The Key Changes in Volunteering Today

Shane Halpin, CEO of VC

CEO of Viatores Christi, a volunteer sending organisation, shares his perspective

Comhlámh is the Irish association of development workers and volunteers, it promotes responsible, responsive international volunteering and development work. In 2019 Comhlámh published a report, five years in the making, on the trends associated with international volunteering from Ireland. The findings were unequivocal. While the interest in international volunteering from Ireland has remained consistent, the drive to pursue long-term volunteering is minimal. The profile of volunteers is changing, primarily volunteers are women aged under 30 and a large percentage are now under-18’s in second level education.


What does this mean for Irish volunteer sending agencies (VSAs)? Especially VSAs who have traditionally deployed older volunteers in long term placements? In interview, Shane Halpin, CEO of Viatores Christi (VC), explored the challenges facing VC and organisations akin to VC. He also mused how these organisations can rise to the new era and prosper to ensure the work their volunteers have carried out for decades can continue to affect sustainable development in the areas in which it is needed most. 


VC is an Irish based development organisation supporting and working within the faith-based international development sector. VC works with over 30 partners across a wide range of sectors focusing mainly on East Africa, but also with projects in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. VC addresses project needs through technical support and, when needed, through the recruitment, training and placement of skilled volunteers. The volunteer profile is usually professionals’ mid-career or retirees who commit to spending upwards of one year at a project which requires their skills and expertise.


The main challenge for VC currently is a reduction in the number of people who are willing to travel overseas long-term to volunteer, explains Halpin. According to Comhlámh’s publication 95% of volunteers from Ireland overseas currently stay for four months or less. VC’s project partners who are seeking volunteers do not require volunteers to paint a school or construct a house. Instead they require people with skills and knowledge to help their project prosper in the long-run such as trained accountants or school inspectors. Halpin posits that the decrease in supply of such volunteers could be a result of the economy in Ireland. The economy was thriving up until the outbreak of Covid-19 thus, professionals are less likely to take a career break. If there is financial gain to be had in Ireland professionals will remain to continue earning a good wage and retirees are more likely to stay to reap the rewards of their retirement benefits. Young professionals, who have not yet entered the mortgage scene, make up a small contingent of VC’s volunteers. They are also less likely to volunteer when there are decent job prospects at the outset of their careers, such opportunities that may not arise when the economy is faltering and there is not as much to lose, monetarily speaking, from pursuing volunteering.

From a demand side the countries in which VC has previously worked in are now growing their own volunteers. Countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Haiti, where formerly education for the masses was not attainable, are now capable of supplying and recruiting nationals to fulfil volunteer positions which were previously occupied by international volunteers from the Minority World. Currently, VC has several national volunteers in country. Brenda Akullo, a Ugandan from the capital Kampala, currently lives and works as a VC volunteer in Hoima, western Uganda. She manages a team running a project which engages in justice and peace outreach with the local community. Her role, among other responsibilities, involves running justice workshops in refugee camps, training community dispute reconciliation workers and arbitrating land grabbing disputes.


Halpin cautions that some Irish volunteers are less well educated than potential volunteers emanating from the countries that VSAs would traditionally have accepted volunteers for. People who are willing or able to go overseas don't necessarily have the skills that are required. Project partners want to hire local personnel and train them. This will ensure long term sustainable development. VC is responding to this trend by asking ‘how can VC best support organisations in country?’. VC now sees itself as increasingly taking on a mentorship role. Reminiscing on his own time in South Africa, where he spent 8 years working in the development sector, Halpin says


I remember dealing with international volunteer organisations who could offer me volunteers. At the time I was saying to them listen I don't really need a volunteer. I need to be able to afford to employ a local person. Because there were people who had been educated but had not been able to access the employment market overseas. I think that organisations who have reached a certain level of capacity would now benefit a lot from mentoring. And mentoring in areas that are more traditional to the business world perhaps than to the development world. Areas like marketing, financial skills and IT. I see those as the growth areas for volunteering in the future. Because projects have moved from the community base towards social enterprises and other enterprises. And just need skills that we in the Northern Hemisphere are well familiar with.


Traditionally, Halpin outlines, when people think about volunteers they imagine teachers, construction workers and childminders. Their roles are not necessarily developmental in nature. In other words, they rarely have a cascading effect, these people go, do their job and leave again. Often in the process they have taken a role that could have been easily fulfilled locally. Whereas today’s volunteering, as Halpin sees it, is about sustainable development. If you are deploying a volunteer the deployment should be about creating sustainability in the long term. You can achieve this by building capacities at a local level. Thus, the skills base needed is changing. This was clearly illustrated when a partner approached VC and said they intend on improving the school inspection system in their district. However, the necessary skills to improve this system were not available locally. In this instance VC recruited a volunteer who had worked in school inspection in Ireland. The volunteer spent a year working with a local counterpart to train them with the necessary skills and expertise to take over the role after the volunteer left.


