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Frequently asked questions
How do VSO placements work?
We place professional and skilled volunteers with local partner organisations, from grassroots groups to government ministries, to build their capacity and ability. This delivers long-term improvements and helps countries and communities to help themselves. VSO’s volunteers use their skills to improve quality and access to essential services, give people a voice and help influence governments to implement effective policies.
By building local skills and knowledge our volunteers deliver sustainable development, lasting impact and value for money.
As a VSO volunteer you’ll work directly with your local employer, reporting to a local manager and supporting your colleagues’ development. Of course, your local VSO office is always there to support you should the need arise.
What is an example role?
To give you a better understanding of what a VSO placement for your profession is like, we highlight a previous role and outline what the volunteer was asked to do. Having a look at the example role is a great way to understand how we use your professional skills overseas.
What are VSO’s recruitment criteria?
There are some basic requirements you will need to fulfil in order to volunteer with VSO:
- you must have a minimum of two years’ experience in your field, gained in the last five years
- most countries also need an official qualification (usually a degree) to secure a work permit
- our volunteers are expected to have a good command of the English language in order to fully participate in selection, induction and wider programme activities whilst volunteering.
What is the recruitment process?
- Placements are advertised on our website.
- Applicants complete an online application form and attach a current CV.
- The applications are shortlisted and we will respond within three weeks of the closing date.
- Shortlisted applicants are invited to take part in a selection process which will include a combination of activities such as a preliminary interview and a situational judgement test or assessment centre event.
- Following the selection process and reference checks, an offer is made to the most suitable candidate. Other candidates are notified of the outcome and any other placements that may be of interest to them.
- The successful applicant participates in induction activities in preparation for their placement and starts to complete pre-departure checks such as medical and criminal background checks. They also complete any logistical requirements such as the visa application.
How long will the process take?
Once you have applied for a placement, the process will take approximately five months. This is to allow time for volunteers to complete pre-departure briefing, along with all the necessary logistics such as arranging visas, work permits and medical and criminal background checks.
What happens if I can’t find a suitable role?
If after searching you cannot find a suitable role then you can complete our registration form and we will contact you to give you an idea of the likelihood of a volunteering placement becoming available for someone with your skills, now or in the future. Alternatively you can call us on +44 (0)20 8780 7500 or email us and we can talk you through your options.
Can I apply for more than one placement?
Yes, however at the point that you accept an offer of a placement you will be withdrawn from any other applications.
What happens when I register my interest?
We will use the information you have provided about your current profession to give you an idea of the likelihood of a volunteering placement being available for someone with your skills. Alternatively, you could search for live vacancies to see if you can find a role which is of interest to you, and apply for it directly. Please note that registering your interest is not the same as submitting an actual application.
Can I fill in the application form in a language other than English?
As English will be the working language in the volunteer placement, it is important that we are recruiting people who have a reasonable level of English. Please make sure to fill in the application form in English.
I’m a Returned Volunteer - If I’m selected will I have to go through the same assessments as before?
If you have volunteered within the last five years you may not have to undertake the same assessment process. Returned volunteers have already been assessed for the relevant skills. Instead, if shortlisted you are more likely to have an interview to assess your continued suitability and adaptability for undertaking another placement.
Where does VSO work?
VSO currently works in over 30 countries in Africa and Asia. We look at each country on an individual basis and assess whether it’s practical for us to operate, how serious its skills shortages are, and whether our approach could make a significant difference. By focusing our resources, we can maximise the impact our volunteers can make at all levels, from grassroots to government.
For more information see where we work.
What expenses will I need to pay?
During your placement, VSO will provide:
- an allowance paid in local currency. The allowance is designed to meet reasonable living expenses in country, and will not be enough for you to expect to send money home
- basic accommodation. This will be shared housing with private rooms
- transportation costs to and from your placement, including flights
- medical insurance
- induction and resettlement support
You will need to be able to contribute towards some of your pre-departure expenses such as travel to and from induction events and some of your pre-departure medical expenses. The overall package of financial support has been designed so that volunteers are not out of pocket through volunteering. However, you should not expect to be able to save money during your time as a volunteer or to be able to meet any other financial commitments.
