Why is VAO making changes to its volunteer model?

Change to VAO's volunteering model has come about as a result of a thorough review process. 

The review lasted 11 months and included: input from VAO members, volunteers, staff and Trustees; pertinent research and consultation with stakeholders.

For a full understanding of the review, and the changes ahead, we strongly recommend you read:

VAO’s Position Statement on Professional Volunteering (Summary)

VAO’s Position Statement on Professional Volunteering (Full)

What happens next around volunteering, following the review?

The review is complete, and its outcomes were signed off by VAO’s board in September 2019. Findings were presented at VAO’s Members’ Meeting and AGM in November 2019. Now:

It is expected there will be fewer assignments and smaller teams or 1-2 person assignments.  This is in response to requests from our country partners.

All country partners will consider how volunteers can be used to enhance their programme.  Where volunteers are required, the full costs must be included in grant/funding applications.

It is expected that any new countries we may start programmes in could benefit from volunteer engagement, but this must be requested by the country partner and be fully funded, as well as meet other parameters e.g. volunteer safety, child protection etc;

A Remote Mentoring scheme will be trialled in Sierra Leone in 2020, which will create different volunteer opportunities.

Volunteer roles will be now be openly advertised on our website and social media. Volunteers will be able to apply for a place if they meet the eligibility criteria for that role.  This will allow a fair recruitment system and enable us to select volunteers with the most relevant skills and/or experience.

VAO will consider volunteering from professions outside of optometry if a) a need is requested from a country; b) it complements the country programme; c) we are able to recruit volunteers with the right skills and d) it is safe and professionally appropriate for VAO to do this.

Next, VAO will work with our country partners to develop Concept Notes and Terms of Reference for any volunteering support they request, agreeing upon the best ways to make volunteering as impactful as possible.

How has the need for volunteers overseas changed?

All our overseas volunteering supports the development of local eye health services so it is natural that, as these local services grow and strengthen, the need for support will change. This is why it is important that the VAO country programmes, along with local partners, drive volunteer engagement. They are best placed to identify the local need for support and these needs are changeable over time.

As part of VAO’s volunteering review, we also reflected upon changes in volunteering models over the years and it was clear that some changes to our own volunteer model were needed.

VAO does remain committed to volunteering, but we do anticipate fewer international volunteers being needed overall in the future. However, we also anticipate that there will be greater demand for more specialist needs, supplied by smaller teams and/or individuals, and in some cases, on longer-term placements.

VAO will be increasingly working with national volunteers, from within the countries in which we work, and regional or pan-African volunteers, alongside volunteers from the UK and Europe.  

As a result of fewer and smaller teams being requested, we anticipate the role of the Team Leader and Deputies may also change. It is likely that, instead of having a hierarchy, an assignment’s tasks and responsibilities will be spread more evenly throughout the team. 

VAO has signed a declaration to support the Global Standard for Volunteering for Development (see question below) and so our future volunteering roles will align to its recommendations for best practice. 

What is the Global Standard for Volunteering for Development?

The Global Standard for Volunteering for Development is a standard of practice that volunteer-involving organisations can choose to adopt in order to align themselves with a global standard of excellence. It has been agreed globally, by several hundred stakeholders from across the Volunteering for Development sector.

See the Global Standard for Volunteering for Development

See more about the body who developed the standard, The Forum

Is VAO still doing outreach?

Yes. We will support local outreach when it contributes to the National Eye Care Strategy for a country and is part of the health sector service delivery system.

This may mean that support to local outreach is limited and may not always involve professional volunteers from the UK and Europe.  It will depend entirely on local need.

To understand our position on outreach, we strongly recommend that you read:

VAO’s Position Statement on Professional Volunteering (Summary)

Will any volunteers be going overseas in 2020/21?

Yes. We had originally planned 26 volunteer placements in our programmes, however due to the coronavirus pandemic this has reduced to 8 which are currently fully funded by grants, for 2020/21. 

These numbers remain subject to change due to the impact of coronavirus.

There are still programmes under development that may yet start in 2020/21 (subject to funding) and these may have volunteer assignments within them too.

