Volunteering abroad: ‘Development work is most motivational thing I’ve done’

Volunteering abroad: ‘Development work is most motivational thing I’ve done’

Retirees who still have a lot to give make ideal candidates for aid work overseas

Cameroon is extremely poor. Most people live on less than €1 per day and mortality rates are very high

Cameroon is extremely poor. Most people live on less than €1 per day and mortality rates are very high


Fred Crowe joined accountancy firm Stokes Kennedy Crowley (now KPMG) as financial controller in the late 1970s. An early IT adopter, Crowe established his own computer business in 1985 and was part of the first wave of website building gurus.

When the space became overcrowded, Crowe turned his attention to another emerging trend – online business. Together with his writer wife, Niamh, they set up ispeeches.com (an instant provider of the mot juste for every occasion) and the business quickly went global.

 Crowe is now at an age when many people would be happily settling into retirement, but he is working harder than ever since becoming chief executive of children’s’ orphanage Nandri.org in India in 2011.

Crowe first visited India a decade ago and was profoundly moved by the poverty there. When the orphanage’s founder became ill, Crowe stepped up to the plate.  

“Bringing a business approach to bear can revolutionise a charity,” he says. “We employ a corporate level CRM [customer relationship management] system adapted to meet our needs and use Indian and Irish chartered accountants to produce monthly accounts.

“A key part of our work is microfinancing, whereby women are given a loan to buy an income-generating asset such as a cow or sewing machine. As funds are repaid, they are automatically lent to others. The charity covers around 70 per cent of its costs in this way with the balance coming from Ireland.

“We are making around 40 new loans a month. By the end of next year, 5,000 people’s lives will have been changed because I got involved. It has been a great opportunity – like setting up a business but life-changing.”

Crowe has achieved this success during a particularly difficult period in his own life. He has been battling cancer for the past five years, but says that bringing the skills and experience of business to the Indian project has been a powerful motivator.

Jim Waters

Jim Waters had a long career as HR director of multinational Donnelly Mirrors before setting up executive outplacement business, Transition Ireland, in 2000. In 2014 Waters, now a non-executive director of the company, went to Turkana in northern Kenya with the Voluntary Missionary Movement to become head of finance for the diocese of Lodwar.

“I hit the ground running as I had to manage a team of nine accountants and set up systems to deal with the aid money coming in,” he says. “When I arrived, the office was handling a lot of cash and writing up to 10,000 cheques a year. When I left a year later, we had moved to electronic banking, had greatly reduced the paper flow and had a clear tracking system that mitigated the possibility of any misappropriation of funds.

“It was a difficult assignment as the climate was a challenge and the area was very isolated,” Waters adds. “I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, but I would certainly do it again. People with senior management experience at corporate level are very badly needed in developing countries.”

Tom Collins

As retirement approached for Tom Collins, former operations director at Bank of Ireland Life, he realised he didn’t want to “spend the rest of my life playing golf. I did a master’s in international relations as preparation and then signed up with VSO”, he says. Since then he has worked in Cameroon as an institutional development adviser and recently completed six months in Zambia as financial management adviser to five local councils.

“Cameroon is extremely poor. Most people live on less than €1 per day and mortality rates are very high. Temperatures range between 40 and 50 degrees and we were without electricity for weeks at a stretch,” Collins says. “My job was to develop the capacities of the local council and I also worked with the chiefs of around 50 local villages.Roughly two-thirds of people were illiterate, so I had to write plays and get local people to act them out to convey my messages.

“Apart from my official work, I found lots of other opportunities to add value. I launched projects to repair pumps in deep wells, build roads, electrify villages and get help for people with disabilities. My friends in Ireland were extremely generous in donating to these activities. 

“Life was much more comfortable in Zambia and the people well-educated,” Collins continues.“Our focus has been on developing council employees through training in management, planning, finance, risk management and auditing.

“The main attraction of volunteering is feeling useful. I spent my working life gaining skills and experience and rather than let them be wasted in retirement I want to use them to benefit others. I find development work more motivational than anything else that I have done.” 

Eilis McDonald

Eilis McDonald is the former principal of Stratford-on-Slaney national school, Baltinglass, Co Wicklow. She retired in 2009 and has spent most of her time since in Africa. “My husband and I always wanted to volunteer but sadly he died soon after retirement and I decided to go on my own,” McDonald says. “I mean what would I be doing at home? Sweeping leaves?”

Asked if being financially independent is essential for volunteers, McDonald says “it certainly helps. In my case I wanted the independence of my own car. It’s also important to take care of your health and to set up cover in case you need it. There’s also the cost of maintaining your home in Ireland and other living expenses. Having a pension that covers all of this provides peace of mind”.


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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