Volunteer agencies now aim to recruit skilled workers to work in partnership with developing countries, writes Patrick McCurry
The old-fashioned image of volunteering overseas often seemed vaguely amateurish and, some might argue, slightly patronising.
Typically, a young Briton, usually white and middle class and perhaps taking a gap year before university, would go off to 'do good' in the developing world.
But charities working in the overseas volunteering field have increasingly recognised that this image is largely anachronistic. Instead of working with unskilled young people taking a gap year or fresh out of university, leading volunteering charities have been rebranding themselves as development agencies working more closely in partnership with local communities overseas.
Last week, International Service, an NGO that sends volunteers to Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, rebranded its communications to reflect the changing trend (Third Sector, 9 June).
Chief executive Jane Carter says that the crux of the issue is that host countries often don't really need relatively unskilled volunteers from the UK.
She says: "In the past, there was a perception of the white professional coming in to show the locals what to do, while being there primarily for their own benefit.
"That's still partly true, in that volunteers do benefit from the experience, but we work closely with our partners overseas to find out what skills they really need."
The truth, she says, is that local communities in places like Bolivia or Burkina Faso increasingly look for specific skills rather than simply accepting any volunteering that is offered. The kinds of skills they seek range from microfinance to gender awareness.
To reflect this increasing focus on the needs of the host communities, International Service has changed its strap line to 'Partners against poverty'.
Carter says: "The message is that we're looking at what our partners really need and, as a charity, we do more these days than simply volunteering. For example, we raise awareness in the UK about overseas development."
VSO, the biggest organisation of its kind in the world, has already been through its own, similar process of rebranding. In 2002, the charity invested £1m in its brand development following a strategic decision to focus on defining itself as a development charity working through skilled volunteers.
The rebrand was the result of a five-year strategic plan, which aimed for volunteer placements to become based on "thorough and ongoing analysis and longer-term thinking" requiring "deeper, more dynamic relationships with partner organisations".
In other words, like International Service, VSO is focusing on helping communities to develop their own skills capacity.
According to Glyn Williams, VSO's head of communications, it's working.
"A few years ago, maybe a fifth of applications were unsuitable, but we're now seeing more quality applications from people with relevant skills that our overseas partners need," he says.
The profile of the average VSO volunteer has changed, he says, and is now slightly older with an average age in the late-30s.
That's also true for the Scottish charity Challenges Worldwide, which sends people on three to nine-month trips. The average age of its volunteers is older than before too. This is partly because a growing number of placements require specialist experience, says chief executive Eoghan Mackie.
"We're also working more intensively with individuals on their personal and skills development, as well as with their employers or university departments," he says. "It is important that volunteers are motivated to achieve sustainable outcomes during their assignment and that their sponsors can see benefits from supporting them."
But given the increasing demand for professional skills among overseas volunteers, is there not a danger that the pool of available volunteers has shrunk?
According to International Service's Carter, tighter selection processes may mean fewer opportunities for "traditional" volunteers, but this is offset by a growing supply from non-UK sources.
"In the past five to 10 years, there has been a change in the nationality of our volunteers, with two-thirds coming from countries like France, Holland and Canada."
VSO has followed a similar route, with growing numbers of volunteers recruited from outside the UK via national agencies in countries like Canada, Kenya and the Philippines. It is making a particular effort to recruit volunteers from developing countries. In some developing countries there are more trained professionals in certain fields than may be needed there, which gives VSO more opportunities to recruit.
"The number of placements we recruit for has stayed quite level over the past few years, but we now have more global recruitment bases," says VSO's Williams. "So not only do we recruit from the UK, Europe and North America, but also from Uganda, Kenya, India and the Philippines."
Jane Carter points out that some countries, such as Ireland and Holland, have seen international volunteering agencies close in recent years, which means there is more demand from volunteers there for UK-based agencies like International Service.
While International Service's volunteers are an eclectic group and it is hard to generalise, Carter does see the emergence of a new kind of overseas volunteer.
"A lot of volunteers with specialist skills are far more mobile these days and it's not that important which country they come from, but that they see themselves as 'global citizens'," she says.