What if I get sick when I'm on my volunteer placement?
Your health and wellbeing are important to us. We have comprehensive medical insurance and procedures put in place for all of our volunteers. During your placement, you will normally consult local doctors about health problems.
Each of our country offices has an appointed medical adviser, usually a local doctor or nurse, whom you can consult with (contact details will be provided during your in-country training). You will also receive the VSO country office’s emergency contacts and medical emergency procedures, together with a list of recommended doctors, clinics, dentists and pharmacies in your region.
If a decision is made to evacuate you for medical reasons, we will using the best available emergency services to evacuate you to a hospital with better facilities. This may not be in your placement country. All volunteers are covered for medical repatriation except for medical emergencies resulting from hazardous sports.
Please note: our medical insurance policy requires you to have medical clearance from our medical advisers and to take the preventative measures we advise, for example, against malaria.
Can couples volunteer together?
We welcome applications if you are a couple wanting to volunteer together, however we respond to demand from overseas partner organisations, and many of them request only one volunteer. It is rare to receive a request for two volunteers for the same location that will match both of your skills.
What about security in the country I am working in?
There are risks in every country in the world, but we monitor risks where we work, brief our volunteers appropriately and have systems in place in case of security problems. You will not be asked to work in any area where there is immediate danger from war, civil unrest or natural disaster. In this way we hope that our volunteers will have the best prospect of contributing to sustainable development.
Can my family come with me?
It will depend on the placement as some locations may not be suitable for a family. If your partner or children do accompany you to your placement, you will be responsible for any associated costs. This will include pre-departure checks, medical insurance, flights, any additional accommodation needs for your family, and any schooling fees in country.
I may need a ‘no criminal convictions’ letter to apply for employment when I return home. Can VSO provide this?
On your return, you might apply for a job that requires confirmation of good conduct while you were in your placement country. Where appropriate, we will provide a letter stating that, to the best of our knowledge, there are no criminal convictions nor proceedings pending from your time in placement. This is usually accepted.
Some organisations, particularly those that work with children, insist on a letter from the local police in a volunteer’s placement country. Furthermore, some embassies require a letter from the police before issuing a residency visa. It can be practically impossible to obtain this document once you have returned home. If you think you might need this document at some point in the future, do try to obtain it from the local police before you leave your placement country.
Can I go home during my placement?
You are entitled to four weeks leave every year. However, we will not cover your travel expenses so if you do decide to use this time to return home you will have to pay for the flights and transport costs yourself.
Does VSO pay my pension while I volunteer?
No, unless you work for the NHS and are leaving your job to volunteer.
NHS employees can preserve their membership of the NHS Pensions Scheme while they volunteer, with VSO paying pension contributions direct to the NHS Pensions Agency while they are away. For more detail contact our Support Care Team at +44 (0)20 8780 7500.
All other public sector, and private sector, employees are encouraged to speak to their relevant pension scheme to find out how their pension will be affected whilst volunteering overseas. VSO does still offer all other financial benefits (see above).
Can I volunteer for longer than my original placement length?
Many volunteers stay beyond their initial placement duration. However, this will depend on the needs of the organisation and whether they need you to stay longer than planned in order to complete the job or extend its benefits and impact. The country office then evaluates the situation, and a decision is reached by consulting all parties involved.
Alternatively, you can apply for another for another placement in the same country or elsewhere.
Where can I get more information?
What skills do volunteers need?
We recruit experienced professionals from all over the world. Our volunteers provide our overseas partners with a wide range of skills and experience in areas such as health, education , advocacy, business and management, community and social development, natural resources, HIV and AIDS, specific technical skills such as civil or industrial engineering, and many others.
To become a VSO volunteer, it’s vital you’re experienced in your professional field and able to train and advise colleagues in your area of expertise. You need to be prepared to work creatively, often with few resources.
Are there any age restrictions?
VSO volunteers range between 20 and 75. Suitability for the role and physical condition are more important than age. As living conditions can be basic, with hot and cold climate extremes, medical checks are required from all volunteers before going overseas.
How recent does my experience need to be?