We had 38 volunteer placements on assignments in 2019/20.

Which countries are receiving optical volunteers in 2020/21 (so far)?

Sierra Leone - four volunteers

Ethiopia – two volunteers, subject to contract (STC)

Zambia - two volunteers (STC)

Zanzibar - 18 volunteers (STC, Employer Supported Volunteers, as part of a Corporate Social Responsibility Programme) - This has now been postponed indefinitely due to coronavirus.

Ghana – we are in talks with our partners to ascertain need

Subject to contact (STC) is where we have an agreement in place or in draft but is not yet signed off.

These numbers may still change as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

What is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and what is Employer Supported Volunteering (ESV)?

Within the context of volunteering with VAO, our CSR programmes are those developed in partnership with a company, with activities fully funded by that company.

As a charity, VAO is always looking for new streams of support, partnership and funding. One of the recommendations of our review was to explore more partnerships with companies who have, or wish to, set up a CSR scheme. Our partnership with Specsavers UK, who fund our entire programme in Zambia, is a good example of a CSR programme.

Some CSR programmes may include Employer Supported Volunteering. ESV brings together the employer (as part of a CSR programme), the volunteer (an employee or consultant of the employer); and the volunteer involving organisation (a charity or community group); to deliver a set of activities,  fully funded by the employer, that achieve agreed outcomes.

How can I volunteer on an overseas assignment?

To create a fair and open recruitment policy, and to match our volunteers’ skills with the appropriate roles, we will now advertise all our volunteer roles via our website and social media.

If you have completed the VAO Volunteer Development Programme (VDP) within the last 3 – 4 years or gone on an assignment within that same time scale, you will be eligible to apply for a volunteer placement when it is advertised, if you meet the full criteria.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes and Employer Supported Volunteering (ESV) schemes have their own eligibility criteria.

I have completed the Volunteer Development Programme but not yet been placed on an overseas assignment. When will I go?

VAO has always made clear that undertaking the Volunteer Development Programme (VDP) does not guarantee you a placement on an overseas assignment. This is because demand is created by our country partners and we only deliver assignments to match that demand.

See ‘How can I volunteer on an overseas assignment?’ above.

What other VAO volunteer roles are there?

People will be able to volunteer their skills, time and energy in lots of ways including fundraising, in-practice/store events, awareness raising and talks, campaigning and advocacy, offering technical support, creating training materials and more.

VAO will soon be trialling a new remote mentoring scheme that will need skilled volunteers too.

And we are exploring other ways volunteers can become involved, to ensure that the charity thrives and can continue to help the world to see. We will share more soon.

Remember that all volunteer roles will now be advertised on our website and social media.

How can I volunteer to be a Remote Mentor?

Remote Mentoring is a new scheme we intend to trial with a group of Optometry Technicians in Sierra Leone in 2020.

Once we are ready to go ahead with the trial, we will be advertising the scheme with instructions on how to apply as a volunteer mentor on our website and social media.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes and Employer Supported Volunteering (ESV) schemes have their own eligibility criteria.

When is the next Volunteer Development Programme (VDP) or Team Leader Training?

We do not have these training courses planned for 2020/21 as we are in the fortunate position to have a good pool of supportive volunteers eligible for overseas assignments at present. 

Any new VDPs and/or other training programmes will be advertised on our website and social media in advance.

Might more volunteer placements become available if VAO develops programmes in new countries?

Possibly. This would depend entirely on the country context and the evolution of its eye care services.

Has VAO changed its mission? If VAO is not sending as many volunteers overseas, what work is being done?

No, our vison and mission remain unchanged.

To deliver on our mission, VAO has adopted 5 programme strategies. These are tailored to each country’s context, depending on the evolution of their eye health system.

The 5 programme strategies are:

1.       The development of Human Resources for Eye Health (HREH)

2.       The development of infrastructure (including Vision Centres and local Outreach)

3.       The integration of eye health services into the existing health system (for example Primary Eye Care (PEC) into Primary Health Care (PHC) and the integration of School Based Eye Health (SBEH) into School Health and Nutrition (SHN))

4.       The engagement and mobilisation of communities (also through local outreach)

5.       The contribution to an enabling environment in terms of policy reform

Work to deliver these strategies is being undertaken every day, in each of our programme countries, by VAO’s local staff teams, working hard alongside local government staff (usually from the Ministries of Health and Education), other local partners, and health and education workers. This is how, every day in Africa, we strive towards our vision and deliver upon on our mission.

