How to volunteer abroad

How to volunteer abroad

Social workers have skills that are valued overseas. Organisations recruiting volunteers are looking for qualified and experienced professionals, including social care staff. If February in the UK is getting you down, your thoughts might turn to an alternative plan. However volunteering abroad is not a holiday but living and working with local people in a developing country can be life-changing. Many employers allow unpaid leave for voluntary work and volunteers say the experience is rewarding, both personally and professionally.

1 Why do it?

Volunteering is about building a fairer world, a chance to use skills to make a tangible contribution to fighting poverty, according to charity VSO. Such sentiments are a timely reminder to social workers about what originally motivated them to join the profession, back before bureaucracy and impossible workloads blunted idealism.

2 What skills are needed?

VSO has a small but steady demand for qualified, registered and experienced social workers. Management or training experience is highly desirable. Current demand is mainly for disability social workers although this will vary. (Previously social workers specialising in children, young people, learning difficulties, and substance misuse have all been successfully placed).
Countries needing VSO social workers now are Kazhakstan, Namibia, Mongolia and Sri Lanka.

3 What do volunteers get out of volunteering?

Experienced social worker Barbara Smith took two years’ unpaid leave from her job at Liverpool Community College teaching counselling skills, to run similar diploma courses in the Maldives for VSO.

Until Smith arrived, there were no counselling qualifications on the islands, where social work is not well developed. (Her visit was before the Indian ocean tsunami –  now of course social work expertise is even more vital in the area). She designed and delivered courses that are now accredited in the UK. Her students have found good jobs and Smith trained a colleague to continue teaching counselling courses after she left.

Some friends joked that Smith was off to sun herself in the Maldives but she points out it was “hard work, not a jolly” and that the overcrowded islands have many social problems.
But she thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and would consider doing it again. “I’d recommend volunteering to anyone,” she says. Smith had a lot of autonomy during her placement, which she enjoyed. She is studying for a PhD and valued the opportunity to do original research in the Maldives. Smith also took the chance to travel and visited Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.
Volunteering has affected Smith profoundly, as a person and as a professional. “My values changed, including my feelings about work and money,” she says. “My priorities are now less materialistic. And I feel refreshed, with new energy. Volunteering was great for my professional development, I feel I’m now a slicker operator.”

4 Short or long term?

Most VSO placements are for two years. Other organisations listed below offer shorter placements.

5 Can you get unpaid leave?

You may be able to return to your job after volunteering, as many employers run career break plans. Wolverhampton Council has a retainer scheme where staff can take unpaid leave for up to five years and then return to a post on the same grade and spinal column as they were on when they left.  Employees who have completed one year’s service with Ealing Council in London may take an unpaid career break of between six months and three years.
6 Find out more

VSO is the largest organisation recruiting volunteers and offers a comprehensive package including return flights, accommodation, insurance, living allowance, and national insurance contributions back home.

With the smaller organisations listed below, volunteers generally pay a placement fee, which can be substantial, plus their own travel and other expenses. Food and accommodation may be provided.

Asian Foundation for Philanthropy
Arranges both long and short-term placements in India for British Asian people wanting to contribute to social change. Includes disability, health and education projects.

Challenges Worldwide
Opportunities in Central and South America and Central and South Asia. Placements last 6-12 weeks and the idea is to match volunteering to fit an individual’s professional learning and development programme.

Gap Guru
Volunteer and work opportunities for all ages, in India. Current vacancies include working with autistic children in Delhi and children with cerebral palsy in Calcutta.

International Voluntary Service
Short (2-3 weeks) or long term (3-12 months) placements.
Current opportunities include volunteering at a centre for disabled children in Latvia; with elderly people in mountain villages in Japan; and youth work in Russia.

UN volunteer programme


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