Volunteering abroad – a niche labour market
It just makes sense! The desire for meaningful work in businesses or non-profit organisations that benefit society as a whole is an enduring trend in the working world of the 21st century. International volunteer organisations make this possible. The demand for authentic experiences and fair relationships with hosts is also a major factor in the travel industry.
These two trends are bridged by the niche labour market of international volunteer organisations that allow people without special qualifications to volunteer abroad. Our guest author, Frank Seidel from the website wegweiser-freiwilligenarbeit.com, explores the issue of how and where Germany-Alumni can make a career out of volunteering and civil service programmes abroad.
Frank Seidel is the founder of wegweiser-freiwilligenarbeit.com, the website for flexible and meaningful volunteering abroad. He has been involved in volunteer work far away from home since 1991 with roles including book author and marketing director of a volunteer organisation.
Volunteering – not a mass phenomenon but still attracting considerable interest
International studies show that up to 0.2 per cent of global travel is connected to volunteering. Even though voluntary work abroad is not really a mass phenomenon, 1.2 million people are still going abroad to volunteer each year and their involvement needs to be organised and supervised. A few thousand volunteer organisations that might be attractive employers for Germany-Alumni have been created around the globe since the 1990s.
The website wegweiser-freiwilligenarbeit.com estimates that 20,000-30,000 Germans travel abroad to volunteer in social, environmental and cultural projects all over the world for a limited period of time. Volunteering abroad might take the form of serving as an assistant teacher at English classes at a school in Thailand, working on a project to save turtles in Greece or providing afternoon care for children in a South African township.
What is volunteering abroad?
What is the difference between volunteering and development cooperation? This distinction is important to understanding the needs of potential employers and the requirements for candidates.
In development cooperation, experts pass on their specialist knowledge in developing countries and emerging economies. Expectations of these experts are high in terms of their work experience and intercultural skills. Consequently, employers in this field look for employees specialising in organising the transfer of knowledge and working with highly qualified experts.
By contrast, volunteers are usually young people aged between 16 and 30 who are still at school, in training or studying. Their focus is on pitching in for a good cause, global learning and the desire to get to know their host country away from the normal streams of tourists. Therefore, volunteer organisations’ expectations of their employees are shaped by the fact that they work together with young people.
What is the difference between flexible volunteering and government funded voluntary services?
In the case of flexible volunteering, volunteers generally shoulder the costs incurred when organising these volunteer programmes. In specific terms, this means that volunteers pay a participation fee to the implementing organisation.
The special case of ‘government funded voluntary services’ also exists in Germany. These programmes include weltwärts, the International Youth Voluntary Service (IFJD), the European Voluntary Service (EVS) and kulturweit. Each year, more than 6,500 German volunteers go abroad through these programmes. Public subsidies largely cover the costs. In return, volunteers have to commit to stay for a longer period and go through an application process.
Besides these specialised volunteering options, a growing number of travel companies are also incorporating work on charitable projects into their tourist activities in varying forms.
Who are the potential employers?
Volunteering specialists can be found in the volunteers’ home countries, such as Germany, but also in destination countries where volunteering takes place. In most cases, small structures employing fewer than 10 people are involved. Bigger organisations with several dozen or even more than 100 employees are the exception.
Up to three different organisations may work together within a single volunteer programme.
- Sending organisations
- Receiving organisations
- Host projects
In the case of government funded volunteer programmes, both the sending and receiving organisations are always charities since only they can apply for government subsidies. Experience with non-profits, either as domestic volunteer or paid staff member, are a plus in applications.
Flexible volunteering organisations can be charities, but in many cases also companies - both as sending and receiving organisations. Since these companies are only funded by the fees paid by volunteers, they have a more customer oriented approach as charities. Germany-Alumni who have already proven their dedication to customer satisfaction in the private sector have a good advantage here.
Sending organisations as employers
A sending organisation is in contact with volunteers before their departure. They tell volunteers about their services, answer questions and handle registration procedures (flexible volunteering) and application procedures (for government funded volunteering programmes). Moreover, the sending organisation chooses the partners in destination countries (receiving organisation and/or host project), sets quality standards and takes care of pre-departure trainings and subsidies in the case of government funded programmes.
Traditionally, sending organisations have their offices in developed countries, such as Germany, the UK, Australia and the US, but more and more sending organisations have their headquarters in developing countries and emerging economies, too.
