We sat down Ian Birbeck, Recruitment Director at Projects Abroad, and Scott Macquarrie, Director at Projects Abroad PRO, for a chat. Projects Abroad is a volunteer-sending organisation, and PRO is its sister company which recruits volunteers with professional skills. We wanted to know what it's really like working for a volunteer organisation, and what myths they would dispel. Some of what they say may surprise you.
Tell us about your background
Ian: I volunteered with Projects Abroad in 1992 and worked for them when I returned. I left and worked as a teacher for 3 or 4 years; but the chances of getting promoted were pretty difficult, so I decided to take a gap year in Mexico and in India, working as a co-ordinator. So I returned and joined Projects Abroad as staff for the second time.
I’d had a great time as a volunteer and really enjoyed my 6 months overseas, and thought it was great to be able to go out and tell other people about it and get them out there, helping in schools and orphanages and hospitals, and getting experience as well. I was passionate about it!
Scott: I’d fallen into a job at Bank of Scotland after uni and I’d never really planned to do that, it was just to pay off student debt. I wanted work related to the degree I did [sociology and sport] and I wanted a career break, and decided to go with Projects Abroad because they were offering a sporting development project.
I was planning to go back to Scotland and get a job there, but it just so happened that there was still a lot of work to be done on the project, so I got in touch with the director [at Projects Abroad] to give him feedback, and we had a 3 months trial to raise awareness, and I’ve been here ever since. You could probably say around 80% of our staff are returning volunteers!
Scott, tell us more about the sports project
Scott: I went to Ghana, in West Africa, I was based in Accra. It was really to try to introduce a coaching element to an existing sports project. Previous volunteers had gone there to play football with kids in the local area and my role was to install a coaching infrastructure, in the footballing academy that was running there. The project is still going, we’ve been sending volunteers there successfully since we got back, they’ve been fitting in with the Ghanaian coaches there. We’re teaching European training techniques in an African context, trying to deliver a developmental and educational side of the project as well as the competitive side.
With any of the projects, it’s very much about a volunteer being there as a focal point and a good role model for the kids, the kids had questions about why I had taken time out. They’re very grateful for you being there but you are very much keen to get involved, there’s a mutual respect there right from the word go.
Is there such a thing as a typical career breaker?
Ian: We get a lot of people who have done their first job out of university and done 4 or 5 years there, and think before I settle down, I’d like to go off and see the world and do a combination of volunteering and travel. A lot of people in their late 20s and early 30s. Increasingly at the moment with the recession we get quite a few people who have been redundant, and suddenly think now’s the time for a career break.
Scott: At Projects Abroad PRO, there’s one over-riding theme – it tends to be ‘I’ve got a particular skill and I want to use that on my career break; I want to use it to benefit an individual, a community or an enterprise’. With Projects Abroad, they want to combine it with travelling, they want to get practical work experience. The older career breakers that we get tend [at PRO] to be focused on the developmental work and utilsing their skills.
What kinds of questions do career breakers ask?
Ian: I think they’re more concerned about the style of life, where the gappers tend not to ask so many questions about what it’s like to live over there, they’re more excited about he projects. They want to know where they wash their clothes, where they’ll be staying and if there’s electricity. We had a question last week if someone could take their poodle on the project and we found that slightly unusual!
Scott: We do get odd questions, but before my career break I probably asked the same ones! It’s just an innocence, a lack of knowledge that leads to these questions. With Projects Abroad, they’re able to pick up the phone or send an email and get a response back from someone who’s been in that situation, and feel someone else has done it and gone through a similar process. My time is spent gathering information for them and making sure they’re comfortable and confident in their decision-making process.
What do you think the most important thing is for a career breaker to think about?
Scott: I think the most important aspect is being able to make a small difference in some way. Do your research, and try to find the best fit of project for you, there might be similar projects with different organisations, but there’s many different settings. Make sure you are comfortable, confident and happy in your decision. That makes a motivated volunteer and helps you finish your programme.
Ian: I think they need to think about what they want to do when they’re overseas, and be realistic about their expectations. Sometimes we’ll get someone who goes out to be a teacher, maybe a qualified teacher, goes away and don’t realise they’re going to a classroom where there’s a blackboard and a piece of chalk and that’s all there is. They need to be aware of what they’re letting themselves in for really.
We do a lot to prepare them – before they go away, our team in the destination will contact them, talk to them about projects, and they’ll have their own website with information about where they’ll be staying, what they’ll be doing and suggestions for kit list and things like that as well.
Why do volunteers have to pay?
Ian: They’re paying Projects Abroad to organise their placement. It will cover the food, the accommodation, the insurance, and most importantly, the backup of local staff. There are people on the ground as well as in the UK that support that programme, and they work for us full time and we pay them. We have now 350 staff that work for us around the world so there’s a big support network around the world. It’s not just a host family. We also support the local project, so for example, on the Inca project, we put a lot of money in the community, whether it’s painting the church, working with the school. We bought an ambulance in India, we have built toilet blocks in schools around the world, so there’s a lot that goes out into the community.
The most common problem that people get is getting ill, and usually fortunately it’s just a stomach upset or something basic, but to have local guys on the ground to get you medicine, take you to the hospital or translate if necessary, that would be the most common one. To being able to adjust to the placement, so if you’re working in a school and it’s not working out, there’s someone to speak to and you can look at another placement, or if you find you don’t get on with the host family, there’s somebody to speak to on the ground that’s over there. They can also give invaluable advice on travel plans, cultural issues etc, the induction is not just where the internet café is, it’s places to go and places not to go from a safety perspective of course, so that sort of support is very important.
