An increasing number of more experienced and established HR professionals are taking a break from their paid career to take part in HR volunteer work overseas, particularly in the international development sector.
One key program facilitating skilled Australians embarking on HR volunteer assignments is the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program, an Australian Government initiative. In 2015-2016, 1,345 volunteers took part in assignments at one of 883 host organisations in 29 countries.
Case study: Destination; Tanzania
Susan Dong volunteers as a Human Resources and personnel expert at Restless Development Tanzania, an organisation focussed on increasing the civic participation, livelihoods, sexual and reproductive health rights and leadership of young people.
At a time when a third (1.8 billion) of the world’s population are aged 10 to 24 – with most living in African countries – the organisation has an ambitious vision to develop the capabilities of Tanzanian youth.
“I was looking for an organisation that worked at the grassroots level but I’m also a great believer in the power of youth and their potential for creating change at all levels. The role I applied for had it all,” says Dong.
“The AVID program has been a great gateway into the development sector. It provides structured pre-departure resources and in-country support to ensure the transition is as smooth as it can be. It also allows enough personal and professional freedom so that you and the organisation can work out what the key needs are,” she says.
Case study: Empowering the political process in Indonesia
Juris Varpins volunteers as an organisational culture expert at SATUNAMA, a not-for-profit focused on community empowerment, governance and political awareness in Indonesia. While only two months in, Varpins says he is taking an “appreciative inquiry” approach (a model that seeks to engage stakeholders in self-determined change) to this assignment.
“So far, I have read and reviewed key documents and am now interviewing each member of the board and wider leadership team. I am meeting with each team to develop an understanding of the organisation, its current strengths, opportunities and aspirations to inform the program going forwards.”
In Australia, Varpins is the Director of Curtin University’s Organisational Development Unit, a role he’s held since 2007. It was a strong desire to contribute to another society and be immersed in a different culture that drove him towards skilled volunteering.
“My experience and understanding of the consultancy process, and managing whole-of-organisation change processes has helped me understand the importance of developing a truly collaborative approach to this work.”
Case study: Questioning ‘business as usual’ in the Solomon Islands
Charles Persson volunteers as a business analyst at the Solomon Islands Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SICCI). Although not an HR role, Persson has been required to draw on his people management experience while on assignment. This is something he’s been, “closely involved with from the start of my career”. Persson is also assisting with organisational restructure and role development.
“I recently submitted a briefing paper to the Board that proposed a number of recommendations around roles and responsibilities, performance management, internal communications, contracts, recruitment, reporting lines and the duties of each individual employee. We recently had the business plan and budget approved, which included a new organisation structure,” he says.
Becoming an HR volunteer: Many reasons, many outcomes
Volunteering, particularly in an international setting, seldom has a single, predictable outcome. Australian HR professionals are increasingly being invited, or seeking to, collaborate with international organisations and are able to apply their diverse skills – and adapt them as needed.
8 tips for volunteering internationally:
- Keep an open mind and keep your expectations in check; each experience is different.
- Start developing your language skills as soon as possible, ideally before you leave Australia.
- Learn about your sector and the organisation you’re working with as early as possible. Research it thoroughly.
- Where possible, find a former expat employee, volunteer or consultant who has worked with your host organisation and interview them. Ask lots of questions. You will likely build on the contributions they made at the organisation.
- Maintain a professional attitude and work ethic, but recognise that things will be different. Understand that the professional and cultural exchange goes both ways.
- Be patient with yourself. It takes time to adjust to a new country, culture and people.
- Take comfort foods, travel pillows and sturdy footwear. They will come in handy at some point!
- Install Skype on your phone or computer. This is an easy way to stay in touch with family and friends back home, and to network easily with new international colleagues and friends.
Dong, Varpins and Persson’s volunteer assignments are part of Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID), an Australian Government initiative.
To find out more about the AVID program and view current assignments visit the DFAT website.