Peter Slowe made his foray into philanthropy in 1992, when he worked as a geography professor at the University of Chichester in West Sussex in his native Britain and noticed many of his students were intrigued by the newly freed former Iron Curtain countries. They wanted to help the citizens of these Eastern European nations, so Slowe looked for opportunities for them to teach English and do other work there. These endeavors went so well that he left teaching and founded Projects Abroad, a volunteer placement organization that matches prospective volunteers with educational, human rights, medical, archaeological, sports, conservation, and other projects in 26 countries, including Cambodia, Morocco, and Costa Rica. This year, Projects Abroad placed some 8,000 volunteers from all over the world.
So what does all this have to do with, wince, career advancement? With unemployment rates' upward climb in so many parts of the world—in the U.S., it's 9.6 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—many professionals have looked to philanthropic work as a way to fill their time in a meaningful way—and found that a two-month stint as "Human Rights Worker in Cape Town, South Africa" made their résumés stand out to prospective employers in their native countries. Likewise, recent college and grad-school graduates setting out in a harsh job market can set themselves apart from other applicants who have only commonplace internships and work experience on their record.
Chief Executive Slowe, who is based in Sussex, and Thomas Pastorius Jr., who runs Project Abroad's U.S. branch in New York, recently sat down with Bloomberg Businessweek.com's Rebecca Reisner to discuss their projects and the mutual benefit to volunteers and the people they serve.
How do people find you?
Peter Slowe: Mostly through our website. Of course, word of mouth is tremendously important. What we're finding increasingly is volunteers are coming home and telling their friends about it, so word of mouth is catching up to the Internet.
How do you figure out what individual volunteers are good at?
Thomas Pastorius: They tell us, usually. By the time they contact us, they're pretty fired up. Occasionally we get a premed student interested in a kind of medicine who wants to find out what fits.
So if today I decided I wanted to volunteer, how long would it take to get an assignment?
Slowe: When someone applies, it's usually a couple of months before they leave. We insist there's a dialogue between the applicant and the people who run the particular program in, for example, Ethiopia, and we have a placement system so we find the right type of work, the right level of work. In most cases, volunteers stay at host families, and they're living and working with Ethiopians [for projects in that country].
Are any programs so wonderful you're turning people away?
Pastorius: They tend to be in places where the project is very unusual. Probably the best example is the Inca project.
Slowe: We have discovered new Inca trails and new Inca towns in an astounding place not far from Machu Picchu geographically, but it takes around 9 hours to walk. Everything has to be carried in, so there's a limit to the number of people you can look after.
What kind of philanthropy goes on in the Incan villages?
Slowe: We have a whole community program that goes alongside the archaeology, because there's such a tendency for the local people not to benefit. It is very sad to see how so many local Peruvians know so little about their own wonderful history, so we play a part in the schools and communities to explain—I don't mean to sound patronizing—but to explain what it's all about. Some of them [local Peruvians] know very much about [the history], but some don't. We bring in archaeologists and young volunteers, and it's just an amazing experience to work there. That program is very popular, and last summer it got full up.
For the Inca project, were you looking specifically for archaeology students?
Slowe: In any of our projects, we're looking for people who are experts, and we're also looking for people who just want to volunteer their time but maybe aren't specialists. Of course, we need archaeologists, but we also need people just to dig.
We have a human rights project, for example, in South Africa. And we need lawyers. We had wonderful work done by one German and two American lawyers over the summer. It was fantastic. You [also] need people to go around with questionnaires interviewing refugees who might be experiencing problems—disabled people who may be having problems. There's an awful lot of donkey work to be done. It's a terrible way to describe it, because it's very interesting work in the townships and Cape Town, which is an amazing place to be. There's a lot [for the volunteers] to do to prepare the cases for court.
How are you funded?
Slowe: The volunteers pay. We have no source of income except the volunteers. It's about $3,000 a project. That's about how much it costs for, let's say, a couple of months, including your food, your housing, insurance, and all the arrangements for the job. It's a reasonably good deal. I think if we weren't a good value, we wouldn't have 8,000 people. Although as a trend, it is an increasingly popular thing to do.
Any projects where you have trouble getting people?
Slowe: We need more teachers of English in Peru. But it's Ethiopia we most need more people to go to—in the orphanages, mostly. We could use more medical volunteers in India, as well. And we need people to do conservation work in Mozambique. I think it's the fact that they speak Portuguese there [in Mozambique] that puts people off, but they're trying to learn English, too.
