Remote volunteering – continuing to support our partners overseas

When COVID-19 forced the Australian Volunteers Program to suspend travel, the program turned its attention to remote volunteering to ensure we could continue to support our more than 600 overseas partners.

In March of this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic crisis unfolded across the globe, the Australian Volunteers Program repatriated more than 450 Australian program participants from 26 countries. It was the first time in the program’s sixty-year history of sending skilled Australians overseas that it was required to suspend travel to all countries.

The needs of these organisations didn’t stop when their volunteers left, in fact, in many cases they grew even greater. The program needed to adapt quickly to continue to provide ongoing support for partner organisations and ensure volunteers could stay connected and continue their work.   

To respond to this extraordinary situation, the program turned to its Innovation Fund, an initiative that identifies, develops and pilots new ideas and solutions to increase the impact of the Australian Volunteers Program.

Zach Conn in Mongolia
Australian volunteer, Zach Conn in Mongolia. Supplied: Zach Conn
Zach Conn
Australian volunteer, Zach Conn supporting his colleagues from The Asia Foundation Mongolia remotely. Supplied: Zach Conn

Prior to COVID-19, the fund had been exploring how to support a more diverse range of Australians to participate in the program, recognising that not all Australians can move overseas for a 12-month assignment. The fund developed an ‘Open Volunteering’ prototype, which included a short-term stay in-country for volunteers where they established their relationships before returning to Australia to complete the assignment remotely over a number of months. 

The success of Open Volunteering proved to be great preparation and learning for our first cohort of remote volunteers. We had initially planned to implement a Remote Volunteering initiative later in 2020 but the pandemic saw us fast-track the process to make remote volunteering work at a greater scale than the prototypes.

— Anna Trahair, Innovation Fund Manager.

Internet connectivity and access to online platforms and technology were identified as potential barriers for participating in remote volunteering. 

“Connectivity and digital inclusion are challenges for some organisations and countries, making it difficult for some partners to join remote volunteering, but we are looking at how we can work with them to open access further” says Anna.

Serly 1
Australian volunteer, Serly Po with supporting her colleagues at Center for Improving Qualified Activity in Life (CIQAL) online. Supplied: Serly Po
Serly Po in Indonesia
Australian volunteer, Serly Po with her colleagues at CIQAL in Indonesia. Supplied: Serly Po

However, it has been a challenge that many volunteers and partner organisations have been able to overcome. Robyn Whitney is a remote volunteer for the Wangsel InstituteBhutan’s first and only deaf education school. Robyn who is deaf herself, is researching best practices to support students learning remotely and is navigating these technology challenges with her counterparts. 

In spite of different time zones, technology and internet connection challenges, we still manage to communicate with each other fairly well across quite a few apps!

— Robyn Whitney, Australian remote volunteer

An unexpected benefit of remote volunteering for the Wangsel Institute is that with the support of Robyn, they have now learnt to add captions to videos. An important skill to ensure their videos are inclusive for their students and teachers 

Another challenge facing remote volunteers has been how to develop an understanding of the cultural context and foster strong working relationships without the face-to-face contact, as these can make all the difference to the success of an assignment. 

Dr Bryan Humphrey is volunteering remotely as a project design mentor for the Cambodian Organisation for Children and Development, an NGO based in Phnom Penh. Having built strong working relationships in personBryan and his colleagues recognised the importance of discussing more than just day to day tasks in their online meetings.     

The biggest challenge has been to ensure I keep up to date with information on the local context. This means that our online meetings have been about sharing this information in addition to strategic planning. says Bryan.

Robyn Whitney remote
Australian volunteer, Robyn Whitney (right) supporting her colleague from the Wangsel Institute remotely. Supplied: Robyn Whitney
Robyn Whitney
Australian Volunteer, Robyn Whitney (left) at Wangsel Institute for the Deaf in Bhutan. Robyn is signing with Chencho Dem, senior teacher and interpreter. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono

Mathilda Martin recently completed a three-month assignment as a finance and grant writing mentor for the Marshall Islands Council of Non-Governmental Organisations. In addition to achieving the assignment objectives, volunteering remotely presented an opportunity to build the capacity of her colleague's online skills and learn more collaboratively.   

During my three months of volunteering remotely, I not only achieved my initial assignment objectives but also encouraged the participants of the online training I was running to embrace technological communication platforms. We have all learned to collaborate, share ideas, knowledge and skills – all online.

— Mathilda Martin, Australian remote volunteer

Remote volunteering has provided a vital solution to bridging the gap and ensuring volunteers stay connected to the country they were volunteering in, and to continue to fulfil assignment objectives from Australia. In the four months since the first remote volunteer assignment beganthere is still much to learn and refine as the program’s Remote Volunteering continues to evolve.

As Anna explains“We hope to learn not just what makes remote volunteering work well enough, but what its real strengths – and advantages – might be over other volunteering approaches and how it might sit alongside our traditional offering."