Interview with Jane Stanfield, International Volunteer Extraordinaire
Hi everyone! Today I'm happy to bring you an interview a longtime in the making. Back in October I connected with jane Stanfield, a well-known name in the volunteer industry, after she left a review of her volunteer experiences. I really liked her story and how she has incorporated volunteering abroad into her life. We agreed to do an interview to share her valuable insights and experiences with the Go Overseas community, and hopefully inspire more travelers to volunteer abroad along the way. It didn't happen all at once, but I'm glad we're here today to share her responses to my questions. Enjoy!
Andrew: Tell us a little about yourself and how you became involved in volunteer travel.
Jane: As a military child, we moved around. A LOT! My parents were active volunteers and I soon found that the easiest way to become part of an existing community was to volunteer.
I found volunteer travel in 2004 when I read an article entitled VIRTUOUS VACATIONS. It talked about going on vacation specifically to volunteer. Soon after, I found a class called Volunteer Vacations - Traveling on Purpose. We watched videos of volunteers working abroad, received brochures from volunteer sending agencies, and took home a bibliography of books, magazines and local resources to help plan a trip. At the end of the year, I received a legacy that allowed me to move my dream of international volunteering closer to reality. I planned during 2005 and in 2006, I went around the world and completed 12 volunteer placements in 7 countries within 12 months.
Andrew: What do you do when you're not volunteering abroad?
Jane: When I returned to the US, I started my business, Where Is She Heading LLC, and began speaking, teaching and writing about volunteer travel. I published Mapping Your Volunteer Vacation, which helps people find the right volunteer trip. In addition, I lead the Travel Lovers Book Club at the Tattered Cover in Denver and teach at Colorado Free University. I also take on short-term projects that fit my interest and time, volunteer with Single Volunteers of Greater Denver and at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
Andrew: What kind of things do you look for in a volunteer organization?
Jane: My first thought is, "What will I do as a volunteer?" I look for something I have never done, in exotic places, with new people, and sounds like fun. After locating the project, I research agencies with similar programs. I prefer agencies that have been in business for some time and offer projects that are on going. I evaluate how they are organized, the mission, and where the money is spent. I look for projects that are developed by the local community and are directed by local experts.
Andrew: In your experience, what are some warning signs that an organization is not delivering what it's preaching?
Jane: The best way is to ask former volunteers on the exact project being researched about their experience on the project and with the agency.
First, I recommend creating a list of questions to ask the agency. The list can include questions about their mission, affiliation, funding, local involvement, and length of time in business for the project. More specifically for the volunteer work; look into safety, track record, accommodations and food, training, transportation, logistics, etc.
Next, ask to speak with a volunteer from the exact project under consideration. Make sure the referral is from a recent volunteer of the SAME AGE and SEX, as their input will have more meaning to the volunteer.
If the agency is unable or unwilling to facilitate contacting a former volunteer, this may be a flag. While they may not give direct contact information, but they should at least offer to send prospective volunteer's contact information to a former volunteer. Even an extremely happy volunteer should be able to give a balanced review of the agency, program and their experience.
I also recommend doing an Internet search on the exact program and read the reviews. I encourage reading both positive and negative reviews. It is hard to tell if the negative reviews are a true problem, or if the traveler went into the volunteer experience blindly or with unrealistic expectations.
There is no one clearinghouse for information on volunteer agencies, so it is up to the individual to do their homework before making a selection.
Andrew: How do you respond to critics who claim that 'voluntourism' is doing more harm than good?
Jane: There is a buzz on the web about this topic and here is my take. Voluntourism is made up of two components - the volunteer requesting agency and the volunteer. Both have a responsibility that the project is meaningful and useful to the community being served, and that the volunteer serves and/or learns something worthwhile.
There are probably some voluntourism operators that are not doing the good work that they claim and an equal number of well-intentioned travelers who go into foreign volunteer situations without adequate research, or physical and mental preparation.