Our partner organisations ask that any experience that you have that is relevant to the role is not more than five years old.
Do I need to fundraise?
Yes, we see fundraising as an essential part of the volunteer journey and each volunteer on accepting a placement agrees a fundraising plan with our dedicated volunteer fundraising officer and commits to raising at least £985 prior to going overseas for VSO. Asking our volunteers to fundraise has a double impact: it provides much needed income for the charity to keep sending volunteers overseas to support some of the world’s poorest people, and it also presents an invaluable opportunity to raise VSO’s profile amongst your community.
The Department for International Development (DFID) VSO’s major donor, is keen to see us develop our voluntary income as their grant is declining over the next three years. DFID has capped its grant at 40% of the organisation’s total income. Therefore, if we are to receive the current level of grant we need to raise an additional £15 million over the next three years.
Fundraising can also help us to talk through volunteers and deliver important messages into our UK communities. Therefore, your support in fundraising is invaluable to VSO.
I’m not sure volunteering is for me. What other ways can I get involved with VSO?
Can I volunteer if I have a personal health problem?
Although it is difficult to generalise, having a current or previous health problem will not always be a barrier to volunteering with VSO. You should be prepared that your medical circumstances will be assessed carefully and on a case by case basis. There may be potential difficulties in finding an overseas placement which can provide you with acceptable health risks and an appropriate level of medical support.
In some case, your options for working overseas with VSO may be very limited because of medical issues, but we would make that clear to you as soon as we could. For more detailed information our 'Volunteering with a medical condition' information sheet.
Why do I need to think about my personal health circumstances at an early stage?
If you are planning to volunteer, VSO needs to be sure that you are fit and healthy enough to do so. Nobody can take up a VSO placement overseas without medical clearance.
Please consider personal health issues from an early stage in the application process. This is especially important if you have a current or previous medical condition, or take certain medication, which may mean that VSO cannot take you on as a volunteer.
Medical assessment and medical clearance takes place later in the volunteer selection process. VSO does not want you to be disappointed and feel let down at the last minute if you cannot volunteer because of a personal health reason. This will be really frustrating if you have already invested a lot of time, energy and money with the selection, fundraising and preparation process.
Please do not fully commit to an overseas placement, resign from your job, rent or sell your home or have your leaving party until you are sure you will get medical clearance!
Why do volunteers need to a medical check to work overseas with VSO?
If you are planning to volunteer, VSO needs to be sure that you are fit and healthy enough to do so. VSO is an organisation which recruits volunteers to work for local partners in resource poor countries. Most volunteers will find themselves living and working in small towns and rural areas of these countries. You will have to get used to a new climate, basic living conditions and a physical environment which may be challenging, and you may face new risks to your health such as malaria, other infectious disease and road traffic accidents. You will also have all the usual health risks that you face in your home country, but you may find your local medical facilities are basic and limited in the care and support they can offer you.
What does VSO's medical check involve?
If you are selected as a volunteer, you will need to go through a medical clearance and assessment process. You will be asked to provide detailed personal health information and have a full medical examination. This will usually be carried out by your family doctor, a travel health specialist or a doctor identified by VSO in your home country.
Your medical information will be reviewed by one of VSO’s medical advisers. VSO medical advisers will decide whether you are medically suitable to volunteer with VSO or whether your medical circumstances are such that you would only be suitable for certain placements. In some cases, it may not be possible to volunteer with VSO because of personal health circumstances.
VSO will be guided by the medical advisers decision when proceeding with your application and finally matching you to a placement, even if their recommendation is different from the opinion of your GP, family doctor or specialist who looks after you.
Medical insurance is only available to volunteers who are medically assessed and cleared by a VSO medical adviser.
How do I know if I am medically suitable for the VSO post that I want to apply for?
There are no hard and fast rules and it may be difficult for you to make that assessment. Decisions about medical suitability depend on your specific medical circumstances and the specific health risks and the available medical support associated with the placement. We suggest you:
- read all the FAQs in this section
- check our information sheet for a more detailed explanation of medical assessment and clearance
- talk to your family doctor or your specialist who know your medical condition
- contact VSO’s medical team in confidence: email@example.com
Can I volunteer if I have HIV?
