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 doing harm – 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 you can be effective.
1) Do 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 the chance to deliver the training over being stuck in an office. But you delivering that training instead of 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. 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) Consider power dynamics
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 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.
3) Be a good role model
As an outsider coming into a community, you are acting as a representative of a lot of people. We spoke with a school which would no longer host teachers from Kansas, as they had had such a bad experience with someone from Kansas before, and an organization specifically seeking people from Finland, as they had great Finnish volunteers in the past. Representing the wider world can be a burden, and of course you can do your best to challenge these assumptions. But deeply-engrained 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 a wider group of people. 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) Define “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. Rather than measuring success based on personal accomplishments, view yourself as part of a larger ecosystem of change.
5) Commit to growth
If you are committed to being effective in your placement, make sure to 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 may 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.
6) Be culturally respectful
Different cultures define what behaviour is appropriate differently. If you are being welcomed as a guest into a community you may need to uphold a different moral code. This is not to impose external judgement on activities you enjoy and that may be perfectly acceptable in some contexts at home, nor does it mean you need to change your own internally-held values, but it does mean that you need to respect the values of the people whose homes and communities you are in.
For example, in some areas, drinking is associated with domestic violence, wastefulness or abuse. Drugs may be readily available, or sexual promiscuity may be accepted or actively encouraged in some circles, but think very carefully about what message your behaviour will give to your local friends and colleagues. Being conscious of the local stereotypes will help you avoid embarrassing yourself or bringing shame on those associated with you.
7) Don’t waste resources
Remember that volunteers often can be more of a burden than a help – needing training, translation and management. Although your stint volunteering might be a very significant experience for you, your role is to support something much bigger than yourself. Consider what resources you are taking away from the organization and ensure that what you are giving back is at least as valuable as what you are taking. If it seems like your volunteer experience is being arranged in a way to cater to giving you a sense of accomplishment, ask if you can take a more supporting role in projects that are already a priority, rather than having activities created for your benefit.
8) Remain within the limits of your role
Local projects often accord a foreign volunteer a lot of power, often based less on skills and experience than passport and 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. Colleagues may defer to you as they would to a manager. You may be asked to provide trainings on topics which you don’t know anything about. We have even found instances of medically unqualified people being asked to perform surgical procedures.
If you feel you are being asked to make decisions beyond your remit, question it. Remember that although not being able to perform a role might be disappointing for you or your host organization, the consequences of you performing a role outside of your skill set can be extremely damaging. Instead, ensure tasks are passed to qualified permanent members of staff who can continue being in charge after you leave.
9) Dress appropriately
The way you dress can offer very different messages, and it is important to be aware of what they are. To avoid offending people, pay attention to local customs – which will likely be more conservative than what you are used to. One common complaint is that restrictive dress codes makes volunteers not “feel like themselves”, but you might want to ask yourself: Is it more important that I get to feel like myself, or that that the people in the local community I am entering get to feel at home in their own backyards? In your hometown, it might be inappropriate for a woman to walk around topless (in fact, they might even be arrested for doing so). Consider that you showing your shoulders, knees, or midriff in certain cultures might be equally as shocking.
10) Check your privilege
Consider how you make your local co-workers feel if you are complaining about their home country all the time – either about things that are a normal (or valued!) part of life, like a rice-heavy diet or squat toilets, or about things that are daily challenges for everyone, such as the lack of water or electricity. Complaining about things that are not likely to change any time soon won’t do you or the people around you any favors. If you catch yourself complaining about the local culture, food, weather, people, or working conditions, consider what you are also learning from the experience. It may be something that you would never otherwise have the opportunity to learn.
Overall, if you do your best to engage in volunteering mindfully and reflectively, you are well on the way to being effective. And if you would like more tips on exactly what positive volunteering looks like, check out our book Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad.
Written by Claire Bennett from learningservice.info