Volunteering in underdeveloped countries can have great benefits for your career.
Many volunteers choose to take a few months or even years to share their expertise in other countries.

Stints with ethical organisations can benefit Kiwis' career journeys, says Stephen Goodman, chief executive of Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA).

"In the past, a lot of people have taken the mindset that you are stepping out of your career and your life. But volunteering makes you think outside the square and volunteers become stronger, more resilient people."

A volunteer role can also provide the opportunity to step up to the next level sooner than if you had stayed at home, says Scott Miller, chief executive of Volunteering New Zealand.


That's exactly what has happened for some of Downer's young employees who have been chosen for 12-week volunteering roles in the Solomon Islands.

Lisa Stafford, talent development manager at Downer, says the company partnered with VSA to start a volunteer programme in 2014 and has found that the experience has benefited the ambassadors' careers on their return.

The 17 young professionals who have been through the programme so far have worked in projects building schools or adding to the existing infrastructure.

"It's not a holiday," says Stafford.

"The experience is difficult. They are in a developing country and are expected to manage and lead a local workforce. They have to understand the cultural differences between the construction industry here and the Solomons."

Stafford says a great deal of personal development comes out of the experience and the ambassadors have to learn to problem solve with more basic tools, machinery and infrastructure than they would have access to in New Zealand. "You can't just drive down to Bunnings and grab the stuff you need," she adds.

Stafford says on their return, staff show increased confidence and an element of humility. "We have seen this when they come back and present back to the business. They have also learned to deal with a diverse workforce."

One of those graduates, Charlotte Welch-Cropp, who is now a contract manager at Downer, worked as an infrastructure adviser with the Ministry of Education and Human Resources Development in Honiara during her stint as a Downer ambassador.


The 25-year-old was seconded to the ministry's asset management team and was given a wide range of responsibilities. Welch-Cropp says the experience has given her courage and resilience to work through any problem regardless of what limited resources and support she has around her.

"I have gained valuable experience in how to work with a diverse workforce, in particular those who speak another language and have a completely different social and cultural background to me," she says.

"It has also given me first-hand, practical experience in how to become a leader [and] an opportunity to explore where my career can take me. I have never considered development work before."

Speaking with other volunteers from around the world opened her eyes to possibilities for her career.

In New Zealand only two organisations that place volunteers overseas have been vetted and registered with Volunteering New Zealand: Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) and Lattitude Global Volunteering.

VSA sends skilled Kiwis to share their experience and knowledge directly with local people and communities and Lattitude places 17- to 25-year-olds in long-term, gap-year placements overseas. Both operate at the ethical end of volunteering.

Miller says it's important when signing up as a volunteer to choose an organisation with principles and commitment to volunteering. This will help ensure that the host country benefits. For their part, the volunteers will gain and enhance skills that employers are looking for, making them more competitive.

Sadly, volunteering, especially in poor countries, doesn't always centre around giving back and is often labelled "voluntourism".

The word voluntourism entered the Oxford Dictionary in the 1990s and is described as a blend of volunteering and tourism.

It is often promoted by private companies rather than charities and non-governmental organisations. Academic papers such as University of Otago doctoral student Tess Guiney's Orphanage Tourism in Cambodia: The Complexities of Doing Good in Popular Humanitarianism question the motivations and experiences of some of the volunteers.

What's more, short-term volunteer experiences, often for adventure travellers, don't always benefit the local communities.

Children in the communities may become commodities, and the unskilled volunteers can take work away from locals.