Volunteer assignments from the UK and Europe do contribute to this wider work, to enhance training and education, strengthen local capacity, and support local outreach, as and when required.

Because our programmes are tailored to each country context, volunteering opportunities in each country are always subject to change, dependent on specific needs.

VAO recognises that our pool of Professional Volunteers is a valuable asset and we will continue to utilise their skills in ways that: deliver the greatest impact; demonstrate value for money; and are environmentally responsible.

With this approach, volunteering will better support VAO’s vision and mission.

You can learn more about our commitment to volunteering within:

VAO’s Position Statement on Professional Volunteering (Summary)

What do you mean when you say ‘full costs must be included in grant/funding applications’ for volunteering?

As a result of our review, we worked out the true cost of volunteer assignments to the charity and realised that these costs had not always been fully covered.

The review working group recommended that the true costs for all volunteer assignments must be fully covered by programme grants/funding. This was approved by VAO’s Board.

A grant received by our charity for a programme is most usually 1-3 year funding agreement, offered by a funder, that restricts funding to a set of activities within a country, with agreed outcomes. In some programme grants, there can be an amount of funding for international volunteer roles, if we can demonstrate the need.

However, funders are often reluctant to fund short-term volunteer placements as these can be expensive, can have less impact than long-term placements, often have a high carbon footprint, and don’t always demonstrate sustainability.

Increasingly, as a charity applicant to funders, VAO must justify any international volunteer roles and is subject to scrutiny around its volunteering model.

Going forward, we will publish the details of all the main restricted grant funds we receive for our country programmes on our website, so everyone can clearly see what activities VAO is under agreement to deliver in the countries in which we work.

How can volunteers stay connected with VAO?

Volunteers will be in direct contact with our staff. Volunteers can stay up to date by following our social media, receiving our newsletters and visiting our website. All volunteers will be regularly updated on the work we are doing and the achievements in the countries we work in. We hope this will keep volunteers engaged, be an incentive to tell others about VAO’s work, and to get involved in other ways.

Why is Membership important?

It is very important to us that you are a Member of VAO.  It is a good way to be involved with the work of VAO and to stay up to date. Membership is a valuable way to ‘help the world to see’ via regular subscription fees which support our charitable activities in Africa.

I have patients, colleagues, friends, and family who want to know when my next overseas assignment is so they can donate money, what can I tell them?

Fundraising in the run up to any overseas assignment you have been on has always been to support VAO as a charity, so it can deliver on its vision and mission now and long into the future. This remains unchanged.

You can assure everyone that any donation they make to VAO will have the same impact, whether you personally are going on an assignment or not.

See Real Stories to learn about the changes bought about in people’s lives about as a result of donations.

I have been approached by an overseas organisation that has requested volunteer support from VAO, what should I do?

It is important that you refer requests such as these to VAO’s Professional Volunteer Coordinator (see contact details below) so we can keep track and plan the most appropriate response.

As a result of VAO’s own volunteering review, and in adherence to the Global Standard for Volunteering for Development, and in line with the aims of the WHO World Report on Vision, VAO will no longer support NPAs. 

In the context of VAO, an NPA was an assignment that supported an organisation working outside of a VAO country programme or strategy, often an ad hoc, one-off piece of work, with short term outcomes.

We have discontinued Non-Programme Assignments (NPA) and instead replaced them with Unfunded Programme Assignments (UPA).

We will consider supporting an UPA if it meets the criteria outlined in:

VAO’s Position Statement on Professional Volunteering (Summary)

We will publish more guidance around UPAs soon.

Professional Volunteering Coordinator – Judith Trigg: [email protected]

I still have questions, can I contact 

Of course. Please email [email protected] in the first instance.

Please remember volunteer roles will be now be openly advertised on our website and social media.