Youth volunteers
VSO/Fabrice Macumbi

From volunteer service overseas to active citizenship: VSO's journey

In 1958 Moira and Alec Dickson sat around their kitchen table thinking about how they could respond to a letter from the then Bishop of Portsmouth in the UK asking for volunteers to teach English in Borneo.

That year, Moira and Alec managed to recruit 16 youth volunteers to go to Borneo. This was the start of the VSO journey. Now 66 years later, VSO is celebrating the achievements of over 100,000 volunteers.

So much has changed in that 66-year period. VSO was born out of an idea of volunteering as a service to others where people come together to support those who are disadvantaged.

Through the 70’s and 80’s VSO developed a much stronger sense of internationalism and global solidarity with volunteers from wealthier countries working alongside people in countries in the global south.

Now VSO’s work is informed by the idea of active citizenship where people around the world have the confidence and capability to demand accountability from those responsible for providing basic services as well as taking their own action to bring about positive change in their communities and societies.

Whilst there is a lot that is different, the one constant throughout our 66-year history is our focus on volunteering. But what has changed is our understanding of volunteering not simply as a transactional activity in which skills and knowledge are transferred from one person or group to another but rather as a transformational activity which builds collective insight, innovation and action.

Over the years, VSO has invested in building the evidence base for how volunteering delivers that transformational change through ground-breaking studies such as Valuing Volunteering and Volunteering Together.

Moira and Alec Dickson
VSO founders, Moira and Alec Dickson.

Volunteering, when well-managed and supported, is increasingly recognised as a key step in building active citizenship. It instils agency, enhances personal value, and fosters skills, empathy and a sense of connection that in turn, creates a ripple effect that brings about positive change.

Volunteering is not purely an act of kindness. Done well, it can be a transformational act leading to transformational outcomes."

This was illustrated during one of the largest ever studies of the impacts of volunteering on development outcomes.

Active citizenship is crucial in catalysing sustainable change on a larger scale. It is about individuals actively coming together within communities to contribute to their improvement.

By becoming active participants in civic life, people stake a claim in society and are able to seize the opportunity to become drivers of change and progress.

Rukaiya demonstrates no cost, low cost education resources.
Rukaiya Siddika
National volunteers like Rukaiya, play a crucial role in engaging with local communities to ensure the impact of VSO's projects are long-lasting and sustainable.

When governments are held accountable and supported to engage with citizens, it enhances their effectiveness in responding to people’s needs and dreams. 

One of the key changes at VSO was in 2014 when we abandoned the idea of “beneficiaries” of our work and adopted the concept of “primary actors”. This sees the people our organisation serves as active agents of change rather than passive recipients of aid or assistance.

Whilst we still have national and international volunteers in our programmes who have specific technical expertise much of our work is in supporting community volunteers such as Salma from Afghanistan.

Increasingly, our work has focused on supporting national and local organisations, with governments and with multilateral institutions such as the African Union, to build their capacity to promote and support volunteering as an activity which strengthens education, health and livelihoods systems. This in turn builds a more robust civil society that ensures no-one is left behind.  

We know that as well as building stronger societies, volunteering also transforms the volunteers themselves. The 100,000 volunteers who have served with VSO either as international, national or community volunteers, have not only had an impact on the world around them but they have also undergone personal growth, gaining new perspectives, skills and a heightened sense of purpose and agency.  

VSO’s 100,000th volunteer marks, not only a milestone in the organisation's history, but also a testament to the enduring power of volunteering. The journey is far from over, and the impact of VSO volunteers will continue to ripple through communities, creating a more just, equitable, and sustainable world.

Let this celebration be a call to action, inspiring more individuals to join the global movement of volunteering and contribute their unique skills to create positive change. 

Volunteers such as Rukaiya in Bangladesh and Kamal in Ethiopia who have been part of VSO's journey, exemplify the transformative power of volunteering. Through their collective efforts, they have shaped a more compassionate and connected world, leaving an indelible mark on the communities they've served and the hearts of those they've touched.

Let us recognise the potential within each of us to make a difference and continue the legacy of positive change through volunteering.

Hear from volunteers about why they volunteer with VSO

Our unique volunteering for development approach

At VSO, we know that people in developing countries have the power, courage and desire to help themselves. That’s why we use a unique volunteering for development approach that puts the most marginalised people first, to build a more equitable society. 

Learn more about volunteering for development

Read more

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From volunteer service overseas to active citizenship: VSO's journey

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