'An experience like this really puts life into perspective'

With Voluntary Services Overseas seeking top brass, Jacqui Canham looks at the financial implications of altruism
Click to follow

The search is on for high-flyers with more than just a streak of philanthropy. By September, the international development charity Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) hopes to persuade 300 business people in senior roles to swap their comfortable, lucrative jobs for unpaid short-term assignments in the world's poorest countries.

In a departure from its usual quest for skilled workers, nurses, teachers and other professionals, VSO is urging top-level managers to volunteer as troubleshooters to provide advice and consultation to organisations that are fighting poverty in the developing world. Assignments will last between two weeks and six months, depending on the task.

The qualities required for these assignments - leadership skills, the ability to manage organisational change and set up robust systems, and to adapt swiftly to a new culture - would usually command a six-figure salary. Accept a VSO assignment in Nigeria, however, and your daily allowance would be around £4.

And there's the rub: no matter how altruistic your intent, there is a strong possibility that the financial implications of accepting a contract overseas will put you off volunteering. A survey by VSO revealed that 60 per cent of professionals who would consider taking a career break are deterred by personal-finance concerns. This is a shame because the overriding message from returning volunteers is that the value of their experiences far outweighs any financial sacrifices.

And this has been the case throughout the 48 years of VSO's existence, during which time it has posted an impressive 30,000 recruits to developing Africa and Asia, hoping "to bring people together to share skills and creativity and learning, and to build a fairer world".

"The thought of having to make financial arrangements and of losing money can put people off," says Gemma Hoskins, recruitment officer at VSO. "But VSO ensures you're never out of pocket while volunteering."

Indeed, all major expenses are paid for. This includes flights to and from the placement country, accommodation, a comprehensive medical insurance and basic National Insurance (NI) contributions. Once volunteers start working in the host country, they receive a modest monthly allowance to cover daily needs. "The allowance usually tallies with that of local workers to help volunteers to integrate at work and in the community," says Hoskins.

VSO can also provide grants, on a case by case basis, such as hardship funds, household equipment grants, in-service grants, and end-of-service grants. But the charity can only help volunteers so far. If you are a high-salaried manager on assignment for a few months, your financial hardship will be minimal and it should be easy to slip back into your job when you return. But if you are a volunteer for years rather than months, you have to sort out your finances well before you leave.

"Many people on VSO assignments act as if they're running away from their old lives and joining the Foreign Legion," says the independent financial adviser Ruth Whitehead. "You need to sort out your finances in a controlled way before you go. Let out your property - never sell it - pay off credit cards, arrange direct debits, get some savings together to tide you over, or for emergencies, and a slush fund for when you return."

If you have savings that you need to access while abroad, online banking may be possible in some locations, but in rural areas, you'd be lucky to plug in an electric fan let alone a computer. In these cases, there are VSO staff, posted in every placement country, who can help you to open up a local bank account.

As for pensions contributions, it is not usually possible to continue paying into a pensions scheme while volunteering, but there is a VSO grant available for up to £40 per month.

The charity has also developed partnerships with companies such as Accenture, Shell and PricewaterhouseCoopers, who acknowledge that international experience has a positive impact on skills, and so offer VSO sabbaticals to employees as a way of "investing" in them. As Whitehead says: "Investment doesn't just apply to money, it applies to life experiences too."

Helen Durdy (above), 38 , has twice been a VSO volunteer - in Zambia as a hospital administrator, and in Mongolia as a hospital management adviser. She is now renal-services manager at the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust.

"It was an amazing experience, both times," says Helen. "Working and living in a country is very different from just visiting as a tourist. I felt that I was doing something useful, and I learnt so much from the people around me. It's very much a two-way process."

Before leaving home, Helen paid off her credit cards and ensured that she had some savings for occasional treats while away, such as books or the odd holiday. However, she does regret selling her home as she found herself at the bottom of the property ladder once again when she returned.

While on assignment, she found that detailed budgeting was crucial. "At work, you don't have the same resources as at home. You ask yourself, 'Do we really need more paper? Is there enough left for sugar?'."

And away from work, on a small allowance, she had to work out her food rations carefully each month, and consider how she was going to eat healthily. "An experience such as this really puts life into perspective!"

Looking for credit card or current account deals? Search here