Being HIV positive need not be a barrier to volunteering with VSO.
In terms of medical clearance for an overseas role, we would aim to assess individuals living with HIV in the same way as other chronic medical conditions. We would want to ensure that you go to volunteer in an area which would not pose high risks to your health, and where good medical facilities are available for any follow-up checks or treatment you may need.
Please note that we work in some countries where it is illegal to enter or stay in the country if you are HIV positive. In some countries there may also be a stigma against people with HIV. You’ll need to consider the implications of this when deciding to accept a volunteer role.
If you would like to discuss this further, you can contact our medical unit in complete confidence on 020 8780 7685.
Can I volunteer if I have a disability?
We’re committed to investigating every possible option to enable disabled people to volunteer.
We ask you to tell us about your disability on your application form. When you apply, a placement adviser and our medical unit will work closely with you. They will identify jobs that would be suitable for you before you come to assessment.
Some of the environments we work in are challenging. It may be difficult for us to match your professional and personal circumstances with a volunteer role. We'll make every effort to consider all possibilities and think flexibly to prevent this.
You can request volunteering information in a range of different formats, for example, Braille, large print, and audiocassette. A reader and writer service is available. Sign Language interpreters can be provided.
To discuss disability further, you can contact our medical unit in complete confidence on 020 8780 7685.
Can I still volunteer if I've retired?
Yes, you can. A number of volunteers choose to volunteer after retirement and we welcome applications from experienced professionals up to the age of 75. Older volunteers are valued by local employers for their patience, self-assurance and resourcefulness, as well as for their professional skills.
For most jobs you’ll need to have recent work experience, and be kept up-to-date with developments in your skill area. All volunteers, whatever their age, will have to provide personal health information and undergo VSO's detailed medical assessment and clearance process. Please seek advice early on from the international medical team on +44 (0)20 8780 7685 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
We do successfully place older volunteers, however the retirement age, visa policies and cultural norms of the countries we work in can sometimes limit the number of opportunities available to you.
What has happened to Global Xchange?
The Global Xchange programme run by British Council and VSO came to an end on 31 March 2012 on completion of its funding cycle.
The British Council and VSO are proud of the achievements of Global Xchange. The success of the partnership between the British Council and VSO, and the lessons learned from Global Xchange have gone on to inform the UK government’s International Citizen Service youth volunteering programme which VSO are leading on. The British Council, through its Society programmes, will continue to offer opportunities for young people to build their intercultural skills, engage in their communities and network with their peers in UK and other countries.
If you are 18-25 and interested in volunteering, have a look at our new VSO-ICS programmes
What is the day of a volunteer like?
There’s no such thing as a typical day! That’s part of the excitement of volunteering. Your life will become personally and professionally very different to what you know now. What is certain though is that you will be enjoying an all-new culture, mixing in a different community and challenging yourself professionally, in all new ways.
How can I hear directly from volunteers about their experiences?
There are a few different ways you can get in touch with current or returned volunteers.
If you come to a Meet VSO event, you'll get to hear volunteers speak in person about their placement and how it went for them. At the end of the meeting, you'll have the opportunity to meet with the volunteers face to face and ask questions. You can find out more on our Events page
You can also ask volunteers questions online, on our Facebook page. This visited regularly by volunteers so they will be able to reply to your questions if you post on our wall.
To find out firsthand what it's like to be a VSO volunteer read the personal blogs written by volunteers currently serving overseas.
There are a number of returned volunteers who have written more extensively about their work. A list written by volunteers can be found on our Amazon page
What does a volunteer do when they are not working?
It’s your free time – so you’re free to do whatever you wish! But by choosing to work abroad you’re probably going to want to make the most out of this exciting experience. So that’s why VSO volunteers usually spend their free time exploring their new country, making new friends and generally getting the most of every amazing new opportunity that volunteering brings you.
Which countries do you recruit from?
For long-term volunteer jobs (one to two years) we recruit from:
- across Europe
- Kenya (also covering Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania)
- Philippines (also covering Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, The Kingdom of Brunei and New Zealand)
- India (also covering Sri Lanka)
For specialist assignments (three to six months), we currently only recruit volunteers who are residents in the European Economic Area.
