The dos and don’ts of volunteering!
The purpose of volunteering is to invest time and energy into assisting a project that will produce value, empower people to achieve more, and contribute to a long-term positive effect.
As much as we like to believe there is no right and wrong way to do things this certainly does not apply to volunteering. Engaging in a project that affects so many people (volunteers and hosting communities alike) has to be done with extreme care and attention in order to have a positive result.
If not done ethically (or responsibly) chances are harm and negative effects might prevail over good intentions and enthusiasm. Putting the needs of the community first, being respectful towards the foreign culture, showing up trained and prepared for the work, assisting adequately, and staying grounded (you are NOT the expert there) are just a few key points to keep in mind.
You definitely should…
Do detailed research before choosing a programme
Sadly, diving into the jungle of volunteering opportunities nowadays can be both confusing and disheartening. As unfortunate as it is many organizations do not put the people whom the project is supposed to benefit first. Instead, they focus on momentary satisfaction of volunteers – they send them to do minor tasks that make no difference in order to invoke a feeling of fulfillment (or ego-boost) in their hearts instead of making sure something valuable is created for the hosting community.
Often more harm is done than positive effects – people with no education or practical experience in carpentry, for example, sent to building projects which they would never be allowed partake in their home countries.
Working with orphans is another delicate area greatly affected by organizations with unclear values and standards. Kids in such vulnerable conditions are not in the need of sets of strangers coming to show them “love and affection” for a few weeks and quickly leaving them alone again.
Be very careful with choosing an organization and be sure it has a clear and transparent policy displaying their values.
Be clear about your reasons
Good intentions are not good enough.
Making a real difference and achieving positive development cannot happen in a few days or weeks. Furthermore, creating actual value requires a lot of effort, preparation, and hard work. If your reasons sway towards exploring a new culture and travelling remember that you can do this without engaging in a volunteer project. Volunteering should not be a side-effect of something else but the main motivation for your participation in such a project.
Ensure the programme includes training
A programme that includes training means the organization takes volunteering seriously and makes sure the people it sends to projects are adequately prepared in all possible aspects. Usually, the longer the training the better prepared you will be for what is waiting at the project destination.
There are many things to be educated about including the culture of the country you will be visiting, getting introduced to the type of work you will be doing (and getting the training you need to do it the right way), understanding sustainable approaches, project goals, global politics, and many other significant details affecting the process.
Make sure the project is community-centered
This means the needs of the community are put first. After all, the purpose of volunteer projects should be to create value for people who need it. Assisting communities can only lead to good results if the community is involved in the process.
Have long-term effects in focus
A good project will run with or without international volunteers. Their role is to assist and give an extra helping hand guided by project leaders and local inhabitants.
The end goal of each project should be long-term sustainable development. This means people in the community will be empowered and will understand they have the potential and capabilities to achieve a lot by themselves with the right tools and approach.
Doing work that will quickly disappear after you leave has little to no value for anyone involved in the project.
Get familiar with the culture of the country
As part of the above-mentioned training getting familiar with the destination country’s culture is crucial for the success of the project.
Knowing the traditions and cultural specifics will prevent many complications and wasted effort. Cultural difference is a real thing and it can quickly lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding. This in itself undoubtedly hinders cooperation and development.
Be respectful when taking pictures
It is never okay to photograph anyone without his/her permission – it is an invasion of privacy and violation of basic human rights.
Remember to always ask permission from parents before you photograph children and show respect towards people by mentioning their names in the captions of your social media posts.
Work hard WITH the people not FOR them
Volunteering does not mean “saving people”. Instead of doing things FOR them and increasing the chances of your efforts going to waste when you leave (because people don’t know how to maintain your work or simply you didn’t consult them and your work was pointless) it is a better idea to work WITH them.
A collaborative process means the result will have a long-term, sustainable effect.
Remember volunteering is not all about you
Yes, volunteering will without a doubt benefit you in a personal and professional manner. However, you are NOT the hero of the story. The purpose of a volunteer project is neither to make you feel better about yourself nor make you a social media star people will pat on the back.
