Local vs. international volunteer: Is there still room for both?

VSO volunteers at a rice planting activity in Chittagong, Bangladesh. How can organizations adapt to the new and shifting priorities in volunteering? Photo by: Piers Brown / CC BY

Volunteers — and the institutions benefiting from their time and skills — want to change how the volunteer role fits into global development.

“Going forward, I see a hybrid model,” Philip Goodwin, CEO of VSO International, told Devex.

VSO — which deployed volunteers in 25 countries in 2015 to work on projects related to education, health and poverty reduction — is known for its unusual and thus far successful practice of deploying mostly local and regional staff in its 2,500-strong volunteer workforce.

“It’s important to invest in national volunteers, but international volunteers are also highly valued in the countries where we work,” he said. “But those countries don’t want the same model they’ve had in the past.”

Goodwin, who took the helm at VSO in February 2015, said the face of volunteerism is changing in order to keep pace with new and shifting priorities. His organization, therefore, is changing too.

Budgeting for sustainability

VSO will increase the number of local volunteers and reduce, over time, the volunteers it deploys from the global north, while simultaneously increasing the latter’s impact by recruiting higher level, more skilled individuals. Goodwin also said he wants to pay closer attention to past successes and failures, integrating lessons learned more systematically and transparently in programming in order to make successful projects “more easy to replicate.”

“We decided to invest some of our unrestricted financing into evidence-based programming because we decided that actually, that’s an important investment to delivering impact,” he said.

The problem with paying for impact assessment, Goodwin said, is that the funds are “difficult to get from donors.”

“Donors want the evidence of sustainability, but they don’t want to pay for it,” he said. “As a sector I think we need to speak out more about that and make it clear that is an important investment.”

But engaging in a greater number of third party reviews and assessments, which Goodwin plans to do in 2016, requires a strong stomach. The reviews aren’t always good, he said, but his team knows that confident organizations don’t need to be afraid of sharing.

Finally, Goodwin said he hopes to build on strides to diversify funding sources — a key to maintaining VSO’s independence and its “freedom to innovate.” He pointed out that the U.K. Department for International Development — which provided about 55 percent of VSO’s funding in 2012 — now makes up less than 29 percent, with the rest provided by corporate donors as well as the governments of Sweden, Denmark, Norway and others. He estimated these shifts in cost-base will result in about $6 million in savings returned to the organization annually.

Quick to wave off credit, Goodwin pointed out that the team at VSO has been revamping the donor portfolio “since long before I got here.”

With cost-savings providing some wiggle room (though perhaps not for long, as VSO’s Nordic donors continue to slash aid budgets), Goodwin said he’s thinking a lot about how to attract, deploy and share mutual benefits with a new kind of volunteer, and he’s looking to current and potential corporate partners as the talent source. The challenge, he said, is building flexibility into recruitment and training strategies that will attract corporate employees.

‘A new kind of volunteer’

“I think corporates increasingly see organizations like us as driving innovation,” Goodwin said. “They’ve got these skills and expertise; and when they put their people in a different context, suddenly they’re using those skills in different ways, and bringing them back to the organization.”

VSO already partners with several corporations through its Knowledge Exchange program, deploying volunteers from IBM, Accenture, BG and others. But to gauge interest across the sector, and get a better idea of what corporate employees need from a volunteering role, VSO commissioned Gorkana to survey 3,000 professionals currently working in finance, information technology, business and engineering.

The results were encouraging. Gorkana found that 56 percent of respondents would volunteer overseas if they had a job to come back to. Among reasons for not volunteering, 50 percent of respondents cited “missing family and friends,” while 42 percent were concerned with “financial instability.” Perhaps to mitigate both worries, 80 percent of respondents said they would volunteer for two months or less.

For Goodwin, this means the talent and willingness are there, if VSO can tailor its programming to minimize time — possibly over a longer engagement period — while maximizing impact.

“We know that e-volunteering is going to be part of the mix, [as well as] relay volunteering — in which people volunteer over their whole lifetime, but in smaller chunks,” he said.

VSO’s engagement with a volunteer would continue, he explained, ideally over a lifetime, with shorter, more impactful “on the ground” commitments.

“I’m talking about a whole life relationship with a volunteer,” he said.

And shorter stints over a whole career bodes well with the need for higher level volunteers who are at the middle or later stages of their careers. Goodwin used the example of a mid-level pediatrician who may be able to volunteer for a few months or a year, versus a high-level consultant pediatrician who can contribute only a few weeks, perhaps for training or capacity-building, something project staff want more of. So how do you appeal to these “high value” individuals?

“If it’s a doctor, or a businessperson, they may choose to work in certain places so they understand them better for their own career interests, and shorter bursts can [accomplish] that,” he said.

The way VSO recruits now, it already looks for emotional intelligence, Goodwin explained, but volunteer life “requires other [living] adjustments that might be especially useful for corporate volunteers. From suddenly not having a toilet seat, for example, to suddenly working closely with a [government] ministry, who can be very slow, when you’re used to things being [fast-paced].

Increasing volunteer engagement with the private sector, he noted, adds dimension to VSO’s incorporation of both “insider and outsider perspectives,” he said.

“And [having these] multiple perspectives is a real opportunity, particularly for tackling poverty,” he added.

Finally, engaging volunteers throughout their careers gives VSO access to a wider pool of expertise.

“If you’re working with pediatric institutions, they can talk to their own networks on your behalf,” he said, adding the same is true in the education sector or in corporate partnerships, where this kind of expertise is overflowing, but as of yet mostly untapped.

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.