Lend a helping hand

Use your skills to other people's best advantage on a volunteer placement, says Joe Bindloss
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The Independent Travel

When Peter Bennett announced that he was giving up his job as an IT manager at a London stockbroking firm to become a volunteer teacher in Sudan, his colleagues were a little surprised. Leaving the security of a highly paid job to live in one of the poorest nations in the world might seem like a radical move, but more and more people are abandoning the nine-to-five in favour of a more meaningful life as a volunteer.

When Peter Bennett announced that he was giving up his job as an IT manager at a London stockbroking firm to become a volunteer teacher in Sudan, his colleagues were a little surprised. Leaving the security of a highly paid job to live in one of the poorest nations in the world might seem like a radical move, but more and more people are abandoning the nine-to-five in favour of a more meaningful life as a volunteer.

For Peter, the decision to volunteer was a part of a quest for self-knowledge at a time when life was feeling safe and mundane. "I had this idea that there must be more to life," he explains. "I wanted to make time and space to see what else or who else in this world might inspire me."

As for the upheaval of spending seven months in a war-torn African nation, Peter is sanguine. "I challenged myself to stay in one place and live in a different culture. As a tourist you can scrape the surface but building relationships, understanding customs and traditions, and learning a language all take time."

The options for would-be volunteers are as broad as the imagination. There are schools in Africa that need volunteer teachers and clinics that need to be built from scratch in remote parts of Nepal. In fact there are hundreds of charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) around the world that are desperate for enthusiastic volunteers. However, people who turn up without an invitation are often more of a hindrance than a help.

"NGOs have a job to do," explains Richard Oliver of the Year Out Group, a non-profit organisation that represents many leading year out companies. "They need specific skills at specific times."

Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) is one of several organisations offering voluntary placements overseas for "executive volunteers", who use real-life business skills to make a difference in the developing world. VSO placements cover a vast range of careers and occupations and volunteers receive a modest local salary, free flights and accommodation, medical insurance, pension contributions, personal support and three weeks paid holiday each year. The pay-off is a two year minimum contract. For this reason, people who volunteer for VSO tend to be focused and highly motivated. "It's hard to manage a project when people just appear for a month at a time," explains Glynn Williams at VSO. "People who join VSO want to use their professional skills. They see it as a year or two of their career, not out of their career."

For less committed volunteers, there are hundreds of shorter volunteer programmes lasting anything from one week to a year. Many of these are open to unskilled volunteers, dramatically widening the options for people who just want to do something to help.

The first step for any aspiring volunteer is to find a suitable volunteer project. By far the easiest way to do this is through a "sending organisation" such as Venture Co, Teaching & Projects Abroad, Coral Cay or i-to-i.

These organisations act as recruitment agencies for charities and NGOs, matching volunteers to humanitarian and conservation projects that need their skills and experience. Sending organisations generally charge an administration fee to cover their costs and they may ask for a contribution to the running costs of the project. Volunteers also pay for their own flights and visas. In return, the sending organisation arranges a placement, helps with travel preparations and provides local support.

Whatever you end up doing, it's important to be realistic about what volunteering will involve. Making a difference can be highly rewarding, but living conditions are often basic and the daily business of volunteering can be physically and emotionally draining. Most volunteer organisations provide counselling for their volunteers to protect them from burning out.

Although volunteering might seem far removed from the world of work, the ability to adapt quickly to new situations is a valuable business skill. Many employers see volunteering as a positive learning experience, providing skills that translate easily back into the workplace.

VOLUNTARY CONTRIBUTIONS

The Year Out Group ( www.yearoutgroup.org) represents 30 of the leading organisations offering gap year and career break placements, including Venture Co ( www.ventureco-worldwide.com); Teaching & Projects Abroad ( www.teaching-abroad.co.uk); Coral Cay ( www.coralcay.org) and i-to-i ( www.i-to-i.com). The website has a full list of members and tips for choosing a year out organisation.

Alternatively, search for volunteering opportunities with the National Centre for Volunteering ( www.volunteering.org.uk);Worldwide Volunteering ( www.worldwidevolunteering.org.uk); or TimeBank ( www.timebank.org.uk).

VSO ( www.vso.org.uk) places long-term volunteers all over the world. There's a minimum two-year commitment for those who apply and applicants need relevant skills for each placement. The age range for volunteers is between 20 and 75.

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