‘Remote volunteering gives me the flexibility I need’

John Lalor has dedicated years to supporting organisations in Southeast Asia through the Australian Volunteers Program. In his words, John shares what he loves most about remote volunteering, how he’s made lifelong friends, and why he waited until later in life to volunteer.

Two people wearing glasses stand next to each other.

After shifting from a full-time senior executive role in Australia’s public service to working as a consultant / contractor, I knew I wanted to dedicate some time to volunteering, but in a sustainable way. So, rather than committing to extended periods away from home, I prefer short-term, and increasingly, remote assignments.

Waiting until I had security both professionally and personally and volunteering later in life has allowed me to give back while still being able to support and be with my family. I believe you can volunteer at any stage of life, but for me, doing it later on has worked really well.

In the mid-1970s, I had the opportunity to travel through Southeast Asia, even though it was a challenge to visit many countries during that time. During this journey, I couldn't help but notice that there was a pressing need for assistance in the region's economic development.

My travels inspired me to support various organisations throughout Southeast Asia as a Business / Organisational / Fundraising Development Mentor through the Australian Volunteers Program.

I’m currently volunteering remotely as a Business Development Mentor with Sokfarm, a small organisation trading coconut nectar-based products in Tra Vinh Province. Before this assignment I volunteered with Hearing and Beyond, a not-for-profit based in Hội An, Vietnam supporting children with hearing issues.

My transition to remote volunteering happened in response to the pandemic. I initially had an in-country assignment approved to go to Vietnam, but due to COVID-19, I had to explore remote opportunities. Remote volunteering wasn't entirely new to me, and I recognised its potential. I also understood that it comes with its own set of challenges.

Building strong relationships for example can be harder in a remote setting, so it's crucial to establish effective communication and collaboration. Another challenge is understanding and respecting the local culture from a distance. Finally, building trust and credibility can take longer remotely, but it’s essential for successful volunteer work.

For me, one main benefit of remote volunteering is that it allows me to contribute to the partner organisation’s development goals while staying at home, which means I can balance family and other commitments.

I believe a hybrid approach to volunteer assignments can be highly beneficial, as it allows volunteers to build relationships and trust in-country before transitioning to remote work. By doing so, volunteers can better understand the local culture and establish credibility, making remote work more effective. I've really enjoyed the opportunity to meet my colleagues at HopeBox, iSEE Institute and Sokfarm in person.

The thing I love most about volunteering is the connections I’ve made and continue to make. I've found that one effective approach, regardless of budget constraints and whether you’re in-country or remote, is to always prioritise building long-term relationships. Take, for example, my work with HopeBox in Vietnam. Even after all these years, my relationship with the organisation continues to thrive.

A former colleague I worked with while on assignment with the Institute for Studies of Society, Economy and Environment (iSEE Institute) in Hanoi – Quynh Anh – is now a close friend. Anh won an Australia Awards scholarship to do her master’s at the Australian National University (ANU) and lived with me and my family in Australia for two years while she completed her studies. 

I feel very grateful that many of my working relationships fostered through volunteering have evolved into strong friendships.

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