Scott: I remember when I was a volunteer looking at different organisations and finding out with shock that I had to pay! You think your skill is enough of a contribution, then you look at the practicalities of what organisations do then it make sense. You think about development projects, and you always hear ‘sustainability’ and our model answers that. The volunteers contribute a programme fee, it goes to creating local jobs in our staff members. Volunteers don’t realise this always, long after they’ve gone, the staff are still there helping volunteers, working with same partners over a number of years.
How do you answer critics of volunteering overseas?
Scott: In response to those who say volunteerism is the new colonialism, I would suggest it’s about how an organisation communicates its aims and objectives to their volunteers. I was very careful to work in collaboration with project partners, and that’s something anyone here would highlight to volunteers. It’s knowledge exchange, it’s not just about delivering ideas on medicine to developing countries, it’s about going there to get ideas about tropical medicine that developed countries don’t really have an idea about, it’s sharing best practice.
Ian: Certainly with Projects Abroad we won’t take jobs away from local people, we’re supporting the local community, we’re helping them by teaching. Our volunteers focus on conversational English, and the [local] teachers focus more on grammar etc. Volunteers work alongside staff, not instead of them.
There are conservation projects that wouldn’t exist without us being there. We’ve got a reserve in the Amazon rainforest, which is the first centre for releasing animals back into the wild in Peru. And there’s lots of scientific work going on there all the time.
I think we have to be realistic in terms of what people can do, obviously you’re not going to send an unskilled medic in to do an operation, but they fit in within the local community that’s there. A lot of the work that the volunteers are doing is practical, they’re playing with kids in the orphanage, they’re using their conversation skills to teach English, they’re helping to build a house, there’s a lot they can do.
I think one of the other effects of volunteers in the community, is that the money is going into the project at grassroots levels, we’re paying local families that are buying produce in the local market, we’re not paying an American- or British-owned hotel, the volunteers are spending money at local level, at a local restaurant, on the bus. There’s a lot of money that we spend but the multiplying effect of the volunteers spending money is huge, we can’t put a figure on it. Money spent in international hotels goes out of the country almost immediately.
The locals like having the volunteers there, you can see that as we’ve been running since 1992, and lots of the projects have been working with us since the first day we walked into a city or town. The school I taught in in 1992 still has Projects Abroad volunteers, if they didn’t want us we wouldn’t be there!
Any memorable career breakers?
Scott: Mr Jenkins, a volunteer who at the age of 74 (one of our oldest) and 60% deaf in his left ear, went to work in Romania. He’s my example to people who are thinking about a programme and are intimidated or afraid of taking themselves outside of their comfort zone - if he can do it anyone can! He had the drive to do it. Age is one of the biggest restraining factors, they think it’s a good idea but think it’s passed them by because they’re too old.
Ian: One of the great guys we had was Ian Bromwich, who was a bit older and he went out to Mongolia to work on one of our business projects and he was an IT specialist and the last I heard of him he was working for the UN in Mongolia. He met someone in a bar, talked about the volunteer work he was doing and the next thing he knew he was working for the UN!
We get a lot of people who are looking for a career change, journalism is a particular one. We had a girl in her mid-20swho’d done a bit of journalism here and went to Moldova to work on a newspaper there and it helped her in her journalism career here. We had someone, Sinead Garvan, who was working on a radio station in Ghana who is now working on Radio 6 Music.
What’s your favourite project?
Ian: One that I love is the Inca project that we have out in Peru, where we’re renovating an Incan village. It was discovered by our director in Peru, he was hiking in the middle of nowhere and he and his friends discovered the village in the middle of nowhere, it was something like Indiana Jones, all covered in moss and trees and undergrowth. And we approached the INC, which is the Peruvian National trust equivalent and said look, we’d love to do some work on this, and they provided us with an archeologist and we provide them with the labour, the volunteers.
You live in a house in the valley parallel to Machu Picchu, in this very small traditional community where people are still speaking the language of the Incas, Quechuan. Most of the local people also speak some Spanish, some volunteers do learn Quechuan but it tends to be Spanish. They’ve uncovered the original Inca trail, the road or the train that passes there is the original Inca trail. The Inca trail that’s promoted was invented in the 1960s and it’s great, it visits lots of Inca sites but it isn’t the original Inca trail.
Scott: With Projects Abroad, the sports programme that I did, but for PRO, it’s got to be the human rights programmes. Whether it’s a gap year student right up to a retired lawyer, there’s something for everyone, and they can really contribute, even in a short period of time. The words ‘meaningful’ and ‘worthwhile’ are used a lot but that’s a prime example.
Tell us a tip or a secret
Scott: The secret to our success lies within the knowledgeable staff, good staff training, staff knowing exactly what’s going on so we can pass that information on. It’s maybe boring but it’s true.
Ian: I suppose one of my travel tips is to always bring a toilet roll, wherever you go, whether it’s to the US or India or anywhere. It’s light, it doesn’t take any space and it always comes in handy!
Scott and Ian were talking to Rachel Morgan-Trimmer of The Career Break Site. All the photos on this page are from their projects. Since this interview was published, Projects Abroad PRO was absorbed into Projects Abroad, and you can read more about them here.