Volunteering abroad is often portrayed as something anyone with a big heart and bit of time on their hands can get involved in. However volunteering effectively – that is, having the intended impact on a cause and avoiding any negative impacts – is tricky. In fact, no matter how many useful skills you bring to the table, at Learning Service we believe that effectiveness requires openness, humility, and a huge amount of learning.
Here we offer some tips for volunteers to try to ensure they are being effective in their work.
1. Does the work that is needed
Keep in mind that the things you might want to do may not align with what the local organization is asking you to provide. For example, if you want to support a program that provides agriculture trainings in rural communities, you may prefer to go out to deliver the training, rather than be stuck in an office. But having you deliver that training, as opposed to a local trained member of staff, may require extra staff support, translation or experience outside of your skill set, and your “volunteering” may quickly become more of a burden than a help.
Even if you are highly skilled in an area, it should be up to a host organization how your skills are put to best use. For example, if you are an engineer volunteering in a renewable energy organization, the first thing you might want to do is see if you can improve the solar technology that is being used. Having the skills to do that, however, does not mean that is how your local colleagues hope to have you contribute. In fact, it is likely that local engineers understand the resources, constraints and cultural considerations better than you do. Perhaps instead they need your understanding of the technology along with your English language skills to write grant reports or funding proposals, or perhaps they are hoping you will build capacity in the staff team to troubleshoot problems with the technology themselves. Maybe they have seen volunteers in the past who have jumped in too quickly to make “improvements” that didn’t work in the cultural context, so they are asking you to take a backseat role to start with. Be patient and make sure you are supporting the overall organization’s needs, not just your own desire to feel useful in the areas that seem most interesting.
2. Considers the power dynamics they are a part of
Be aware that the carefully-balanced power dynamics of an organization or community may be affected by the presence of an outsider. We have experienced projects where there is resentment among community members that the selected homestay families or program beneficiaries are all friends or relatives of the volunteer program manager. If you can’t speak the local language well this can be difficult to discern. Doing your best to make yourself aware of the community and organization’s power structures and systems allows you to make informed choices about what you support.
In other cases, volunteers may unintentionally tip the power balance away from local authorities and towards themselves. If you feel you are being asked to make decisions beyond your remit, question this and ask for support from a permanent member of staff who can continue being in charge after you leave. Very often foreigners are given respect and authority simply because of their nationality or skin color. Sometimes this is a hangover from colonialism, and other times this is due to the power dynamics that come with dependency on foreign donations. But, as Suzanne Nickel, a Mennonite Central Committee volunteer in Egypt reflected, “With this power comes the responsibility to use it properly.” You may not want the power, but it’s up to you to make some conscious decisions not to abuse it and to be responsible for what you want to do with it.
3. Accepts the responsibilities that come with being a “role model”
You didn’t necessarily ask for it, but as an outsider coming into a community, you are acting as a representative of a lot of people. If you are British, you might be the only Brit your host community members have ever met, and your views might now represent the whole of the UK, or even the whole of Europe, to the people you meet. Representing the wider world can be a burden, and of course you can do your best to challenge these assumptions. But deeply-ingrained ways of looking at the world are difficult to change, so it is wise to consider that your actions no longer reflect just on you, but on the organization you are working with, the volunteer placement program you are a part of, and members of your culture/religion/sex/race/etc.
We spoke with an English teacher who said the school they were working with would no longer take teachers from Kansas, as they had had such a bad experience with someone from Kansas before. One bad apple has spoiled the town’s impression of a whole US state! Another organization was specifically seeking out people from Finland, as they had enjoyed their experience with Finns so much in the past. Rather than thinking of it as a burden, think of it as motivation to be the best version of yourself, so make sure you represent yourself and your roots well.
4. Defines “success” as part of wider plan
One of the most common mistakes we have experienced in volunteers is mis-defining “success” as “taking over full ownership of a concrete project and seeing it through to the end”. This is why so many volunteer projects involve activities like building a school or digging a well. Though taking complete ownership of a project can feel satisfying, if that project is not well integrated into a much larger system, that started before you got there and will continue long after you leave, then your efforts may have been “successful” for no-one but yourself.
Before jumping in to take action, it is important to reflect on what “success” might look like both for your specific project and for your personal goals. It might mean minimizing impact on power dynamics through your presence in a local a team. It might mean doing the basic logistics and maintenance tasks around the office that free up the organizational leadership to focus on the core of their work. It might mean learning enough about an issue or an organization to feel comfortable in their work so that you can confidently advocate for them and support them more significantly in the future.
Rather than measuring success based on personal accomplishments, view yourself as part of a larger ecosystem, within the organization in which you are working and also within wider systems of change. The most effective volunteers recognize that their work is part of a long chain of decisions, actions, and impacts, and they are not quick to take personal credit for successes that relied on a system much larger than themselves. If success stops being about ticking boxes of what one person can achieve and more about groups working alongside each other to achieve common goals, more collective goals will be reached.
5. Is committed to growth
If you are committed to being as effective as you can be in your placement, make sure you give yourself regular opportunities to reflect on and evaluate your actions. We often leave the giving and receiving of feedback until the end of an experience, when it is too late to make adjustments or put any learning into practice. Actively seek feedback from friends, colleagues or other volunteers about how you can improve, and remain open to changing your approach. In cultures that have a less direct communication style, feedback might come to you via a colleague rather than directly from your boss, or be expressed through body language or a polite silence. Observe this and ask local friends for help to interpret the meaning.
Remember these cultural considerations when you want to give feedback too. Your helpful suggestions may just be interpreted as over-harsh criticisms by colleagues, so take cues from local people about how to ensure your feedback will be well received.
Overall, if you do your best to engage in volunteering with humility, mindfulness and self-awareness, you are well on the way to being effective. And if you would like more tips on exactly what that looks like, check out our book Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad.