Execs on a Mission

MT's new charity partner VSO wants to persuade young executives to share their skills.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

VSO, MT's new partner charity, is leading a radical change in the field of volunteer recruitment, as it targets middle managers for its overseas placements and builds partnerships with big employers. Rebecca Hoar finds out how firms are getting in on the act.

The word 'volunteer' usually conjures up a very particular image: either an elderly helper behind a charity shop counter, or a long-haired, sandal-wearing student on a gap-year mission to save the world. Both are stereotypes and both bear little resemblance to the new breed of middle-class middle managers who are flocking to developing countries, laptop under one arm, management textbook under the other, ready to rough it for a few months or years.

It may seem comical to think of managers and consultants as the new heroes of the developing world. But although teachers, doctors and engineers remain in demand, there is no point recruiting more doctors without the health-service infrastructure to support them, or more volunteer teachers without a system to train local teachers. This is where the managers come in: they are vital in making organisations run more smoothly, establishing adequate supply chains, setting standards for measuring performance, and ensuring that money donated from NGOs and other bodies is channelled into well-managed projects.

Leading this change in the field of volunteer recruitment is VSO, the Voluntary Service Overseas charity founded in 1958 by the late Alec and Mora Dickson. VSO's reputation is for recruiting graduates, health workers and engineers to work in developing countries, but this is changing. Under the current CEO Mark Goldring, who was himself a student volunteer in 1979-81, VSO is striving to recruit mid-career professionals through carefully targeted ads on the London Underground, a new section for managers on its website, and the creation of business partnership schemes with companies such as Accenture, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Randstad and Shell.

These measures have already increased the number of business recruits: between 1999 and 2003, business volunteers rose from 83 to 173, out of a yearly total of about 750, and they've been sent to diverse places, from eastern Europe to Africa and Asia. It's hoped that about a third of all VSO volunteers will eventually be business and management high-flyers.

Says Goldring: 'We've been both responding to and contributing to thinking about how you use business and management professionals more generally to strengthen organisations in the public sector, the non-government sector and the private sector in developing countries. And that has led us to recruit increasing numbers of managers, advisers, organisation development people and IT specialists.'

It's because of this that MT has elected to support VSO as the magazine's chosen charity. Over the next few months, VSO will have a presence at many of MT's events, and we hope that this will help readers to find out more about its work. The profiles on these pages also show what management high-flyers can expect, both during and after a VSO placement.

It seems we are not the only ones to have picked up on the growing buzz around volunteering. CBI chief Digby Jones, not usually noted for his 'softer' business views, recently went on record as saying that people shouldn't get pay rises or promotions unless they have dedicated time to a voluntary organisation.

In July 2003, the Home Office and the Treasury launched 'The Corporate Challenge', a joint initiative designed to encourage employers and employees to set up volunteering schemes. And just last month, an Economic & Social Research Council report found that people who volunteer have higher life satisfaction, achieve better grades and enjoy better health than those who don't.

According to Home Office figures, about 1.5 million UK employees participate in volunteering schemes supported by their bosses, typically involving a few hours' voluntary work each month. The VSO scheme, though, is full-time and historically has been a two-year placement. Although this is feasible for the retired or for students, it's too long a spell for the average employee to spend away from the workplace, and it effectively rules out anyone with dependents. VSO, therefore, has been forced to rethink its strategy.

A result of this is the recent merger with BESO - the British Executive Service Overseas, founded out of the CBI and the Institute of Directors.

In contrast to VSO's approach, which assumes that the first few months of a placement will be spent finding one's feet, BESO sends employees on placements that can be as short as one week. VSO may struggle to incorporate BESO's more direct policy, but the merger offers obvious benefits for those who would like to volunteer but can't abandon commitments for more than a few weeks.

VSO has also pioneered business partnership schemes, where companies allow employees to spend six to 12 months on a VSO placement while their UK job is held open for them. Accenture is one of the companies to have signed up, and according to partner Tim Robinson, it has provided enormous benefits to the company, particularly in the recruitment and retention of staff.

'It was very clear to me that doing this would be another weapon in our arsenal of attraction and retention tools,' he says. This is particularly relevant as increasing numbers of graduates say that they want to work for an employer that is socially active.

Another partner company is PricewaterhouseCoopers. Jacky Riley, PwC's people strategy director, says the VSO experience endows people with improved skills and confidence. 'Going on a placement gives them accelerated learning,' says Riley. 'That experience has made them very valuable here. We think it makes them better leaders.'

Riley also agrees with Robinson that the business partnership scheme encourages staff recruitment and retention. This is reassuring news for employers who fear that once employees have had a taste of life beyond the office walls, they won't want to come back.

With so much glowing praise it seems churlish to pick out the disadvantages, yet they do exist. As Robinson admits: 'You have to balance the need to provide these opportunities with the need to service your clients. The one drawback, frankly, is that we have to do without people for a certain period of time.'

Echoes Riley: 'The firm wants to support people, but it's also here to run a business.'

