Program News

Laura McKenna in Mongolia
Laura McKenna, Australian volunteer participating in 'Open Volunteering' prototype, with colleagues at Transparency International in Mongolia
Laura McKenna at Innovation Workshop in Mongolia
Laura McKenna, Australian volunteer participating in 'Open Volunteering' prototype, at an innovation workshop in Mongolia

Open volunteering: a model for short-term international volunteering

In the following Q&A, the Australian Volunteers Program’s Innovation Coordinator, Ellie Munari, discusses a recent innovation project into the possibilities of short-term volunteering.

The Australian Volunteers Program is constantly exploring new and better ways to support volunteers, and our partner organisations overseas. The current chapter of the program has an Innovation Fund, which is dedicated to finding new ways of working.

One of the first projects on the list for the Innovation Fund is to road-test options for short-term volunteering that could open the door for the volunteers unable to commit to long periods overseas without sacrificing the impact on our partner organisations.

What is Open Volunteering?

Open Volunteering is the name we’ve given to our current short-term volunteering prototype. It’s a two-phased, mixed-mode approach. In the first phase, volunteers spend time in-country working face-to-face with one of our partner organisations, and in the second phase they then volunteer remotely with that same organisation from back home in Australia.

We are currently testing a prototype using recently returned volunteers. The volunteers go back to their partner organisation for two to four weeks to work on a specific project, and then return to Australia and continue to support the project via emails, Skype, and online project management tools for up to three months.

We chose 28 recently returned volunteers to support their former partner organisations in 12 countries across the Asia-Pacific region. All of these have now returned to Australia, and are currently in the second phase of their assignment - providing remote volunteer support from Australia.

What do you mean by ‘prototype’?

A prototype is a specific type of learning tool that helps test aspects of a design and engage stakeholders in the design process. Prototypes can be structured in many different ways, for example a mock-up or a basic working model. By choosing a live prototype model, we have been able to learn as we go, and to test systems and structures on the fly.

This Open Volunteering prototype has been designed with certain characteristics that allow us to test the most critical questions we had about how this sort of model could work in the future. It differs from a pilot because we once we’ve answered those questions, we may design a new version to run quite differently. For a pilot, you are running it in the way you think it will run in the future.

Why did you choose returned volunteers when testing Open Volunteering?

Choosing returned volunteers was important when designing the prototype, as it allowed us to narrow in on specific questions we had about Open Volunteering and removed some of the variables.

Returned volunteers know two things really well: the Australian Volunteers Program, and their partner organisations. As such they’ve been able to hit the ground running and allow us to focus on whether our current systems and processes are able to support volunteers on very short assignments, and if this structure works effectively for both partner organisations and volunteers.

What have you learned from the Open Volunteering prototype?

Lots! We’ve developed shorter, more streamlined processes for getting volunteers into country and orientating them once they’re there. In part this was achieved by moving many of the processes online, a learning which we’ve already been able to feed back into the standard program assignments.

We’ve also learnt that it’s really helpful for volunteers on shorter assignments to get some runs on the board before arriving in-country. Around one-in-three of our volunteers made contact with their partner organisations and did some work before they arrived, which made it easier for both them and their partner organisations to get started on their project once they arrived in-country.

Why are you trying to develop Open Volunteering?

We think a model of short-term volunteering can offer great value for both partner organisations and volunteers.

For volunteers, a longer-term assignment doesn’t always work for everyone’s life, career, family. Open Volunteering could be a way for people who would love to volunteer overseas, but face barriers, to become involved.

And that’s beneficial for partner organisations too, allowing them to access a broad range of volunteers who might not have previously been able to take part, and who potentially could offer higher-level technical or specialist experience.

What happens next?

In the near future we’ll be using what we’ve learned to build and test a new prototype for Open Volunteering. This will test another set of questions we have about how we can support volunteers and partners to create useful working relationships in a shorter period of time. At the moment we need to keep gathering feedback from the current prototype, to determine what changes we need to make, before starting our second prototype.

Partnerships for Impact

Fostering strong and productive partnerships is a key focus for the Australian Volunteers Program.

With this principle firmly front of mind, program staff and Australian partners came together in Melbourne in May to forge new friendships and identify ways of working. Around 30 organisations from the private sector, not-for-profits and INGOs, joined with program staff from each of our 23 country offices for a presentation and short Q&A panel discussion at two separate events.

Hosted at Charcoal Lane, a social enterprise that provides guidance to young Aboriginal people, the events provided a unique chance for Australian organisations to meet and collaborate directly with in-country program staff. The events were a huge success with the restaurant buzzing with vibrant discussion and learning. 

The events were part of week-long 'Partnerships for Impact' workshops held at the Melbourne office, which brought staff from right across all of our offices together to develop and review the program's partnership planning process.

Both the workshops and the networking events will strengthen the program's approach to partnerships for years to come. For more information, contact

Partner workshops 1
Panel discussion at 'Partnerships for Impact' event
Partner workshops 2
Australian partner organisations and program staff networking at 'Partnerships for Impact' event