Does volunteering overseas enhance your career?

Kathy Townsend is a professional 'head hunter', a returned volunteer and chair of the board of AVI (which manages the Australian Volunteers Program). Here she explains how volunteering overseas can enhance your career.

In my work recruiting senior executives across a broad range of government, not for profit and industries sectors, it is clear that employers are looking for a complex web of attributes when they select candidates for key roles. 

So what are these attributes? And how does the international volunteering experience help you develop them?

Employers always start with a core set of technical competencies outlined in the job description. International volunteers have their technical skills sharpened in particularly challenging environments. Whichever sector they work in, they are operating in new and unfamiliar settings, often without the normal support structures and personnel that they are used to in Australia. Their experience applying technical skills to sometimes unfamiliar problems helps accelerate the development of those skills in unique ways.

In addition to technical skills, employers also look for a range of personal attributes which give them confidence that the appointee will excel in the role. These traits are common to most roles regardless of the nature of the work. The international volunteering experience helps develop these traits in spades.

Over more than 65 years, skilled Australians have volunteered alongside colleagues in Asia, the Pacific and Africa, sharing their skills and experience, and helping to build capacity in local communities. While placements can range from months to years, all those involved in the Australian Volunteers Program live in local communities learning new ways of working, immersed in new cultures and learning to thrive without the familiarities and supports that come with being at home. Flourishing in a new environment develops the volunteer’s personal resilience which impacts positively, in an ongoing way, on both their life and work.

It can be challenging to live and work where the language is unfamiliar, and where you need to learn different life skills, build new relationships and navigate new political landscapes. But the experience heightens the volunteer’s situational awareness and sensitivity. International volunteers develop their ability to read the environment, dealing with situations which are often outside of their comfort zone. Learning to live and work in new cultures and environments heightens the ability to pick up on cues which will benefit those navigating new environments in the future. It also gives future employers the confidence that you will be adaptable.

The international volunteering experience has at its heart the principle of working in partnership. Working alongside colleagues in local settings is about sharing skills and experience, not about dominance or power. What better evidence of a person’s preparedness to work as part of a team than an international volunteer’s track record of success working with colleagues in the local environment.

Successful volunteering assignments depend on the volunteer’s ability to build new and constructive relationships based on equality and respect. The individual’s preparedness to learn how to operate in the new cultural context reflects their capacity to work with a broad range of internal and external stakeholders in a highly effective way.

On returning to Australia, most international volunteers describe the experience as life changing, noting that they have learnt an enormous amount, not just about the people and the places they have encountered while away, but about themselves. Being away from family and friendship networks creates opportunities for personal reflection enhancing one’s self-awareness in an enduring way.

The international volunteering experience illustrates an individual’s preparedness and capacity to work in new and challenging environments, to successfully navigate different cultural contexts and a preparedness to challenge themselves. It also reflects a set of personal values and a commitment to working with others to create change.  

Personal values are becoming increasingly important in recruitment. Workplaces are enhanced when the values and ethics of employers and employees are aligned. The volunteering experience speaks volumes about what is important to you and it’s a message not lost on employees. I am reminded of a fairly hard-nosed client who, when trying to decide between two similarly credentialed candidates, selected the one who had extensive experience as a volunteer. When I asked why, he responded “because he cares about someone other than himself”.

So for me, the answer is easy. Does volunteering overseas enhance your career? Yes, absolutely.


This article was originally published on Pro Bono Australia.