It's perhaps telling that Accenture employs 10,000 people in the UK and PwC 13,500, yet just 67 Accenture employees have participated in VSO and only three from PwC. Of those who go, most are consultants who are able to take a break of a few months between client projects. Back-office staff are less likely to go, although there have been a handful from Accenture.

And it seems only the high performers can sign up; if someone isn't doing a terrific job, they're unlikely to be allowed to apply.

Not all employers support the idea of volunteering, and many are downright sceptical. Says Goldring: 'There are some who will always see it as a complete waste of everyone's time.' Faced with this attitude, would-be volunteers may have just one option - to resign and hope they'll find a good job on their return. Smaller companies might also struggle to accommodate staff who want to take a six-month break. The hope is that the shorter BESO placements will make volunteering possible.

It's not just employers who have reservations. Among volunteers, there is a feeling that VSO must sharpen up its act if it's to attract more business recruits. Its lengthy application and assessment procedure, for example, does not suit those on a tight career timetable. Another complaint is that many pre-placement training sessions are held during working hours in the summer. This may suit the charity's numerous teacher volunteers, but it's inconvenient for anyone else.

At the moment, VSO has no statistics on what happens to returning volunteers.

Do they go back to their old jobs, go on to better things, move sectors, get promoted? It's a list VSO may need to compile if it wants to attract more business people who want to be sure of a UK career worth returning to.

These concerns aside, what can volunteers expect once they've arrived at their placement? The case studies give some idea of what it's like: it's certainly not a picnic. 'It's seriously hard,' says Goldring. 'You get there and you think: Oh, my god, when can I go home?'

Volunteers may find their workplace very basic, with shared phones and computers, and a lack of infrastructure. On the domestic front, accommodation can be spartan and several volunteers in Africa have contracted 'The Triple' - a nasty combination of dysentery, malaria and typhoid. One volunteer in Ethiopia had to have her appendix out: just before the op, the hospital sent her boyfriend to buy scalpel, gauze and thread for stitching.

Yet it's also very sociable. The average volunteer age is 38, and most are single and looking for something new, which may explain why so many romances arise. Many end up falling in love with a native of their host country or with another volunteer; Goldring met his wife when they were both working in the Himalayas, and they married in Bhutan not long after.

Volunteers say they return home with renewed self-confidence and a sense of appreciation for what they have. Although some drop out mid-way, few say that they haven't benefited from the experience and 90% would recommend VSO. Most of all, the business volunteers feel they return with greatly enhanced skills and abilities. Perhaps, for employers, that alone is worth a few months' absence.

- To find out more about applying or donating to VSO, or about its business partnership scheme, visit www.vso.org.uk or call 020 8780 7500

AWASSA, ETHIOPIA - HIV/AIDS SECRETARIAT

Neil Colligan, venture capitalist

On paper, Neil Colligan sounds like typical City fodder. The 32-year-old has an economics degree from Wharton, an MBA from Columbia, and worked at venture capitalist firm Doughty Hanson & Co, which in the UK manages funds worth more than £3.5 billion. But Colligan traded that for a role overseeing funding and organisation for the HIV/Aids secretariat in Awassa, one of Ethiopia's regional capitals.

Colligan says he saw people in the City 10 years older than him, extremely well-paid, yet trapped by mortgages and school fees. He didn't want to end up like that. 'I don't think it's really fulfilling,' he says. 'I didn't want to do that kind of job for the rest of my life.'

Colleagues had mixed reactions to his plans. 'Most people were really supportive,' he says. 'A lot of others would look at me like I'd lost my mind. My bosses were shocked more than anything.'

Having ditched his six-figure salary and flat in central London, Colligan left for Africa and a monthly salary of £80. On arrival, his house looked like a building site, there was no electricity two days a week and running water only every other day. The office was little better. 'The office was a bit of a shock. It was a little concrete block room. You were lucky if you had electricity, computers, or anything like that,' he says.

Colligan found the management skills he learnt in business school much needed. 'It was more like starting from scratch than I'd expected,' he says. 'You're working with people who basically have no management experience. There's no business infrastructure here to train people in how to work in an office efficiently.'

The rewards, however, have been great. When Colligan arrived at the secretariat, it managed just four projects: two years on, it has 200 projects and Colligan has extended his placement by six months to complete the work. He has also become engaged to a woman from Awassa.

As Colligan is nearing the end of his placement, he's considering his next steps. 'I wouldn't want to just go back to the same life again,' he says. He doesn't think he'd have difficulties finding a job, but says he'd rather study for a PhD in economics and move into development, perhaps with a job that influences policy. He may also return to his native Canada, rather than go back to the UK.

Overall, Colligan has been impressed with VSO, but worries that the charity's growing interest in advocacy work may be counter-productive. 'It's a bad idea if they want to recruit people from the City,' he says. 'They can't look like anti-capitalist ideologists.'

Colligan believes he's picked up many business skills in Ethiopia, and he's confident about the future. 'I think people are afraid that after this no-one will value their experience, and think they've become some left-wing loony in a commune for two years,' he says. 'I hope this will educate employers.'

