Volunteering: It's not just for college students and recent grads

United Nations volunteers and Haitian residents work together to unload food aid. Volunteering is not only for the "young and inexperienced", as some volunteer programs require mid-career or retired professionals to be placed with NGOs and U.N. agencies that oftentimes need volunteers with a specific skill to share. Photo by: USAID_IMAGES / CC BY-SA

Volunteering is often touted as an excellent way to break into international development. It can be challenging to land a full-time, paid position when you lack experience, so volunteering can be an effective way to build the skills that will eventually help you land a permanent position.

Many aspiring aid workers start out in this field by taking volunteer assignments while in school or just after graduating. In fact, volunteers are commonly perceived as young and inexperienced individuals who are eager to give back and make a difference. While some volunteers fall into this category, it doesn’t quite encompass the many volunteers — and volunteering needs — out there.

Yesterday, Devex hosted a webinar with United Nations Volunteers, the agency that recruits volunteers to assist with their missions across the U.N. system.

Many participants were surprised to learn that volunteering is not just for recent grads, but in fact most U.N. opportunities require significant amount of experience and technical expertise.

The kinds of challenges the U.N. and other agencies doing global development work are trying to solve and the difficult environments in which they work require on-the-ground training and know-how to be able to handle effectively. In short: the work is just too important and complex to hand off to someone without previous experience.

You must be at least 25 years old with two years relevant experience to be considered for a UNV assignment, however the average age of a volunteer is 38 with an average of 5 to 10 years relevant experience. Unlike working for the U.N. system as an employee, there is no upper age limit, so experts can volunteer well into their retirement age. In fact, some agencies are looking at retirees – rather than college students – as a source of able-bodied and eager volunteers with plenty of experience and knowledge to share.

IrishAID started a volunteer program targeting middle-aged, retired professionals to be placed with NGOs and U.N. agencies that oftentimes need volunteers with a specific skill set. Japan International Cooperation Agency and Korean International Cooperation Agency have started similar programs.

The Peace Corps, best known for its volunteer program for recent grads, is launching a new program next year called the Global Health Service Partnership, where they are seeking experienced healthcare professionals to serve as “medical or nursing educators in Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda.”

Volunteering doesn’t mean packing your bags and heading off to a remote part of the world anymore, either. Agencies are increasingly leveraging technology to mobilize a global force of online volunteers.

UNV spoke about their online volunteering program, where professionals with experience in writing and editing, design, translation, training, IT development, research and project management can contribute their skills and knowledge from the comforts of their own home. For mid-career 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.

This Thursday, Dec. 5 is International Volunteers Day, a day to acknowledge and promote the work of individuals and organizations giving back across the globe. According to a John Hopkins University Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project, from 1995 to 2000, the economic contribution of volunteers in 36 countries was estimated at $400 billion annually. Here at Devex we thank those that have given of themselves, their time and their knowledge to create such a massive impact on global poverty. Here’s hoping more professionals can continue to share their expertise through continued innovations in volunteering.

Interested in finding out where your skills might fit? Check out How volunteers can really make a difference. Tweet me @DevexCareers or leave a comment below.

About the author

  • Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.