Guideline #1 for Volunteering Overseas

Guideline # 1 – Good volunteer projects require a significant commitment of time

While most development workers can tell stories of volunteers or volunteer projects that did more harm than good, most of us also got our start through volunteering or an internship. I personally was a Peace Corps Volunteer. With the debate raging over poverty tourism, disaster tourism and voluntourism (see links at end of post), I thought it might be a good time to develop guidelines for useful and appropriate overseas volunteer work.

Because there are many factors to consider in evaluating a volunteer project, this will be a series of posts. I welcome feedback that will help clarify, tweak, or improve the guidelines so that potential volunteers can use these to make informed decisions.

It takes time to understand the local needs and to develop a successful project

This may either be your time or the time of the organization with which you are volunteering. Significant time is needed to truly understand the local needs, their abilities, and how you can best contribute. This requires that either you or the organization understands the local language, culture, and politics. In addition, the people you are helping need to play a key role in determining the type of aid that will be provided and how it will be provided. This cannot be accomplished over a one or two week visit. In fact, Peace Corps used to counsel overanxious volunteers to not even try to accomplish anything their first year, but to spend that time learning the local context and developing relationships that will be key to a successful project.

This makes a lot of sense when you think about it from the perspective of your own neighborhood. Before volunteer work days in your local community, someone has spent months planning the event, working with the appropriate government offices, and laying the groundwork. Imagine if a group of foreign volunteers showed up in a poor section of your town and tried to jump in and lead a project. What are the chances that it will be successful? I talk about this in-depth on my posting The allure of the quick fix.

Organizations can be hurt if they invest more in a short-term volunteer then they receive back

Orienting, training, and supervising a volunteer takes up precious staff time. If the volunteer only stays for a short period of time they can actually use more resources then they contribute, thereby hurting rather than helping the organization. When I worked for the Red Cross we had a foreign exchange summer program try to arrange an internship with us for one of their participants. The person wanted to learn about international aid, and would be volunteering full-time for just three weeks. I put a good deal of thought into what this person could do and asked a few of my staff members. Without an understanding of our projects, without previous development experience, without the ability to read or speak Thai, there was nothing we could give them to do that wouldn’t end up taking more of our time to orient and train them then we would get from them. There was no benefit to us to have this volunteer for such a short period of time, so we turned it down.

The exception to this point would be if you had a critical skill that the agency needed and that you could use almost immediately. When I was director of D-TRAC we had a retired accountant that volunteered twice to help us streamline our accounting procedures and ensure everything was correctly documented.He gave us far more in what he accomplished then what we invested in him.

If you pay a voluntourism company, make sure they have invested significant time on the ground

People that don’t have a lot of time to commit to volunteering overseas often pay to go with a company that arranges everything for them. If you decide to this this, it is critical that you ensure the company you use has invested a substantial amount of time in the local area, building relationships, understanding the local situation, and working with the local people to develop the program. Not allvoluntourism companies do this. After the tsunami we had a company that had already sold the trip to participants without actually having any staff on the ground. A month or two before the project was to begin they sent a team member to try to find a project that met their specifications. They were unsuccessful and eventually had to go elsewhere. Even if they had found a willing community, the chances of it being a quality aid program are questionable, as it would have been designed to meet the needs of the donor and not the aid recipient.

Volunteering requires a significant time commitment

Before you commit to a volunteer project, ensure that either you are able to give the time needed to so that what you contribute is greater than what you take, or that the organization you are working through has invested that time for you.