ASSOSSA, ETHIOPIA - PROJECT OFFICE

Tricia Donnelly, accountant and project manager

Originally a chartered accountant, Tricia Donnelly spent 12 years in accountancy and then project management for companies such as KPMG, Colgate Palmolive, Standard Chartered, Enron and BNP Paribas.

Her lifestyle was, she says, 'your worst type: too much money and not enough sense. We would have expensive dinners, lots of bottles of wine, everybody would pay on plastic. We were all single, we'd no dependents. We had weekends away and spent a lot on travel. If you could fly there, we'd go there.'

Despite the attractions of such a life, Donnelly says: 'I could look into the future and see the repetition.' She decided she needed to do something different and then saw a newspaper ad for a VSO open evening. She was reassured when the others who turned up at the meeting were 'all normal people'.

Since leaving London, Donnelly has had a varied experience. She arrived in Ethiopia as a managing adviser at a teacher training college, but found there wasn't enough for her to do. She's since transferred to remote Assossa, where a project office is co-ordinating regional programmes aimed at improving Ethiopia's public services.

Donnelly found the VSO application process laborious and, in contrast to her City experience, felt that she was forced to hand over control of the recruitment process to the organisation. 'I'm used to dealing with a recruitment agency, who put me in touch with an employer and who I manage and who work on my behalf. If VSO is getting into business recruits, it needs to understand that we're going to have that perception. And that when business people arrive (at placements), we're thinking about our next job all the time.'

Her colleagues and bosses were supportive of her decision, although there was no question of holding her job open for two years. 'If it had been six months, it would have been no problem,' she says.

The length of service had personal repercussions too. 'Part of the decision in doing this was that I might not have children,' says Donnelly, who's 33. 'But the alternative was just waiting around in London.' In fact, since moving to Assossa, she has started a relationship with a fellow VSO volunteer and they hope to return to the UK together.

She has had to face the usual hardships. There is no running water in her Assossa accommodation and she has had malaria three times. She's philosophical about it now, but initially it was a shock, especially as she had to stand for hours in a doctor's waiting room as the seats were reserved for men.

Her placements have given her a renewed appreciation for her old life. 'I've realised that I love my job and I want to go back to it,' she says. 'I am nervous, but I believe if I get an interview I'll be OK. You wouldn't come here if you didn't have the balls to take a risk.'

GOSTIVAR, MACEDONIA - SMALL BUSINESSES

Gib Bulloch, associate partner, Accenture

As a manager at Accenture, Gib Bulloch enjoyed his job as a consultant. Yet on the Tube to work one morning, he saw an article in the FT about VSO's need for more business volunteers. 'It was a real eye-opener to me,' he says. 'I didn't know VSO worked with business people. I thought it was doctors and nurses.'

At 33, with no dependents, Bulloch felt it was a good time to try VSO out. He approached Accenture's senior management with a Powerpoint presentation on why joining the VSO business partnership scheme would benefit the company.

Accenture agreed and a few months later Bulloch was installed in a flat in Macedonia, with a job assisting small businesses. 'Call it VSO-lite if you like, it's not the standard two years - come back in debt and look for a new job,' says Bulloch, now back in London. 'This is six months and your mortgage paid for you.'

Accenture's scheme offers employees the chance to do a six to 12-month placement, if VSO accepts them. Throughout the placement, Accenture pays a fixed rate to help cover mortgages and other financial commitments.

Bulloch found that many of his consulting skills were relevant to his job in Macedonia. He also learnt that it's not just the volunteers who do all the teaching. 'You go out there with this template in your mind of the western working culture,' he says. 'But you shouldn't always think that your template is necessarily completely right or can be forced to fit.'

Bulloch signed up for six months and ended up staying a year, which he says Accenture was happy with. 'I was having the time of my life,' he says. 'I was getting up in my little flat in the cold Macedonian mornings, working every bit as hard as I was in my previous job for a 90%-plus paycut, and I'd never been as motivated in my life.'

Bulloch came back because he wanted to fulfil his part of the deal with Accenture. Since returning, he's been promoted to associate partner, largely because of his work in setting up the Accenture Development Partnerships (ADP) programme, a not-for-profit project that consults to NGOs, foundations and donor organisations.

Bulloch says he experienced all sorts of emotions on getting back into his old job. 'You think you've been away 10 years, although it's really 10 months,' he says. 'Then when you come back, it seems like nothing's changed. People don't even know you've been away.'

Bulloch handled this by getting busy and launching the ADP programme, for which he's taken a salary reduction. 'I wasn't someone who did a VSO placement and then thought I was in the wrong place in the UK and had to leave,' says Bulloch. 'I liked my job, I came back to it. If you can get the company to change a bit, that's fantastic.'

Would he do VSO again? 'Yes, absolutely. For me, it was a life-changing experience,' says Bulloch. 'No-one is untouched by this, no-one just switches it off when they come back.'

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