Volunteering internationally is a priceless experience



By Brad Timms, Director of Fundraising, Marketing and Communications at Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney


In 2015–16, I volunteered as a Fundraising, Communications and Marketing Coordinator at Eco Children in South Africa’s north-eastern town of Hoedspruit, with the support of Australia’s aid program.

Eco Children run multiple programs, workshops and publications focusing on environmental education and whole school development. They aim to stimulate the public’s interest in nature, creating projects that result in better conservation and economic outcomes for South Africa. I was responsible for working with the CEO to implement fundraising and marketing strategies, increase the number of organisational support groups and expand existing projects.

Brad Timms returned to Eco Children in South Africa to reconnect with staff and students. Through the RAVN Host Organisation Revisited Prize and his personal fundraising efforts, Brad was able to provide essential learning resources for a local school library.
Image credit: Carlene Frank

When my assignment concluded in July 2016, I left with mixed feelings. There was happiness that my placement had worked out so well, excitement about what was ahead, and sentimentality about leaving a place that had given me some unforgettable life experiences.

I committed to staying in touch with friends and colleagues in South Africa, and was determined to return as soon as possible. It proved harder than I first thought, but when the Host Organisation Revisited Prize was announced as part of the inaugural Returned Australian Volunteer Network (RAVN) conference in December 2016, it seemed the stars had aligned. To win the prize, volunteers had to make a three-minute pitch to fellow conference attendees explaining why they wanted to return to their host organisation and how their organisation would use the $5,000 grant.

In the three-minute pitch I tried to convey the impact the grant could have and explained that Eco Children would use the $5,000 to purchase educational materials for a school library. They operate in an area where less than five per cent of schools have this essential learning resource. Poor literacy is a huge issue in South Africa and there is a strong link between literacy, employment and well-being in later life. In addition to increasing reading literacy, a library has the power to inspire a lifelong love of learning.

In my pitch, I also committed to raising funds to match the Host Organisation Revisited grant. The extra funding would provide learning resources for another school library and double the impact of the grant. Supported by friends, family and colleagues, I was able to raise another $5,000 in just a few weeks.

Image credit: Carlene Frank

Returning to Hoedspruit was a strange experience, with my senses attuned to the vast contrast to Sydney, but at the same time finding it so familiar. My former boss, Corné Havenga, welcomed me ‘home’ and treated me as a family member, and many of the bursary students that Eco Children supported greeted me with beaming smiles and warm hugs.

It was incredibly gratifying to see how the funding I helped Eco Children secure during my volunteer assignment had been used. A new kitchen and environmental toilets had been completed at Mahlathi Primary, and a refurbished kitchen and environmental toilets installed at Hloaia Primary School. A new school, Mphaku, had just been adopted by Eco Children and a new Eco Village developed with the help of the Classic Wallabies Indigenous Exchange volunteers.

Image credit: Carlene Frank

One of the highlights of the brief trip was going to Hloaia Primary School and meeting the principal, Shemmy Mashego, to officially hand over the books that were purchased with the grant money. The impact on the school will be significant and the wider community will also benefit from the books that they will have access to.

Being able to return to South Africa was an opportunity to see the progress that had been made, but also to demonstrate to my colleagues and the organisation’s beneficiaries that my commitment went beyond my volunteer assignment.

It was great for all the principals and everyone connected to Eco Children to know that working with Australian volunteers is an ongoing relationship, rather than just coming for a year and disappearing. It’s nice for the kids as well, as they’re exposed to many volunteers from different organisations.

Beyond being able to go back to South Africa, volunteering has helped me stand out from other candidates while looking for a job. It’s always a point of interest in interviews.

Image credit: Carlene Frank

As a result of the RAVN conference I’ve been more engaged than ever with other returned volunteers, and the it certainly reinforced the importance of staying in touch with Eco Children. As such, I have regular – at least fortnightly – contact with staff and keep up to date with their program development and achievements via social media.

I think being a volunteer is a priceless experience and I’m already starting to dream of my next assignment. The value to Australia and host countries can’t be fully captured given the innumerable relationships that are formed, and the barriers that are broken down by the cultural and skill exchanges that occur.

You can watch Brad talk about his experience here


About the author
Brad Timms is Director of Fundraising, Marketing and Communications at Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney. He volunteered in South Africa at Eco Children and returned as winner of the Returned Australian Volunteers Network (RAVN) Host Organisation Revisited prize, both part of the Australian Volunteers program, an Australian Government initiative.

2 thoughts on “Volunteering internationally is a priceless experience

  1. Ian Hislop

    Dear Brad

    Can we please talk by phone? I am about to volunteer at Eco Schools next Feb and have not as yet connected with a previous volunteer.
    My wife Rosalind is also joining me.

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