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Life after VSO: New study reveals lasting impacts of volunteering

Children listening to a story in Nepal | VSO VSO/Shila Dhakal

More than half (55%) of volunteers are more socially active as a result of their placements, according to VSO’s latest study, Impact beyond volunteering.

The research, based on data from over 2,700 volunteers from across Africa, Asia and Europe, also reveals that one third are still supporting people or groups that they met while volunteering.

Volunteers behave and act differently

People who have volunteered with VSO go on changing themselves and the world. We now have concrete evidence to show that people who have volunteered with VSO tend to experience three main areas of impact: social action and influence; career and goals; and changed practices.

Access the research

Volunteers are more socially active

Sarah Donachie VSO ICS volunteer Sarah Donachie

Sarah Donachie (middle), former UK ICS volunteer in Bangladesh who went on to set up a charity, JAAGO Foundation UK. It has raised thousands of pounds in the UK to support a grassroots organisation, that educates children who live in the slums of Dhaka.

The research shows that three quarters of volunteers experience some change in terms of social action, with 55% increasing their level of action.

We can see that volunteers are using their experiences to influence others. This ranges from their friends, family and children, right through each level of society including governments, corporations and NGOs.

The sorts of influencing actions volunteers take can range from an increased willingness to challenge negative stereotypes and stigma they encounter, to getting involved in campaigning on issues they feel very strongly about.

“What drove me is seeing how much time the young people in Bangladesh are willing to dedicate to the education of slum children. It kind of frustrated me that it’s not a usual thing to take such action in the UK. The whole time I was there I was thinking: when I go home, what am I going to do? Why don’t I do something?"

Sarah Donachie, former British ICS volunter in Bangladesh who went on to set up a charity in the UK

Moved to work for a better, fairer world

Julia Lalla-Maharajh volunteering with VSO in Ethiopia The Orchid Project/Julia Lalla-Maharajh

Julia Lalla-Maharajh volunteering with VSO in Ethiopia. She transitioned from working in the private sector to setting up her own movement against female genital cutting, The Orchid Project, following her experiences.

Another very common theme in the lives of people who’ve previously volunteered with VSO is a change in career path. Changed personal drive, motivations and priorities even lead volunteers to gain a much greater sense of clarity over what is important to them – in work and life beyond.

Many volunteers go on to work in the development sector – either re-affirming their commitment to this work, especially for those nearer the beginning of their careers, or completely changing track towards some kind of humanitarian work.

For volunteers who give specialist skills, it is not uncommon to return to jobs and be given greater responsibilities or be promoted in recognition of what they have gained on placement. Interestingly, this seems to be especially common for people engaged in our corporate employee volunteering programmes.

“When I started volunteering, I thought I would take time out and it would be refreshing and a different way of looking at life …and then I would pick up my career where I’d put it down. Today, I talk about it as a sort of a gateway. It allowed me to transition into what I now call my second life.”

Julia Lalla-Maharajh OBE, who set up the Orchid Project to combat female genital cutting after volunteering with VSO in Ethiopia

How can we explain this impact of volunteering?

So is volunteering some kind of magic bullet? It does seem to have the power to profoundly transform the life not only of a volunteer in a lasting way, but also the people they go on to reach in their lives.

The first crucial thing to bear in mind is that people who opt to volunteer are for the most part an extraordinarily committed and good-hearted group, before they’ve even taken their first steps as a volunteer.

Volunteers are extraordinary

“My plea to everyone of you out there is to start to take ownership in your community, wherever you find yourself. Help might not come from outside. You might be the answer to someone’s prayers. The little contribution from you could end up making that big difference. In Nigeria we are looking at a future where it will be youths, not oil, that will be our greatest resource. Are you going to sit and wait to be led, or are you going to step up and take action? I have chosen to take action. Let’s act together to make this change possible, because we are the best agents of change."

Gregory Okonofua, youth volunteer working with VSO Nigeria

The majority of the volunteers (54%) in the study explained that their primary reason for volunteering was making a difference: that’s already a deeply motivated group.

They also tend not to be strangers to taking positive action – only 7% have never engaged in any kind of social action prior to volunteering.

But while the volunteer population is already motivated, active and skills, there are powerful reasons to consider the act of volunteering with VSO itself as a catalyst for much wider ripples in the volunteer’s life beyond placement.

A formative experience – at any stage of life

Volunteering is not easy – as anyone who has experienced it will tell you. The Impact beyond volunteering study confirms it: an overwhelming majority of volunteers found their placements challenging. Four out of ten found it ‘very’ challenging. That is quite something.

We also now have reason to believe that for the majority of cases these challenges, which range from the professional to the personal, do not lead to negative outcomes.

Instead, volunteers emerge enhanced, like a piece of tempered steel: positive changes to personal attributes are commonly reported including adaptability (41%), resilience (89%) and confidence (35%).

Study: Impact beyond volunteering

What do you think? What impacts have you seen from volunteering and how can we use these findings to strengthen our work? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter.