What Can Go Wrong When You Don’t Do Enough Research?

Today’s guest post comes from Jake Calhoun, who shares his story of social impact gone wrong.

When I was at Columbia Business School, I teamed up with a group of classmates to volunteer with a non-profit organization called ‘The Cambodia Project’ led by an alumnus of the college. He had a great pitch: build a school in southern Cambodia and fund it by selling a local cash crop, Kampot Pepper, to French, Belgian and American consumers. Not only would we help build schools, we would increase the incomes of local farmers. We loved the idea, and volunteered to update his business plan to enter it into the prestigious Global Social Venture Competition at UC Berkeley. The idea was appealing to others as well, and along with a select group of finalists, we were invited out to Berkeley to pitch the idea to funders. We were proud of ourselves that we’d made such a compelling business case, using all these beautiful pictures of wide eyed children that the founder had snapped on his last trip to Cambodia, and decided that we might as well take our volunteering further and go out and get involved in the projects.

“The red flags seem so obvious now after many years as an international development professional, but back then we just wanted to help.”

Pretty soon after arriving in Cambodia it became obvious that, though the idea had convinced us and many others to give our time and money, the idea had no traction at all and the founder had no idea what he was doing. The plan had been sold to us as something that was already in motion, when in reality, nothing at all had been done on the ground. We had a hard decision to make: were we going to walk away, as this was clearly a project going nowhere? Or were we going to try to make this project a reality on our own?

We were naïve, thinking it was just incompetence that had prevented the project from working. After a bit of research, we realized the problems ran deeper: we soon learned that the $60,000 USD the founder had raised was “no longer available”, and in fact there was probably other money raised through various web platforms and competitions that wasn’t accounted for anywhere. After a few more weeks of research, it came to light that he had spent all the money on frivolous personal items like business-class flights and fancy hotels. We quit that day and reported him to the New York City Charity Bureau, but it was too late, and the Bureau was too understaffed for a $60,000 fraud.

In retrospect, we were the worst kind of volunteers – not only did we assist in funding the project, but we were negligent in our research. The red flags seem so obvious now after many years as an international development professional, but back then we just wanted to help. My main takeaway was: do your research. When potential volunteers get in touch with me now, I remind them not to be lazy and just jump in because they have heard what they thought was a good idea or have seen a cute kid on a flier. Get validation: externally, from established organizations or development professionals working in that area; internally, from someone who has worked or volunteered in the organization in the past; and financially, by checking out their financial reports and governance documents. I wish I had given myself that advice before jumping in to support an organization that didn’t even really exist!

Written by Jake Calhoun, pictured here among some Kampot pepper plants. An extract from this story is published in the Learning Service book.

How to Get Into a Learning Mindset

One of the key ideas we talk about in the Learning Service book is about embracing a learning mindset. In fact, we believe that it is one of the most important factors in trying to ensure your work as a volunteer is effective. Having a learning mindset means becoming aware of and challenging assumptions and stereotypes, seeing every difficulty as a learning opportunity, and being open to new ideas and ways of doing things.

A common reaction from potential volunteers is that while they understand the importance of cultivating this mindset, they don’t understand exactly what it is or how to practice it. A learning mindset is less a task that can be achieved or mastered and is more a way of being that comes naturally over time – but at first it can be important to make a conscious effort to shift your attitudes. Here are some tips to help you get there.

Discover your own learning style

People learn in different ways. Maybe you learn best through research and reading, or maybe you need to hear something or discuss it in order for it to stick. Alternatively, maybe the only way you feel you truly learn something is by getting involved and actually doing it. Do you need structure and external motivation, or do you need to be in control of your own learning? In reality, people tend to learn in a mixture of ways, but often have a preferred style, so think about the learning experiences that you have had throughout your life and which ones have stuck with you and been most powerful, and seek out similar opportunities.

Remove mental barriers

There may be barriers in your subconscious preventing you from truly opening up to learning. Mental barriers are particularly difficult to spot so it is useful to be able to identify what they are in order to overcome or discard them. Past experiences or unhelpful labels may hinder you. Maybe you struggled at school and have since thought of yourself as not academically talented or not a good learner. Maybe you did well at school and therefore don’t want to try learning something very different and risk failure. Or perhaps you recall previously trying to learn a language, play an instrument or gain a skill and not being good at it, so you are reluctant to try again.