Ethical volunteering means you have the clear intention of contributing to the development of a project that needs assistance. Everything else is secondary.
It is better if you don’t…
Go volunteering for tourist purposes
Many affordable tourist options exist to satisfy your thirst for globetrotting and exploration. If you are thinking about enrolling in a volunteer programme because it includes travelling to exotic destinations it is better to reconsider your motives and find a better option that will not endanger anyone.
Decide without talking to people who have done it
Surfing between organizations and project opportunities can be exhausting. Talking to people who have already done the project you are considering makes the decision times easier and more justified.
Ex-volunteers who have already been down this road can share experiences and impressions that you might otherwise not even think are possible.
Make compromises in quality
With so many possibilities and options, it is a good idea to prioritize quality and be very critical of the transparency and values of the organizations and projects.
Volunteering is an investment of your time, energy, and efforts and you should not allow this investment to go to waste.
Assume you are the expert at the project
You are not.
It is not unusual for volunteers to wrongly assume the roles of “experts” or “saviors” but this cannot be further from the truth. There is no one more well-aware about the needs of the community and the biggest priorities that need attention but the people who have lived there all their lives.
Assume the same traditions and way of communication apply everywhere
Cultural understanding is paramount for the success of any volunteer project. When visiting a foreign country it is our duty to get familiar with the culture and adjust to it accordingly. This not only expresses respect towards people but makes cooperation and communication easier.
Generalize or disrespect the country’s people
This can happen willingly or unwillingly. The way media has brainwashed us and made us assume generalizing and stereotyping are normal is something that needs to be carefully considered. Do your research and stay away from unhealthy speculations.
The most common mistake people make is referring to any country on the African continent as “Africa” – a great sign of disrespect that needs to be eradicated.
Keep a biased mind
The “facts” you know are not always true. Keep your mind open and leave any bias behind to make the best of your volunteering experience (and achieve the best result). You will be surprised of how many things you assumed correct are actually far from reality.
Do something because you thought it will be good
Never engage in action without consulting the local experts – project leaders and the community. What seems as a fantastic idea might have the opposite effect. Seeking an opinion and feedback from the people for whom you are doing it is vital.
Get your friendly reminder
Feel free to download this free poster print we have prepared. It is a friendly reminder to look at when choosing your ethical volunteering project.
1. Detailed research before deciding on a programme
2. Examine your reasons for wanting to volunteer. Remember: Good intentions are not good enough. If you want to “make a difference” a few weeks of volunteering will not be of use.
3. Ensure the programme includes training
4. Make sure the project is community centred and has long-term aims. A good project will run with our without international volunteers.
5. Get familiar with the culture of the country
6. Be respectful when taking pictures. Ask permission from parents before you photograph children. Do remember to name people in the captions.
7. Work hard WITH the people not FOR them
8. Remember you are not the important one. This is not about you.
1. Go volunteering for tourist purposes
2. Decide without talking to people who have done it
3. Make compromises in quality of the organization or programme
4. Assume you are the expert at the project (you are not)
5. Assume the same traditions and way of communication apply everywhere
6. Generalize or disrespect the country’s people (willingly or unwillingly – do your research)
7. Keep a biased mind – not everything you have heard is true
8. Do something because you thought it will be good – always consult the community first
INTERNATIONAL VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITIES
TOGETHER WE CAN CHANGE THE WORLD
Lindersvold is an international learning center that facilitates courses in community development and certification in non-traditional pedagogy. Our Center provides an opportunity to learn about the big issues of our time while preparing to assist community-driven projects in Zambia, Malawi or Mozambique. We believe in combining hands-on training with theoretical knowledge, alongside community living, gives students the best foundation for working with sustainable development and vulnerable youth.
Long-term volunteering is more complex than most people think. A lot of things can go wrong unless participants are adequately prepared for what to expect and the tasks they will have to undertake.
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