You too could be a volunteer

Volunteering is fast becoming the buzzword of the minute. Last year, the Treasury and Home Office launched 'The Corporate Challenge', which seeks to encourage business to set up volunteering schemes. And, more recently, Digby Jones of the CBI proclaimed, slightly bizarrely, that those who fail to volunteer should be denied pay rises or promotion - which poses the question: when is volunteering not volunteering? When it's coercion?

by Matthew Gwyther, mt editor

Anyway, it's a real pleasure to announce MT's new partnership with VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas). This month's feature is the first of many joint projects that we will undertake in the coming months. I saw VSO in action about 10 years ago when I visited its operations in Zimbabwe and Papua New Guinea. I watched plumbers helping to rebuild towns destroyed by volcanoes, foresters working on sustainable logging programmes and 22-year-olds fresh out of university trying to help keep elephants from marauding through small African villages. I can remember being not only impressed, but envious.

Most of the volunteers then were fairly young, but things are changing and VSO is hoping to recruit older, more experienced people - such as our readers. A mid-career change of direction (or a sabbatical break) is becoming increasingly commonplace. People are achieving more at a younger age, and early-thirties burnout - or at least a need of refreshment - is on the up. The portfolio working life is now a reality; the number of managers who join a company and work through all the way to 65 and the gold watch is minuscule.

However, don't think that a VSO posting is a savannah or paddyfield of cherries. My visit to those projects made me realise that volunteer jobs are not all romance, smiling faces and wide skies. The volunteers in PNG had a competition that involved their staple diet of rice and tinned corned beef: there was a regular prize for the individual who found the longest section of bovine artery in his or her tin.

It is, of course, of great value for people from western countries to see at first hand how the other half (or two-thirds) of the planet live. For our section editor Rebecca Hoar, it was her first visit to the developing world - in this case, Ethiopia. 'What surprised me was the level of business initiative in Addis Ababa, which gives the lie to the stereotype of Africa as a basket case,' she says.

Indeed, those smart companies such as Accenture and PricewaterhouseCoopers that allow their staff time off to go abroad as volunteers do not do so just to show their caring CSR side; their staff come back better and more confident managers as a result, having learned much during their spell away from the office. Who knows, you could be one of them.

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