Of the two, I believe it is the volunteer who needs to take the larger responsibility. A volunteer can cause unintended harm when they have not chosen a volunteer agency wisely. Just as a buyer of a car, house, or investment would do considerable research and due diligence before the purchase, every volunteer should research the volunteer project based on a list of personally important questions. If any of the answers are not a match, keep looking.
Many foreign volunteer programs are just like the ones at home - run by a non-profit who need extra hands, money, and at times, additional expertise to get their work done. Most agencies need every hour someone can give to fulfill their mission. They are willing to use foreign volunteers because much of the work can be done by unskilled labor. They hope that the foreign volunteer will return home and spread the word about their cause and the need for additional volunteers.
Some volunteer program operators may cause harm or waste the efforts of the volunteers if (1) the work being done is not meaningful to the resident community, (2) using volunteers takes away local jobs, (3) the money paid by the volunteer does not go back to the community, or (4) they offer programs that appear to do good, yet are strictly for profit for an agency or individual.
I feel the projects that have the greatest chance of falling under "more harm than good" are those with young children and animals. Make sure that the children and animals are not "put on display for the tourists" or endangered. ASK YOURSELF - Would I be allowed to volunteer in this way at home? i.e. Spend as little as one hour with a child or toddler without a background check? Both type of volunteer programs require rigorous research to make sure they are valuable to the community and a good fit for the individual volunteer.
Some critics say, "Stay home. Donate and volunteer locally." If the volunteer work can be done at home and it fits the individual, by all means stay home and be a powerful local or national volunteer. However, if the desire is to travel and to deeply engage in new cultures and learn while doing and serving in foreign land, then volunteer travel is a great addition to local volunteerism.
Andrew: Baby boomers make up a large percentage of international volunteers. What do they need to know before volunteering abroad?
Jane: Thoughtful volunteering or better yet, SERVICE WHILE LEARNING has two aspects - one is how the volunteer wants to serve or give, and the other is what the volunteer expects to gain or learn. The best projects are the ones that are balanced with an equal amount of giving and receiving. As addicting as a potato chip, your success and sense of fulfillment will be based on how well you choose the project.
Understand that you are going to help - not fix or save. The foreign cultures are doing what they do in a way that works for them. Some things may seem foreign or strange to the volunteer, but it does not make it wrong. You travel to a new country in order to experience a local culture and work along side and with locals. Understand that while you may be very accomplished at home, you may not know the best way to work in the foreign locale. You will gladden the heart of the local supervisor is you ask on a daily basis, "WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP YOU TODAY?" and then be willing to do that task cheerfully.
Volunteers can become disappointed if they arrive with unrealistic expectations of what can be accomplished in a short period of time. This can look like complaining loudly about the conditions or project, arriving with a personal agenda of what needs to be done, or how the completed project must look like in order to be successful. Understand that many cultures value personal communication and relationships over the amount of daily work that a western volunteer considers normal.
Please pick a project that you are PASSIONATE ABOUT! There may be things that bring you up short during your volunteer project. But if you adore the project, they will be blips instead of deal breakers. Want to maximize your volunteer experience? - Expect the best, see the best, and learn all you can. A well-selected volunteer project may change the way you travel for the rest of your life.
If you placement is sequestered and you are not sure how much of the money goes to the local community, ASK! Your payment to the volunteer agency can have a positive impact on the community if you eat in local restaurants, stay in family run concerns, and use local transportation. To increase your impact and support the local economy even more, stay a few extra days, take tours lead by locals, stay and eat in small hotels and restaurants, and shop in local markets.
Your two weeks may have a small, incremental benefit to the local community, but it can have a huge impact on you and how you understand yourself and see the world.
Editorial Note: You may also enjoy this article, The Rise of Boomer Volunteering
Andrew: What does the future hold for you and your travels?
I am compiling a list volunteer projects that interest me and am looking for work on Antarctica in the fall of 2012. Since I will already be abroad, I am sure I will find at least one or two volunteer projects to engage in before I return home.
Andrew: Thanks, Jane!
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