This is a question I’ve been pondering for some time now. Having worked for VSO, whose model is based around recruiting skilled and experienced volunteers and placing them with partner organisations based on their needs, I have seen first hand how effective this can be. An experienced teacher placed with a teacher training college in Ethiopia can have a significant development impact and train 100s of teachers. Similarly, a volunteer with a lot of management experience can support a small NGO to improve their infrastructure and increase the impact of the organisation.
However there are many people who want to volunteer who don’t have this kind of experience but do have a lot to offer.
Feedback from VSO volunteers often highlighted that while their professional skills were valuable, it was actually personal qualities like communication skills and a positive and flexible approach, as well as a willingness to muck-in and help out which were more important. Coming up with practical solutions to problems and improving basic things like the layout of a ward in a hospital can make a big difference.
There are some types of volunteering which don’t rely on professional skills at all. Conservation and environmental projects are a good example. A volunteer going to Costa Rica to monitor sea turtles doesn’t need any experience or special skills. Observation and data collection techniques can be learned whilst on the project. Physical fitness and patience and an interest in wildlife conservation are all that are required.
How about teaching English to children? This is a bit more of a sticky issue. I think if you are going to volunteer as a teacher you need to have some experience and training to ensure you are effective. Having completed a Certificate in teaching English as a foreign language which was an intensive month long course, I recognise the importance of learning how to teach and having a good comprehension of the English language and grammar. Also, if a placement is short, what kind of continuity of teaching and progression is there for children?
However, if a volunteer is assisting a teacher in a school, talking to children and helping them practise speaking English, previous experience isn’t as important.
I think there are definitely ways that volunteers can contribute if they don’t have specialist experience or skills. My advice to volunteers would be to carefully research projects and think about what they will be doing and whether they can be effective with the skills they do have.