For the ICS programme, you must be:
- aged between 18 and 25 at time of departure overseas
- Are either a UK citizen with a current UK address, an EEA citizen currently residing in the UK, or have indefinite leave to remain in the UK. Applicants should have been resident in the UK for the last 12 months.
- Have a good grasp of conversational English.
- Are available to volunteer for a minimum of 10 weeks overseas
Two years seems like a long time to volunteer?
While other organisations may send you to volunteer for just a few weeks – the impact this makes against poverty is often only short-term. So if you want to make a real, sustainable long-term change to people’s lives – you’ll need to take a little more time.
But volunteers who’ve experienced two-years in an amazing new environment say the time appears to fly by - so much to do, so much to explore, so many people to meet. And if you think about it, two years is a short investment for a lifetime of memories and the knowledge that you’ve helped change peoples’ lives for the better.
What kind of volunteer roles do you offer?
Volunteer roles (one to two years)
We have standard roles for skilled and experienced professionals of all backgrounds, particularly in education, health and business. These roles are open to volunteers aged between 20 and 75. Standard placements last between one and two years, with the majority of roles being for two years. You’ll usually need a professional qualification in your field and generally a minimum of two to three years’ post-qualification experience. Volunteers need to be ready to volunteer within the eighteen month period in which they apply.
Find out more about our volunteer roles and search for opportunities in your skill area.
Specialist assignments (three to six months)
We have short-term volunteering opportunities for highly experienced professionals who can provide advice at senior levels. Volunteers need extensive professional experience in their field, usually with a minimum of five years' post-qualification experience. Specialist assignments can last from three to six months and volunteers need to be prepared to go for the maximum amount of time.
International Citizen Service (ICS) supports young people aged 18-25 from all backgrounds to make a real difference to some of the world’s poorest people. The initiative is funded by the Department for International Development (DFID). VSO ICS placements have been designed to complement the work of our country programmes, recognizing the unique contribution young people can make to the development goals of VSO.
Find out more about VSO ICS
How do families react to such long placements?
Your family will hopefully understand that your journey is not only important to you – but to entire communities in the developing world. What’s more it will provide them with an amazing opportunity to visit you and experience a world they may never have seen otherwise. Just imagine how proud they’ll be of you when they see how you’re helping change people’s lives.
Also volunteering is like any other job – you get time off. So one day you could be in the heat of Malawi helping train people and the next you could be on holiday, back at the family Christmas table eating turkey, sharing your stories and complaining about the cold.
How long does a placement last?
Standard volunteer roles last for 1-2 years, with the majority of roles lasting two years. Find out more about volunteer roles
Specialist assignments can last from 3-6 months.Youth programmes
The International Citizen Service (ICS) programmes for young people aged 18-25 last 10-12 weeks. Find out more on the ICS website
Is there any support available to me when I return from my placement?
VSO understand that returning after your placement can sometimes seem a bigger culture shock to you than going away in the first place. So we have a dedicated Volunteer Return team to support you when you come home. You can attend a Returned Volunteer (RV) Weekend where you can talk to other RVs and VSO staff about the process of coming home and the challenges you face. We will provide references should you require them for further employment and you can find other resources on the Learning Hub website too. See our Returning home page for exciting and varied ideas about how to stay involved with VSO.
How can I request a VSO volunteer to work in my organisation?
Your organisation must contact our office in the relevant country and make a proposal in writing.
The letter should state:
- what you need a VSO volunteer to do
- how it will contribute to long-term development in your area
- what conditions (for example, accommodation) you can offer a volunteer.
- Our programme staff will then visit you to draw up a detailed job description and to gather the required information in full. It usually takes a minimum of six months between receipt of your request and the arrival of your volunteer.
Please note that we can only send volunteers to organisations in countries where we already have a programme. Take a look at where we work.
If you would like to request a volunteer, please call us on +44 20 8780 7500 for the address of the relevant country office. We are unable to provide contact telephone, fax numbers or email addresses of our country offices, as these are reserved for volunteer emergencies only.