Another trend that is apparent in recent years is the change in motivation for volunteers. Halpin believes that many volunteers pursue voluntary roles to add to their CV. Employers view volunteering very positively. It shows an employer resilience and an understanding of international issues. VC was founded by lay missionaries who felt a higher deity calling them to service. Nowadays, very few volunteers start their journey with this motivation in mind. However, Halpin does note that many VC volunteers return from their placements with a new-found respect for the religious and their work.


Furthermore, the balance between the project and the volunteer has shifted. Previously, there was more of an emphasis on the outcomes for the volunteer. It was important to ascertain whether the volunteer enjoyed their experience, what did they learn from their time abroad and how did the project impact them personally. Today VC, along with many other Irish VSAs, operate under a results-based model. This means that the emphasis lies not on the volunteer and their experience but on the project and its outcomes. The need for the project emanates from the ground and then VC may answer that need with a volunteer if appropriate.  Halpin thinks it is important to be needs driven. VSAs should not be sending people to projects when they are not wanted, or they are taking away somebody’s livelihood. Or if they are some way impeding the upward growth of the organisation in the field. The need is not always for a volunteer. There may be a need to build financial capacity, but the project does not need a person because they have an accountant however, they do need funding to send that accountant on training courses and purchase financial systems that will facilitate the organisations operations. There is a need to balance being volunteer based and needs based according to Halpin. He thinks that it is bad development and bad practice for a VSA not to do a proper needs assessment of a project. A needs assessment should inform whether a volunteer or another form of support is necessary to ensure the sustainable development of a project.


Halpin believes it is tougher to be a volunteer today than it was in the past. VC aims to ensure that their volunteers treat their roles as they would a paying position. Funders today demand a high calibre of work. They demand accountability, transparency and professionalism, possibly even more so than a private sector position because they often are not dealing with their own money but with the publics money. VSAs go through rigorous processes to verify every cent they spend. Volunteers must be adept at project cycle management, maintain budgets and writing reports on top of their specialised skills. To prepare volunteers for the field VC mandates that they complete a pre-departure training programme. The programme covers all topics necessary to prepare a volunteer for the field from project cycle management to cultural adaptation to emergency first aid to self-care. Returned volunteers consistently site the pre-departure training programme as being an invaluable experience. Nothing can wholly prepare you for entering the field. When scenarios and issues discussed during the training occur in the field, tackling them remains incredibly challenging. However, being aware of them prior to their occurrence and having the tools at hand to mitigate the challenges is priceless. Halpin ponders if the increase in responsibility allotted to long-term volunteers might be why the sector is seeing a rise in short-term volunteering. The same pressure is not felt by people who paint a building for 2 weeks. However, to truly build capacity and ensure sustainable development is achieved a long-term investment of energy and resources is required.


Although the trend is turning against an organisation like VC, who specialise in long-term placements, Halpin is excited about the future. He sees possibilities in the change of how volunteers are viewed. Previously, VC’s main funder Irish Aid would fund Irish volunteers. However, VC is seeing the market open, volunteers from all over the world can be funded. Rather than relying on an Irish national, who must learn a new language, new skills and adapt to a new culture, VSAs can make best use of resources locally. Halpin sees this as a very positive pathway for VSAs. Furthermore, he notes the work of the EU in funding NGOs across Europe to work together as a fantastic step in building pan-European networks and synergising activities. Another positive change, that VC is in the process of building on, is the rise in online engagement with volunteering. The predeparture training programme for volunteers will be available online this Autumn. Previously it was conducted in person which created barriers of access for those who could not afford to travel to the training location. The shift online ensures greater equality of access for all. It is undeniable there are still barriers in terms of internet accessibility both in the Majority and Minority World, but it is one more step closer to reducing inequalities. By opening the training programme to more people, it will ensure there are a greater variety of perspectives leading to more rounded learnings. Halpin does worry about the disappearance of reciprocal volunteering, where people from the Majority World are brought to the Minority World and vice versa so that there is an equality of sharing. He believes there are fantastic learnings to be gained from this type of volunteering for both parties involved. He is hopeful that the shift online for many events will somewhat mitigate the disappearance of reciprocal volunteering.


Is the Irish experience unique or are the trends present in Ireland today pan-European? If not, what trends are occurring in the volunteer sector in your country? These are questions on which we would love to hear the thoughts of those involved in the sector.