AVID program is the most amazing avenue to enable you to transfer your skills and knowledge in a meaningful way to local people,” Kay said. “Not only do you get to build the capacity of the local people in an area that is important to them, but you also build your own personal and professional capacity in ways that you never imagined. You’ll be challenged and out of your comfort zone, but that’s when the magic will happen.”

Kylie Ireland, 33

By 2012, Kylie Ireland had a doctorate and on-the-job working experience in academia, teaching and government as a specialist in plant biosecurity and pathology. In 2013, she had the opportunity to share her expertise as part of an AVID project with the Department of Agriculture in Laos.

Ireland told Devex she was drawn to the unique personal and professional opportunity of cultural immersion. “Opportunities to challenge yourself in the way volunteering assignments do rarely present themselves, especially as we get older — so I was keen to live this part of my life while I could justify it,” she told Devex.

Ireland used her technical expertise to train three young female staff in plant disease diagnostics as well as deliver integrated disease management advice to wider staff both at the agriculture ministry and local farmers.

Ireland also built her own professional network through the project, which partnered with The Crawford Fund, an Australia-based nonprofit that advocates international agriculture research. She built contacts with scientists in Italy, New Zealand and the United States.

“The Crawford Fund’s name on the project proposal made it that much more appealing,” Ireland said. “This would allow me to build my professional skills and make me more marketable in the workplace when I returned home, as well as giving me flexibility as to where I took my career.”

The 19 month volunteer experience also instilled in Ireland an appreciation for the importance of relationship building, which she is applying today in her current role as research scientist in plant biosecurity with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.

“My current job is quite relationship driven, and skills I have developed in that arena, including those from Laos, have only strengthened my capacity to do my job well following my return,” she said. “Not surprisingly, most people respond more effectively when you’ve taken the time to understand them and work on a solid base of mutual respect and understanding.”

She continued, “The volunteer experience on my CV has also been a great talking point when applying for and interviewing for jobs,” Ireland said “I think it looks interesting, increasing your visibility to potential employers.”

And despite Ireland not currently working in development, her volunteer experience has sparked interest to continuing maintaining connections and assisting developing communities where she can.

Rory Gass, 36

After almost a decade of holding information technology roles in Australia, including serving as digital project manager with Telstra and building one of the first on-demand video-based online learning platforms in Australia, Rory Gass needed new inspiration personally and professionally.

A desire to change career direction toward international development combined with advice from a former volunteer led Gass in 2013 to begin a nine-month volunteer stint with Tanaoba Lais Manekat, a small microfinance organization in Kupang, Indonesia.

“My decision to become a volunteer was driven by my belief that working in a small not-for-profit organization and living in a developing country would offer opportunities for greater job satisfaction and personal development,” Gass told Devex.

“I worked to build the capacity of TLM’s IT team to deliver reliable and efficient software, hardware and network systems to the organization’s 70 staff, who in turn serviced microloans to over 10,000 customers — many of whom lived below the poverty line,” he recounted.

As Gass shared his technical knowledge with Indonesian colleagues, he developed important people skills.

“My volunteer experience helped me develop my communication, capacity building, team facilitation, people management and cross cultural skills,” he said. “Working closely with my counterparts, I had to come to terms with the idea that an approach to a discussion in an Australian workplace did not necessarily translate directly to an Indonesian context. Moreover, living in a developing country for an extended period grew my sensitivity to a range of social issues related to gender stereotypes and cultural norms in the workplace and outside in social settings.”

Following his volunteer experience, Gass returned to work with Telstra and is now product manager in the chief technology office's big data team. He says his volunteer experience helped him to build better teams and utilize the range of expertise at hand. It also advanced his career.

“On my return to Telstra, I found considerable support and interest from my colleagues around my assignment, and was invited to speak about my AVID experiences at business unit team days,” Gass said. “My raised profile within the organization opened doors to new opportunities within Telstra.”

For others considering volunteering, Gass said an AVID assignment can open doors and build skills that help in all professional contexts. He urged volunteers to go in with an open mind.

“My advice would be to approach the experience with a great deal of patience and openness to cultural differences,” he said. “Some of the challenges of working in a foreign country, including language barriers, cannot be underestimated.”

Continuing the experience

The volunteering experience doesn’t end when the assignment does. Returned volunteer networks connect alumni throughout Australia, providing ongoing networking opportunities that can enhance career prospects. On December 3 and 4, former volunteers will gather in Melbourne for the inaugural Returned Australian Volunteer Network conference.

“This is the first time we have tried to organize a conference for returned volunteers from all Australian government programs,” Achitei said. “What we aim to achieve is two days of thought provoking discussion on international development, social entrepreneurship and volunteering. We want to build this community of alumni to connect with each other and continue the work they have done and to engage on the SDGs which volunteers play a significant role in.”

Devex is a media partner for the Returned Australian Volunteer Network conference. Follow the discussion online using #RAVNConf2016.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.