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Skills you need to volunteer overseas

If you've never volunteered before, you might find yourself asking the question, "Can I actually do this?". Embarking on a challenging new placement and immersing yourself in a completely foreign culture is daunting, no matter what level of experience you have. While VSO volunteers come from all walks of life and professional backgrounds, there are some personality traits that unite them. Here are some of the competencies we look for in our volunteers. 

Tom O'Donoghue from Co. Wexford is currently voluteering with head-teachers and school communities in Tanzania.


To succeed on a volunteering placement, you need to be able to anticipate, respond to and manage change on a daily basis. Your working and living circumstances will be very different to what you're used to in Ireland. Itineraries may shift, resources might be unavailable and there might even be an emergency to deal with in the country you are working in. No day is the same and you need to constantly adapt your way of thinking and skills to excel in your field.  


Volunteering overseas really is a life-changing experience! There are plenty of personal and professional rewards to be reaped, but that's not to say that your placement will be completely free of challenges. Working in a disadvantaged community and coming face-to-face with extreme poverty every day is difficult. It takes a certain type of person to be able to deal with this and not let it affect their ability to get the job done. For this reason, we are very careful about selecting volunteers that cope well with uncertainty and have proven experience of excelling in ambiguous and uncertain situations. 

Claire Nic Gabhann from Co. Monaghan has had to display open-mindedness, adaptability and resilience during his time in Tanzania.


Each volunteer placement is treated like a job – you are hired because of your skills and ability to implement positive change where you are working. Volunteers need to be able to hit the ground running, working with others analysing issues and developing sustainable solutions that will last long after they have returned home. The key here is collaboration – liaising with your peers in country and thinking creatively about how best to make an impact. Applicants will need to demonstrate an ability to work well independently, as well as part of a team. 


It seems obvious but one of the main traits VSO volunteers must display is open-mindedness – respect for other cultures and values. On placement, you need to behave with sensitivity at all times and not assume that your viewpoint is always correct. It is likely that things will not always make sense, particularly at the beginning of your placement when everything is new. Think outside the box when approaching tasks and learn what you can from your peers overseas to make your experience all the more worthwhile. 

Selecting suitable volunteers is a lengthy, in-depth process. As much as we want to place volunteers that will excel in their roles, we also need to make sure that volunteers enjoy their time away and are well-equipped to deal with any obstacles they encounter. This is why we look for professional, experienced volunteers – working in diverse settings and clocking up years of experience in your field is usually the best way to prepare for a volunteering placement. 

If you're thinking of applying for a vacancy, take time to consider how you have demonstrated the above traits and use examples throughout your application. Good luck!  

Think you'd make an excellent VSO volunteer?

Search volunteering vacancies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific and start your volunteering journey.

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