Bridging Professional Growth and Service at UN Volunteers

UNDP People for 2030
7 min readMay 29, 2024


Meet Daniel Gonzalez-Carmena, Learning Analyst at UN Volunteers and get some insights about his career designing and delivering meaningful learning experiences for UN Volunteers.

I would not be at the UN today if it would not be for a random encounter with a woman at the luggage section at the Copenhagen airport. She had overheard my conversation on the plane, as I was sharing with a friend my struggles to find work that aligned with my interests, values, and educational background. The woman was working at UN City in Copenhagen, and suggested that with my story and my beliefs, I would be a good fit for the UN. Inspired by her words, I started to familiarize myself with the UN system and applied for different internships, which eventually landed me at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which was my first step into the UN system.

Now, I work as a Learning Analyst for UN Volunteers (UNV) on a remote contract for the UNV Headquarters in Bonn, but based at the UN City Copenhagen. UNV is the UN organization that supports sustainable human development globally through the promotion of volunteerism, including the mobilization of volunteers. It serves the causes of peace and development by enhancing opportunities for participation by all peoples (young, experienced and experts). What makes UN Volunteers a unique entity, is its own intrinsic dynamism. At UNV we have a diverse pool of volunteers from all ages, levels of experience, and walks of life. We even have Volunteers who have already had very successful careers in the UN system and beyond, and decide to dedicate themselves in the first line of action, in the field, back as a UN Volunteer. This spirit of volunteerism is very much captured by one of our taglines at UNV ‘Once a volunteer, always a volunteer’. Operating at the frontlines of UN missions and country offices, UN Volunteers are an incredibly dedicated, indispensable force within the UN, and I am inspired by their engagement, motivation, and passion. For that reason, I have come to really appreciate UNV as a place, enjoy the work I do and grow professionally.

Daniel with UN Volunteers at a workshop in Somone for 26 international & national francophone UN Volunteers, Somone (Senegal), May 2024.

As a Learning Analyst, I coordinate and support the design, facilitation, reporting and evaluation of different learning programmes and projects that we deliver to all serving UN Volunteers. These programs are focused on cross-cutting and soft skills, which involve training on topics such as onboarding, leadership, productivity, prevention of sexual misconduct, conflict resolution, diversity equity and inclusion, and antiracism, among others. We accompany the volunteers throughout the three phases of their service. The first phase encompasses everything connected to onboarding. So a newcomer as a UN Volunteer feels welcomed in the ’UNV family’, understands his/her roles and duties, identifies the personal learning targets to grow, and is aligned with the purpose of the organization he/she works in.

The second phase relates to skills development, which is delivered in two formats: (1) At your own pace through our available learning platforms, where volunteers can access differential learning solutions free of charge and on demand. For example, if they want to improve a language — they will use Rosetta Stone; undertake a course from a university — they will use Coursera; sign up for a coaching session — they will book a session with a specialized coach; or leverage a certain skill — they will use LinkedIn Learning. (2) Then, through our live virtual events, where UN Volunteers can sign up for virtual sessions taking place periodically and offered in English, French and Spanish, they can become active agents of change. For example: attending virtual workshops on the prevention of sexual misconduct, diversity, equity and inclusion, or anti-racism; or also attending webinars where subject matter experts share inspiring stories and tips; or even webinar formats where Volunteers take the lead and present to other fellows, to enhance the peer-to-peer experience.

Participating at the UNSSC’s Learning Managers Forum in Torino (Italy) 2022.

The third phase then focuses on their career. As a lot of volunteers want to continue working in the development and humanitarian sectors, we offer different learning solutions on career management, guiding them through how they can progress after their volunteer assignment, and how they can take ownership of the professional path that is ahead.

These learning opportunities are an added value to the overall volunteer experience. This resonates with me as someone who has vastly used learning to complement and orient my own career journey. Though my background is in engineering on land surveying (technical) as well as sustainable land management and climate change (academic), at UNCCD I was never involved with the scientific dimension of the convention. Instead, I worked in capacity building and learning, paving the path to where I am now. All the expertise I use daily at work, I have acquired through learning on the job. As long as one is familiar with the methodologies, tools, and platforms, and understand one’s audience, one can thrive and deliver, providing a deep level of professional flexibility that it took me time to be aware of.

In contrast to the slow and lengthy project implementation that sometimes can be characteristic of the UN — as any large and bureaucratic organization — the route from planning until delivery is much shorter within my area of work. Say for example, that a UN peacekeeping mission requires the design and delivery of a conduct-related learning programme, it typically takes us up to two to three months until we are delivering virtual sessions tailored for the volunteers’ learning needs, and this will have a direct impact. While in the development sector, impact is often difficult to measure in the short run, the gratifying part of my job is that whenever I finish a workshop for example on the prevention of sexual misconduct, whether online or on site, I can instantly tell from people’s reaction that they understand better, and that they are empowered to understand the problematic of the subject, self-reflect, react appropriately, become allies in the process and set boundaries in certain aspects, having the potential to amplify the key messages and influence others too. However, as opposed to technical skills learning, some of the learning that we work necessitates a lot of behavioral change, (taking the example of anti-racism, diversity, or prevention of sexual misconduct), and this is something difficult to measure. This is amplified by the fact that UN Volunteer assignments usually have a shorter life span compared to other UN contract modalities.

Co-facilitating with the UNV Jordan Country Coordinator an onsite onboarding workshop for new UN Volunteers in Amman, Jordan (2023)

As I am very grateful for all the advice I have received from more experienced people, the woman at the airport being one of many examples, I try to do the same for younger people. So, if I could offer some guidance, I would first of all urge you to reflect on the question: What are the actions that you can take to make a small difference? Reflect on what are the small battles that you choose. Do not get too overwhelmed with issues that are out of your reach, but commit to those challenges you can tackle, even if you cannot always directly see the impact of your work. Working in the UN can be frustrating and challenging at times, as projects progress slowly, don’t always work out or remain on hold for a while. Yet, it is important to keep in mind the bigger picture that somehow you are contributing to create a better world.

Secondly, it is very common among people working in this sector of sustainable development and humanitarian support that you tend to forget to take care of your own mental health. I truly believe in the importance of giving time to yourself, listen to your mind and body, setting boundaries if necessary and, most importantly, dedicate your free time to things that are meaningful for you.

My third piece of advice is to leave your comfort zone and get some experience in the field in a country office. This way, you will get to see a reality that you would never get to see from the comfort of HQ. Unfortunately, not everyone has this chance or privilege but already a short job rotation of a few months can be an unforgettable experience and can really open your eyes. In terms of what being a volunteer means for later developing a career in the UN, I like to think that many people who have pursued their career in the UN or at any international organizations have started as UN Volunteers, so there is an obvious influence of the UN Volunteer experience as a catalyzer on what comes after. The position as an implementer allows you to be in the field where action happens, see the challenges, see the struggle, see the results of all your effort, exchange and collaborate with such diverse groups of individuals and make you realize, that maybe this is the sector where you want to dedicate most of your professional time. For that reason, to be a UN Volunteers is a very important and meaningful starting point which definitely will play a key role for what comes after.