6 IMPORTANT QUESTIONS YOU NEED TO ASK BEFORE VOLUNTEERING ABROAD
This post was written by guest author Claire Bennett
Volunteering can seem like the ethical alternative to simply traveling, but getting it right – and ensuring you don’t do more harm than good – can be tricky. So tricky, in fact, that we recently wrote a whole book that explores what can go wrong and offers practical advice about how to get it right. Our philosophy of travel is called Learning Service – because doing service that is effective requires us to do a lot of learning first!
There is no better way to learn than to begin by asking questions. So here are a few questions you need to ask to kickstart your journey into this topic.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF
1. What are my motivations?
It is important to be honest with yourself about your motivations to ensure you get the experience you want. Have you been attracted to the idea of volunteering because you think it will look good on your resumé or will be an interesting story at parties? Are you drawn to it from a desire for adventure or because of snazzy brochures featuring elephant trekking in exotic locations? If this sounds familiar then you may not be ready for the level of commitment and day-to-day hard work that is required for successful volunteering.
On the other hand, if you mainly feel motivated by the thought of doing some good in the world, remember to be realistic about what you can realistically contribute with the time and skills that you have. Even if you plan to volunteer for many months, no problems will be solved and no people will be ‘saved’ by your presence. Remember that you are likely to make only a small contribution to bigger changes that will be led by local professionals.
When exploring your motivations, try to identify both what you want to give and gain from volunteering. Also consider other options (such as traveling, studying, or fundraising) that may fit your objectives more closely.
2. What are my core skills?
The most effective volunteers offer skills in an area which they have some expertise. There is a need for accountants, computer technicians, and nurses everywhere in the world! Even if you don’t feel you are an expert in anything, there will always be skills that you have and can offer, such as being a whizz with social media or the ability to edit documents in English.
You may wish to have a stint volunteering in order to get a break from your normal work and try your hand at something new. While there is nothing wrong with that, be sure that you are clear with the volunteer organization about your limitations and never seek to practice beyond your skillset. If you are learning a new skill, try to take the position of intern or assistant, supporting qualified local staff members.
An important thing to look for in a volunteer placement is skills-matching. Do you have the skills to be able to fulfill the role to the highest quality, or would someone else be better placed to do it? If the role is something you would not be qualified to do in your own country, then chances are the answer to that question is no. Even if you are highly skilled in an area, remember that the local people are the real experts and they should be in charge of how to put your skills to best use.
3. What are my learning goals?
As well as thinking about what you can contribute, it is important that you also set learning goals for your time abroad. This could be anything from brushing up on language skills or making new friends, to returning to the country from which you were adopted to learn more about your heritage. Your goals might include learning practical skills such as permaculture techniques, or gaining experiences that you can build on in the future, like learning about responses to global health issues. Is there a specific topic that you want to learn about—for example, child rights? Are there specific skills you want to learn or experience in action—such as fundraising tactics, or monitoring and evaluation practices?
Your learning goals can help keep you motivated in your volunteering and ensure that you stay engaged in the issues at hand. They can also help you stay out of your comfort zone and ensure your experience is culturally-immersive. But remember that your learning goals are your own and they shouldn’t get in the way of your volunteer work or end up becoming someone else’s responsibility.
QUESTIONS TO ASK THE VOLUNTEER ORGANIZATION
4. Does the organization have a proven impact?
Volunteer companies are usually adept at using marketing language such as “change a life” or “make a difference,” but be wary of organizations that are unable to produce evidence of the impact they have made. Ask to see evaluation reports that prove the effectiveness of their programs. Ideally, they would show that the organization is addressing the root causes of problems, working towards eliminating these problems in the future. However, some only offer solutions that serve as band-aids, merely covering wounds without removing the obstacle that caused the wound in the first place.
Many nonprofits and social businesses have built their whole models around ‘band-aid’ forms of development assistance—for example, giving away pairs of shoes as opposed to helping people access jobs where they can then choose to spend their money on shoes or any other needs they have. These organizations spend huge resources on problematic downstream solutions (such as an organization that is ‘saving’ trafficked women by putting them in shelters) instead of upstream solutions (such as an organization working to bring traffickers to justice and to prevent trafficking in the first place).
All too often, organizations will measure their input (such as the number of volunteers placed, number of wells built, or number of books donated) rather than impact (are people healthier, have literacy rates increased, etc). Good organizations will be able to send you reports that measure both the inputs and the long-term sustainable changes made by the organization and highlight the roles that volunteers play.
5. Where is my money going?
Many organizations charge a fee for volunteer placements, and this is often entirely reasonable. Volunteers are not free—it takes a lot of time, capacity, and money to create and support a great volunteer experience. The costs might include marketing and recruitment costs for the organization to attract the right volunteers, staff to vet partners and provide pre- and post-placement support, and all the in-country costs of hosting volunteers.
One piece of advice in this area is to find out how volunteer fees are used. Fees may go to the sending organization to cover the costs of placing you in a volunteer role, to the local organization directly to host you, or both. The fee may include a charitable donation for the cause you are volunteering to support. It may also include a large profit margin for a company. A downside to the spread of fee-charging placements is that unscrupulous organizations take on more volunteers simply for financial gain, even when there are no roles for them. So in addition to finding out where your funds are going, ask questions to find out if your role really is needed. When you have the answer and the fee breakdown, you can reflect on the value for money it represents and your opinion on the ethics of the income distribution.
A final word of warning: it is not the case that the more you pay, the better quality the service. Many volunteers pay a lot of money for their placement and end up dissatisfied, often because they assume that their money was going towards things that it was not. Not all fee-charging placements have effective policies for selecting partners or matching needs, and not all of them offer much support for volunteers or for partners. Sometimes none of the money you pay reaches the country where you volunteer. The bottom line is that good organizations, for a fee, can do a lot of the logistical legwork required to provide you with a positive experience, while the worst ones might take your money in profit and yet still leave you in a disorganized and poorly planned volunteer placement.
6. What kind of learning opportunities or training will I get?
The philosophy of learning service emphasizes that learning is one of the most important aspects of a volunteer placement. Although motivated volunteers can find and plan all the learning opportunities needed by themselves, this can be a little daunting. Instead, finding a volunteer provider that offers structured learning opportunities can remove the pressure.
Organizations might provide a pre-departure training to help you prepare for your upcoming experience, an in-country orientation to cover issues such as cultural sensitivity, ongoing learning modules that help you explore the issues you are going to be facing in your placement, structured debriefing and reflection to ensure that you are processing your learning, or post-placement meetings to help you readjust and ensure you stick to any goals you made for yourself when you were overseas. Work out which of these would fit your needs and research placements that offer these opportunities.
Claire Bennett lives and works in Kathmandu, Nepal where she owns a company offering trainings to schools, businesses and NGOs. She is the co-founder of Learning Service and an author of Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad. She has a long history of working in experiential education, including Where There Be Dragons and the JUMP! Foundation. She currently works with student travel and voluntourism companies to help them reframe their programs around the ideas of learning service. Claire is passionate about global equality and social justice issues, loves her cat, her bicycle, and drinking copious amounts of tea.