Managers failing to capitalise on overseas volunteering

Jan 17 2006 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Managers who do voluntary work overseas develop skills that are often keenly sought by employers, yet often fail to market themselves sufficiently upon their return, a new study has suggested.

The research by the Chartered Management Institute and Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) found that, of 516 managers polled, the majority (78 per cent) were involved in voluntary activity.

Altruism and the desire to help others was the top reason for volunteering both at home (79 per cent) and internationally (65 per cent).

But few managers considered the impact volunteer work could have on their career, and so could be missing a chance to progress their career, said the CMI.

Just 23 per cent saw it as a chance to build networks, 16 per cent cited the prospect of learning new skills, while only 12 per cent said professional development was a motivating factor.

Yet the research, which also probed 100 former VSO volunteers through detailed interviews, demonstrated how international experience has a significant impact on skills development.

A total of 80 per cent of volunteers believed they returned with expertise that they would not have gained in the UK.

Almost all (92 per cent) said they were now more capable of handling different cultures and three-quarters (74 per cent) suggested they became better communicators as a result.

Around half also claimed voluntary work had developed their problem-solving abilities (57 per cent) and influencing skills (46 per cent).

These newly acquired skills had the potential to make managers significantly more employable as they directly addressed areas where organisations admitted to persistent skills gaps, said the CMI.

Diversity management (26 per cent) and communication (27 per cent) were identified in the research as key areas of shortage.

One-third of those polled also reported difficulties in recruiting those skilled in conflict management (34 per cent) and managing change (38 per cent), often key skills developed during voluntary work.

The report also indicates broad support from employers for those who have undertaken overseas volunteer activity, with 94 per cent agreeing or strongly agreeing that it increased skills and 48 per cent believing it increased employability.

Many also accepted that domestic (60 per cent) and long-term international (39 per cent) work could be an effective method of skills development.

A total of 88 per cent of managers said they would not be averse to employing someone who had recently returned from volunteering overseas.

And, of those who had employed a volunteer, 67 per cent agreed that they brought different skills and experience to the organisation in comparison to other employees.

More than half 58 per cent of former volunteers said they had received a positive response from potential employers and just five per cent said they had difficulty in finding work.

But many respondents (41 per cent) also suggested organisations would be more inclined to employ long-term volunteers if they could demonstrate formal recognition of how they made an impact.

A similar number (40 per cent) felt references from overseas employers would make a difference.

Former volunteers supported this by saying that in retrospect they felt it was important to present their volunteering as part of their career development.

Mary Chapman, chief executive of the CMI, said: "The findings offer powerful support for the benefits of voluntary activity and it is clear from this research that having a broad skill-set, the ability to communicate well and tackle difficult issues is critical for career success.

"Individuals should nurture these skills and consider how they record and recognise voluntary achievements in a way that attracts potential employers," he added.

Mark Goldring, chief executive at VSO, continued: "Managers must recognise that international volunteering can have reciprocal benefits and that by sharing their skills as a VSO volunteer not only can they play a significant role in the fight against poverty but they can also influence their future career and contribute to their company's success.

"Former volunteers have suggested that their overseas experience gave them a confidence that opened doors to opportunities that some felt were previously beyond them.

"We urge individuals and employers to reconsider how volunteering can have a lasting impact on the lives of some of the most disadvantaged people in the world at the same time as influencing career progression," he concluded.