Do you have volunteers who feel transformed by their work with Projects Abroad?
Slowe: These are life-changing experiences for the volunteers. There was a guy who was made redundant during the banking crisis. He went out to work at an orphanage in India and then did some teaching there and had the most fulfilling time as well as making a great contribution. He changed his career, in fact, to become a teacher. I think he probably reduced the salary he had, but people define themselves in different ways.
It helps you get a job because it looks good on your résumé. But it also helps you get a job because it changes you. I think it makes you more confident as a person. People who participate in these programs will tell you, yes, it's an extra three or four lines on my résumé, and it also made me more adaptive, made me learn more about myself, about the kind of things I want to do; it made me reflect on myself. If you've lived a certain life in the American or German or British or Japanese way and find yourself confronted with orphans in Senegal or hospitals in Bolivia, it does change you in a lot of positive ways. It makes you more receptive, more adaptable, more effective, and these days those are qualifications for many jobs.
Is there any particular volunteer who is kind of like a poster child for this transformative phenomenon?
Pastorius: We're working with a woman named Anne Gleason. She was a volunteer in an orphanage for us in Sri Lanka. She was pre-med, and as a result of this she changed to international development. After she graduated, she went back to Sri Lanka and started a soup kitchen, and now she has set up a whole funding mechanism.
As far as the people who volunteer the summer after their first years of law school, is that good for their résumé?
Pastorius: Yes. It's proof positive you're not just someone who can read books and take tests. And law students typically spend the summer after the second year of law school doing an internship [in the U.S.], so after the first year of school, they usually like to do something a little more pro bono-oriented.
So the volunteer work doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the type of law they plan to practice?
Pastorius: No, not necessarily.
Slowe: In China we have people who work in property law, international exports, but it all has to do with human rights.
I imagine it helps lawyers learn to be quick on their feet to deal with those situations.
Slowe: Yes, if you're a lawyer dealing with a Congolese refugee right off the street in Cape Town, you definitely have to be quick on your feet.
Does it make a difference for volunteers who aren't looking to be doctors and lawyers?
Slowe: Absolutely. [HR people tell us] they get 10,000 applications for management trainee programs and can take only 400 every year. And someone has to get that number of applications to, say, 1,500, which can be looked at more closely. The key point about this is having something like "I was a teacher in South Africa" or "I worked at a project in the Amazon rain forest" on your résumé. These aren't necessarily skills you're going to use in the jobs you're applying for, but they make you a slightly more interesting person to talk to.
Pastorius: One thing people really worry about is, "there's a gap in my résumé. Someone sees that my last job was six months ago. That's not really something I want to come up on the interview." They can fill that gap, and it almost looks as though they planned it that way. So when the interview comes, it's, well, "I just got back from South Africa."
Do you get any retirees?
Slowe: Yes, especially younger retirees, people retiring from 55 to 60. Our oldest volunteer is 81, but that is relatively rare. The younger retirees still have a lot of energy, and sometimes they have a bit of cash, as well, and they're looking to do something totally different from what they did before and give something back. But it can also be, "Let's live differently for at least a few months, and if we can contribute something as well, that's fantastic." I mean, they're too old to backpack, and they don't want to go to a luxury hotel for six months, so here's something that's just different, and they're contributing something at the same time.
What did the 81-year-old volunteer do?
Slowe: He went to Moldova. But Moldova is—it's easy to look after someone there. It's not Ethiopia; we wouldn't recommend Ethiopia if you're 81. You don't want to climb all those hills. What he did [in Moldova] is work with disabled kids at a home, and he was the most popular volunteer they ever had there. They're still in touch, and he's talking about going back.
Are there any very high-risk Projects Abroad assignments, like removing bombs from minefields?
Pastorius: We're not the Red Cross. We don't work in war-torn areas. [But] there's a certain kind of country, and there are a lot of them out there, that is basically stable and safe to go to. They're poor, or they're lacking in some type of resource. We take [prospective volunteers] who are motivated, but they don't know where is safe. They don't know how to be effective. So we're not going to places with land mines.
Slowe: We try to find exactly the right place for you [as a volunteer] in all these various countries and make sure it goes smoothly. Not to mother you—we're not looking after them every minute of the day. But we are there in case things go wrong.