5 October 2015

We interviewed Veronika Miskech Fricova, who's the marketing manager at Career Break Site approved VSO (Volunteer Service Overseas). We wanted to get an insight into how things work at this unique organisation, and find out a bit more about the sorts of career breakers who volunteer with them. Read on to find out what we discovered!

Hi Veronika. Thanks for agreeing to this interview! To start with, can you tell us a bit about your background?

I am originally from Slovakia, and came to the UK at 19 to do my degree in marketing and advertising, at Greenwich.

My first job was at Hotels4U, in the commercial and contracts department. When I finished my degree, I started working for a company called Pira International, they're a business information provider, producing conferences, market reports, consultancy, etc.

I'd always wanted to work in the charity sector but it was hard to break into. However, after around 3 years at Pira, I got a job at Macmillan Cancer Support as a marketing officer, and while I was there I did an MSc in development studies and social anthropology which is something I was really interested in. Soon after I completed it, I got a job as marketing advisor at VSO, and after a year I was promoted to marketing manager.

I knew about VSO because I was actually considering volunteering with them but wasn't able to apply. I've been here for a year and 9 months, but I will be leaving soon to live in Slovakia, with my husband.

What does your job involve?

My team do all the marketing to support overseas volunteer recruitment, of professionals into long-term international placements, and also the 18 – 25s on the government-funded ICS programme.

We run marketing campaigns targeting those groups, to get them to volunteer with us, but the journey to become a volunteer for people, especially for professionals, it's quite long and obviously to give up one or 2 years to go and volunteer in Africa or Asia is a big decision, so the consideration period is very long.

It's not just about generating leads but we do loads of work to provide information and engage people interested in volunteering, to get them on the right placement. Loads of professionals we speak to say they first considered volunteering 20 or 30 years ago and that's how long it might take for some people before they are ready to apply – they're just not in the right professional or personal place to do that earlier.

We also function as a marketing team providing marketing services across VSO, not just for volunteer recruitment although that is the main aspect. We work on building VSO's brand, and working with our programme and fundraising colleagues.

What's your favourite part of your job?

Definitely meeting the return volunteers, who often help us at recruitment events that we run. They are amongst the nicest people I have ever met in my life! They have such a passion for what they do, it's really amazing. Also talking to people who are considering volunteering, it's the same type of people, seeing that passion and being able to talk them through some of their doubts and uncertainties, I really enjoy doing that.

Is there such a thing as a typical career breaker? Any sort of person you see a lot of?

Although some of our volunteers see volunteering as a career break, I would say for most of them, the placement is part of their career not a break in the career.

I would say for professional volunteers, the main thing they have in common is that they want to give something back. They're either at the end of their career and want to pass on knowledge, or are grateful for their education and career they've had and want to share that.

Younger professionals, they want to do something different and have often been in interested in international development and want to help and change something in the world. Volunteering overseas often helps their career in the UK too. With the ICS volunteers, they certainly have a passion for helping others and making the world a better place, and also exploring something new, new cultures and connecting with people who think similarly.

What kinds of questions do people interested in volunteering ask?

Lots of practical questions obviously, about where they would live, what will happen when they arrive. We help volunteers when they arrive in a country with orientation and help them to learn the language if they need to.

Lots of the people in professional volunteering ask us about whether they can bring their partners, which they can. They could both go as volunteers but it's quite difficult to find 2 placements at the same time at the same place, although not impossible. They can always go as a companion partner, we provide all the flights etc for the volunteer, but for the companion, they need to be able to financially support themselves but they obviously get accommodation with their partner.

With ICS, it's different. We discourage people to go as pairs (friends or a couple). That's mainly because ICS all about teamwork and we want volunteers to really focus on the work and build new relationships with the team and if they come with someone it would affect that.

What’s your favourite project that VSO works with, and why?

We do amazing work in many places!

Something that has recently touched me personally is the work we've been doing in Papua New Guinea on gender violence. We have a nurse called Katherine who's been there for few years setting up mental health services for victims of domestic violence. The stories that you hear are really heart-breaking and the work that she's been doing is amazing. She decided to extend her original placement and expand the project, and as a result of that we are recruiting more psychiatric nurses to grow this work.

Also I think we do some incredible work in Ethiopia - helping to build a neonatal intensive care unit. It's an award-winning programme and we've got a lot of volunteer placements for healthcare professionals there. The professional volunteers train local doctors and nurses on how to use the NICU equipment and provide care to the babies. The stories that you hear from before the unit was available are again heartbreaking.

We also do interesting programmes in Malawi using technology in schools, in primary schools. It's not just about providing the very basic education but making sure the kids are getting the same or similar education with similar resources as people in the UK for example.

What memorable volunteers have you seen?

A really impressive volunteer I have met recently is a gentleman called Terry. He has volunteered with us about 8 or 10 times, he's an education professional and he's just so committed to improving education across the world and giving more children access to decent education. Seeing someone so committed to this type of work is just incredible. He's currently working with the ministry of education in Cambodia, without his wife who was unable to come. It's really admirable.

Also, for ICS we had a group of deaf volunteers last year, they went with sign language translators. Those programmes are done in partnership with DeafWay [a charitable organisation for deaf people] and we have another group going next summer. Really incredible, it shows that a disability doesn't necessarily stop people from volunteering overseas. I'm also one of the volunteer selectors at VSO - all volunteers need to undergo an assessment and I am one of the assessors. We recently had a person in a group who I was assessing with quite severe learning disability. He passed the assessment and is going to a placement soon. It was incredible seeing the support of the other volunteers in the group, and I'm sure that will be the case on the placement as well.

Tell us an industry secret.

Volunteering is life changing! The volunteering that people can do through VSO is all about delivering a real impact and transformational change in developing countries and whether it's the professionals or the young people, they do really create a change, working closely with local communities. But as they all say, volunteering overseas also changes them, and enriches their lives. 

Finally, what is your advice for career breakers wanting to volunteer abroad?

So obviously research our website to find out more and make sure it's the right thing to do for you. Read other stories and watch videos of other volunteers. Once you are sure it's something you want to do – even if you have some fears about whether you would be able to do that, how you would find being away from your close friends, or worried about your financial situation - just put those worries aside and apply.

Because if you feel strongly that volunteering is the right thing for you, then you should just go for it. Once you are in the placement, everything falls into place. Returned volunteers say it was one of the best experience of their lives. It is truly life changing, it's just often difficult to make the decision to do it but I think people should put aside their fears and just go for it!


Thanks very much to Veronika for letting us pick her brains. To find out more about volunteering for professionals, visit the VSO website, and if you're aged 18 to 25 and interested in volunteering, have a look at the ICS page.