Health workers who volunteer their skills overseas need not lose out on building their pensions, due to a new government support fund. Patricia Sloan explains

In March, the government announced it would support public sector workers who volunteer their skills overseas with a fund to pay for pension contributions. International development charity VSO hailed the fund of£13m as a strong endorsement of international volunteering.

Health service workers who chose to share their skills and give their time to help some of the poorest and most disadvantaged people in developing countries previously missed out on their pension contributions when they volunteered.

The new fund, unveiled during VSO's 50th anniversary year, will ensure health workers' pension contributions are maintained while they are volunteering overseas.

International development secretary Douglas Alexander says: "Volunteering brings vital skills and energy to our efforts to tackle poverty in the developing world. And now the government is providing more support and encouragement for those who have skills to share.

"Volunteering plays a valuable role in our society, not just in helping to reduce global poverty, but in the wealth of experience volunteers will bring back to the UK and into public service. That VSO is celebrating its 50th anniversary is a testament to the strength and importance of volunteering in our society."

Case study

Until October 2007, Geoff Rollason was managing 300 staff and budgets of more than£65m in his role as primary care associate at North Warwickshire primary care trust. After taking early retirement, Geoff is now undertaking a whole new challenge: volunteering with VSO in Indonesia, where he is working as a management consultant at the regional public hospital in Sikka district on the island of Flores.

Geoff says: "I've been aware of VSO for many years. Several years ago, I began exploring whether or not VSO was an option for me at that time, but I determined that it wasn't.

"Earlier this year, I was driving to Wales, having been shortlisted for a chief executive post with a Welsh local health board. Turning on my car radio, I heard a woman talking about Eritrea. It turned out that she had volunteered there with VSO, and this reminded me of my earlier interest. Back in my office the following day, I spent some time looking at the VSO website. Over the next few days, I made the decision to end my NHS career, take early retirement and step out in a new direction."

Geoff is four months into his placement. He says: "The masterplan is to develop a series of work streams within the hospital in critical areas and set up a steering group and then morph the steering group into a kind of hospital board," he says.

"The thinking behind the board structure is that previous efforts at change here have foundered partly because of senior staff moving on. The board structure will provide some stability and continuity regardless of changes and should go some way to ensuring the overall programme is delivered.

"We are moving on with the strategic planning process, getting stakeholder involvement in the work, the staff are beginning to understand what it is all about and we have secured some funding from AusAid to help the process along. We have had a number of internal workshops and meetings and in early May, to coincide with the hospital's 10th birthday, we are kicking off the stakeholder workshops with a couple of big event days when we will be doing a lot of work in developing the vision, mission, goals and objectives and really getting things set up for the main body of the work - making the changes happen.

"This whole process, which is aimed at turning this hospital into the main referral hospital for Flores, will probably take far longer than my stay here as the job is a large and complex one. But it is a fantastic challenge and I am really enjoying being here and being part of it."

VSO

VSO is the world's leading international development organisation that works through skilled volunteers. Health volunteers are a crucial part of VSO's work overseas. The charity aims to support disadvantaged people in fulfilling their rights to physical, mental and social well-being and to accessing good-quality essential services. Seven of VSO's country programmes have a specific health goal, and 20 programmes work on HIV and AIDS in Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

VSO is currently recruiting professionals with experience in health management. Volunteers receive a local living allowance, accommodation, flights, insurance, pension and national insurance contributions and training.

To find out more about volunteering with VSO and the pension scheme, visit www.vso.org.uk/publicpensions

To read Patricia Sloan's regular column from Cambodia, where she is volunteering with VSO, visit the Working Lives section