Mark Goldring's first encounter with VSO was as a volunteer, straight out of university, teaching English in Borneo. During his career he has returned to VSO twice, once as a programme co-ordinator in the Caribbean and then as overseas director going on to become its first internally appointed chief executive in 1999.
Now Goldring is overseeing the VSO's strategic plan, which includes a new television advertising campaign (Third Sector, 11 September). As part of the strategy, the organisation will take a hard look at its role and what international volunteering is about.
He admits that international volunteering has often been seen as a legacy of a colonial past and, in order to dispel this image, he feels it is vital that volunteers are integrated into local organisations. "It's fundamental that volunteers with the necessary skills are living and working alongside their colleagues, it's not a teacher and pupil relationship,
One of the defining features of the organisation is that it does not run projects alone. Instead volunteers either work at local NGOs or in the public sector. Goldring is adamant that VSO volunteers must use their skills to support local institutions. He is anxious that the experience must not be perceived as just about enhancing the skills of the volunteers.
Under the strategic plan, VSO intends to recruit more volunteers from southern countries. "We are trying to tackle the idea that skills only exist in northern countries and have to be transported,
This idea has been successfully piloted in the Philippines and Kenya over the past 18 months and will be rolled out internationally. The next country VSO will look to for skilled people is India, where there is an abundance of people trained in IT. Goldring is also interested in Uganda where he says there is a pool of people who have experience in tackling the problems associated with HIV.
He adds, however, that when embarking on these plans, it is important to consult with governments and ensure the organisation is not moving people who are needed locally.
The organisation has also begun to tackle national volunteering in developing countries, encouraging local groups to recruit people from other parts of their own country. For example, in Ghana there are graduates in cities in the southern parts of the country who could take on supporting roles in schools in the north. "It's a question of making it practical and appealing, like work experience,
His vision is that eventually projects will be run with international volunteers from southern and northern hemisphere countries, working alongside national volunteers and local employees. He says this has already been achieved to an extent in the Philippines, where local recruits work alongside international volunteers from countries such as Kenya and Britain.
The increasing level of skills in developing countries has made it possible for VSO to find volunteers both nationally and internationally. "In many developing countries 30 years ago there were very few educated school leavers and 20 years ago there were few graduates,
says Goldring. "As countries have developed their education systems, there are more skilled people."
Improved standards of education in developing countries have also changed the demand for the type of volunteers that are required from VSO. Goldring says the organisation used to have a lot of requests for carpenters and plumbers, but now they want business advisers and IT specialists.
"People tend to study more traditional subjects in developing countries and anyone who does have management or IT skills will normally work in the private sector because the public sector is often badly paid and very bureaucratic,
The demand for highly skilled volunteers has led VSO to investigate the possibility of encouraging professionals to take career breaks and secondments. The organisation has been piloting a scheme with companies including Shell and Accenture over the past two years where businesses second staff through VSO for up to a year.
So far this has proved successful and VSO wants to get more companies on board. However, it has been less successful at encouraging the public sector to second employees. "The public sector is over stretched and under-resourced. It's a real problem to fill the gaps once an employee has gone on a secondment,
Among the schemes in the pipeline is the possibility of seconding teachers from Tower Hamlets to Bangladesh. It would be a particularly interesting and useful since many of the families of students in London are from Bangladesh.
As far as the voluntary sector is concerned, many individual volunteers at VSO are from the sector but they have yet to make any secondment arrangements with voluntary organisations.
The increase in the level of education in developing countries has given VSO the opportunity to focus its work and it has decided to pull out of certain countries with well-developed skills bases, including Thailand and Belize. This will take about five years.
The organisation will also concentrate its focus. Initially it will work alongside projects dealing with HIV, education, disability, sustainable livelihoods, health and social well being and those encouraging participation in government.
The latest vision, according to Goldring, involves VSO taking a step back and assessing its work and what it wants to achieve. "The strategic plan is about looking at what is really causing the problems and working out what northern organisations can do to help,
"There's something really powerful about the sharing of skills and lives."