Remember that past experiences do not dictate the future. If you are feeling negatively towards something you feel like you should learn, or are just come up against massive mental blocks, identify what is causing resistance and try to move past these barriers. You are not dumb or tone-deaf or unathletic, and you can learn and make progress in things you find difficult. Reframe the way you think about learning – not as a mammoth task that looms ahead, or as a dreary chore, but as an opportunity to come alive, achieve your goals and engage with the world around you.

Question, question, question

We can never overstate how crucially important questions are in learning. Knowledge isn’t static, it can be continually changed and expanded by an ever-deepening series of questions. Answers are of course important, but never see an answer as an end point, or information as neutral or fixed. Cultivating a learning mindset means being comfortable with unanswered questions and thriving in the spirit of discovery.

Critical thinking and reflection

Thinking critically is to never accept information at face value, and to look from many vantage points and perspectives. Few things are black and white, most are complex and nuanced. We are drawn to information that seems to support our preconceived notions, which is a phenomenon psychologists called confirmation bias. It can therefore be important to involve others in your learning, especially those whom you know hold different beliefs to you, have different political opinions, or have vastly different life experiences. When you read an article or hear a news story, it can be useful to interrogate it. Is it true? How do I know? Whose voice is missing from the narrative? Why do I agree/disagree with the conclusions? Whom do I know that would think differently? Although this requires some effort, it can be extremely rewarding for ensuring that your ideas are well-informed.

See learning as broad

In the Learning Service book we talk about how having a learning mindset can help you in your overseas travel decisions. But it may help you to broaden your definition of “learning” to include all aspects of your daily life and relationships, as it is also through these that you can make your contribution to improving the world.

You may have heard of the theory of multiple intelligences, which rescues the concept of learning from being school-like book learning, and widens it to include such things as social intelligence and emotional intelligence. Deepening your self-awareness and practicing the attitudes you wish to cultivate also fall within our definition of a learning mindset, and while they can be important for an overseas travel experience, developing these qualities can also vastly enhance the rest of your life.

Before We Get Started – A Disclaimer

We are gearing up to relaunch our blog with insights and articles from the Learning Service authors, guest posts from inspirational friends and experts, and anyone who would like to share their reaction to the Learning Service book (so get in touch if that is you!)

In the meantime – an important disclaimer that dispels some of the myths about Learning Service:

Our goal is not to push you to volunteer abroad. On the contrary. We think there are many different ways that you can do good in the world, and we’d be delighted if our website and book help you further identify some of the ways that work for you. We don’t think volunteering abroad is always the right answer. When it comes to volunteering, there are probably many organizations just beyond your doorstep that could use your support, and, while abroad, we view the learning part of your journey as an essential step in a life-long commitment to responsible global citizenship. We aim to help you explore what options are right for you.

Our book is not meant to give you quick fix answers to where you should consider volunteering. Rather than endorsing or criticizing different providers, we give you tools to do your own due diligence and evaluation of international opportunities or organizations. Our mention of specific organizations in the book does not constitute an endorsement. Organizations change all the time, and some cease to exist while new organizations emerge.

We aim to give you tools for you to use to make more informed decisions about how you use your time, and help you reframe traditional ideas about how you can do good in the world. We hope they are of use!


New Tool Added to the Learning Service Library!

Over the years, we at Learning Service have been inundated with requests to help potential volunteers to find an ethical, effective volunteer placement, that fits their needs, skills and values. Our response has always been that there is no shortcut for doing your own research and for taking the time to thoroughly evaluate the options.

With the release of the Learning Service book, we finally have a resource that lays out our suggested process for finding a way to do good in the world, either through volunteering or by taking other action in their life. However we are still finding that some people want a little more detail on exactly HOW to evaluate volunteer opportunities. Therefore, we are introducing the Learning Service Research Assessment Tool! It is packed full of topics and questions that you may want to find out about a volunteer placement.

The tool is designed to be used alongside Chapter 9 of the Learning Service book. As we advise in there, please don’t just email this whole list of questions to a volunteer provider! Many of the answers can be found in other ways – on their website or social media pages, on review sites, in the news, on volunteer blogs, or by contacting previous volunteers.

To find the tool, log in to the Library and click the farthest right image (first page pictured here). We hope it is useful to you! Please write to us with your experiences, feedback or suggestions.

New Website, New Book, and Coming Soon…New Blog

We hope you love the new look Learning Service site! To accompany it, and to celebrate the launch of the Learning Service book, we will be starting a new blog with all our thoughts and advice on volunteer travel. So check back here shortly!