Job advertisements from the volunteer sector in Germany can be found on job platforms specialising in sustainable development and meaningful careers, for instance epojobs.de, greenjobs.de and goodjobs.eu. idealist.org is one of the most promising international job platforms.
However, the number of positions is rather small on the whole. When using job platforms, candidates should also pay particular attention to the aforementioned distinction between volunteering and experts in development cooperation.
An important hiring criterion for sending organisations is experience abroad, ideally in one of the destination countries where the organisation offers volunteer programmes, even better as a volunteer. Anybody who has already walked in a volunteer’s shoes knows their needs without having to go through a long learning curve and can incorporate this knowledge efficiently into their work. It is not unusual for sending organisations to even hire their own former volunteers who are already familiar with procedures on the ground.
Receiving organisations and host projects as employers
A receiving organisation is frequently the local contact for volunteers in destination countries. This entity arranges logistics surrounding actual volunteering (e.g. airport transfer and accommodation and board), chooses the host project and guarantees quality control on projects. In the internet era, more and more organisations overseas bypass Western sending organisations and communicate directly with candidates through their own website.
Finally, host projects represent the placement where volunteers actually work. It is unusual for sending or receiving organisations to run their own projects. In most cases, they work with schools, kindergartens, NGOs, nature reserves and similar structures providing professional support for volunteers during their everyday work. Host projects are only relevant as potential employers if they regularly use a large number of volunteers, which is sometimes the case for nature conservation and animal care projects.
Have you volunteered in social projects too? What was your main motivation?
Finding vacancies at volunteer organisations abroad is not easy, either, since no specialised job platforms exist where Germany-Alumni can find jobs all in one place. Despite the amount of effort involved, the most promising approach is to search online for volunteering opportunities in a specific country (using search terms like “Volunteer Ghana”), thus to identify sending and receiving organisations and then write unsolicited applications.
In destination countries, Germany-Alumni can benefit from their knowledge of western culture in general and German culture in particular in applications. Cultural differences between the volunteers’ home countries and popular destinations, such as India, Kenya and Guatemala, are sometimes enormous. This can quickly lead to misunderstandings and conflict between volunteers and host projects.
Volunteers who have paid a participation fee for their volunteer programme have high expectations of their accommodation and board, but also of the meaningfulness of their work in the project or the reliability of arrangements. These are not always understood or anticipated by local staff members. In these instances, Germany-Alumni can act as cultural intermediaries and play a role in deciding the success or failure of volunteer programmes.
The most popular destinations for volunteers where most receiving organisations are found in line with demand are:
- Africa: South Africa, Tanzania, Ghana
- Asia: India, Indonesia, Nepal, South-East Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Viet Nam)
- Australia / Oceania: Australia, Fiji
- Latin America: Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru
What job profiles exist?
Different skills are expected depending on whether a person would rather work in a sending or receiving organisation. Of course, many different job profiles and skill requirements also exist within a single organisation. Since most employers are small organisations, knowledge of several specialist areas is an advantage.
Sending organisations around the globe
Job profiles with desired skills
- Leadership experience
- Management skills
- Communications skills
- Sales experience
- Logistics of the volunteer programme
- Quality control
- Editorial work
- Online marketing
Sending organisations in government funded programmes:
- Application submission and processing
- HR skills for the application procedure
- German (native-speaker level) if Germans are volunteer recruitment target
- If necessary, the native language in other countries where volunteers are recruited
- Very good to fluent English to communicate with partners in destination countries
Receiving organisations or host projects in the destination country
- Leadership experience
- Management skills
- Logistics of the volunteer programme
- Quality control
- Staff in volunteer houses
Experts to train volunteers
- Rather unusual at volunteer organisations
- Specialist skills: Teachers for teaching projects, social workers for care projects, biologists for conservation projects etc.
- Training and teaching experience
- Very good to fluent English (many receiving organisations work with sending organisations from several countries)
- German skills are a valuable additional qualification, but can rarely offset a lack of English skills
Development policy expertise is not essential for all volunteer organisations. Many organisations primarily view themselves as a service provider for host projects and their expertise lies in matching efficiently the needs of volunteers and host projects. The technical skills for running the volunteer placements usually are provided by the host projects themselves. The more that the volunteering organisation views itself as a development organisation, the more important technical skills are in the job description.