A recent Go Overseas survey showed that 53 percent of volunteers in 2013 undertook volunteer programs because they wanted to make a difference. But what exactly does it mean to ‘make a difference'? To truly have an impact as an international volunteer? The truth is that not all volunteer programs are created equal, and neither are all volunteers. Some truly make a difference in communities, while others do not, and the reasons are varied on both sides. Unfortunately, the result is that volunteer impact is often questioned.
Orphanage scams, Western privilege, and poorly managed volunteer programs... all of these things are very real issues, but too often they eclipse the positive side of the situation.
When we talk about the impact of volunteering, the word ‘voluntourism’ tends to crop up. After that? Maybe a mention of orphanage scams, Western privilege, and poorly managed volunteer programs. All of these things are very real issues, but too often they eclipse the positive side of the situation, and that’s the fact that amidst all of the controversy over volunteering: there are hardworking people out there doing great things.
Of course, not every international volunteer is doing good, but for those who are researching their programs, being responsible and conscious, there's real opportunity to make an impact on your host community. We’ll talk more about how you can volunteer consciously in a minute, but first let’s take a look at some international volunteers who are making a real impact. We had a Q&A session with a few awesome women who have lent their time and skills to organizations around the globe, so read on to find out how their work is influencing their host communities abroad.
Emily’s background in business and biomedical and mechanical engineering helped inform the choices she made as a volunteer. Get ready to be inspired, because Emily has an incredible list of experiences that includes fixing broken medical equipment in Uganda, Kenya, and Papua New Guinea. For the past ten months, she’s been serving with an organization called Beauty for Ashes in Nepal, which employs women rescued from sex trafficking by giving them viable skills training and jobs.
“I chose these programs because I was very interested in serving in an area working towards social justice,” said Emily. “It is estimated that 100 million physically disabled children in the developing world can be cured through surgery, but only 10-30% of medical devices/equipment are operable. I wanted to serve with organizations where I could give back according to my skills and education.”
Emily suggests that the situation can be improved through transparent discussions with the organization/program provider and clear expectations prior to arriving for the assignment.
Many volunteers come into their programs with the best of intentions, only to be disappointed when reality doesn’t match up. On paper, their volunteer opportunities sound amazing, but poor organization or a lack of resources can mean a different impression in reality. Emily suggests that the situation can be improved through transparent discussions with the organization/program provider and clear expectations prior to arriving for the assignment. When you know what you’re in for, you stand a better chance of making a real difference.
“In Papua New Guinea, one of the hospitals said that by fixing the only gastroscope that they had available, it literally would help save many lives in the future,” Emily told us. “At Cure, I was able to fix critical medical devices that were used in neurosurgical operations. Without an operable sterilization unit, the facility could not perform surgeries. With Beauty for Ashes it’s a blessing to be able to see the relationships that I’ve formed with the women.”
Emily’s experience showed her that a successful volunteer program focuses on building relationships. “I think one of the most important things as a volunteer is to learn to serve and observe before giving input,” she said. “There are many things that might not ‘make sense’ to us, but there are often times cultural implications of why something is done the way it is done.”
- Where Did She Volunteer? Rwanda
- Volunteer Abroad Project: Teaching at an all-boys orphanage in Kigali.
Traveler extraordinaire Glinda spent six weeks teaching English at an all-boys orphanage in Kigali, Rwanda. Her experience reflects that of many volunteers, who may not have realized at the time what an impact they had.
“It wasn’t until I left that I realized some of the bonds I made may change some lives,” Glinda said. “As time went on and I kept in touch with some of the boys, I realized I was making a difference. Overall, I really went in thinking I would make a bigger difference than I did, but instead I have made a difference to maybe a handful of people.”
This is a great example of an often-overlooked aspect of international volunteering: you don’t have to make a difference to a large group in order to have an impact. Even if you wind up in a situation that isn’t quite what you expected, being active and involved could result in a big change for a single person (and to yourself as well) in smaller ways. You'll teach someone something new about the world, introduce your community to a new culture, or simply impart kindness. Think of how small acts like these may have impacted you in the past.
I recommend doing your research to find a good organization to work with. Ask questions and ask for contacts of previous volunteers who you can contact directly to ask more questions.
On reflection, Glinda mentioned that thorough training, guidance, or being assigned a local mentor, could have resulted in a more constructive experience. When you’re doing your research, pay close attention to the training component of the program. This is especially important if you’re going into something that you don’t have prior experience in, such as a volunteer project in construction or teaching.
“In the end, my experience changed me more than I could have ever imagined or hoped to change someone else,” said Glinda. “I recommend doing your research to find a good organization to work with. Ask questions and ask for contacts of previous volunteers who you can contact directly to ask more questions."
- Where Did She Volunteer? Magdalena, Guatemala
- Volunteer Abroad Project: Community development with Love Guatemala
For those of you who like hands-on projects, this could give you some ideas: Amy was involved with several crafty endeavors, like replacing laminate in existing houses or adding an exterior kitchen area. She also built chicken coops to deliver to families prepared to take on raising chickens for supplemental income.
I believe we made a difference, especially due to the small organization that the community trusted. It seemed that other people or organizations had come through in the past and helped once, but never returned, leaving many other needs unmet.
“I knew I had knowledge and connections that would allow me to help and work with this organization long term,” said Amy. “I believe we made a difference, especially due to the small organization that the community trusted. It seemed that other people or organizations had come through in the past and helped once, but never returned, leaving many other needs unmet.”
When asked about the key elements of a successful volunteer program, Amy mentioned great leadership and a strong management team, especially in short-term volunteer projects. All of the volunteers we interviewed agreed that the amount of time needed to make a difference has everything to do with the type of project. If you only have a week to spend volunteering abroad, look for organization.
“You need to be well-organized to implement the volunteer force joining you, whether for a few hours in a day or for a 2-4 week stay, so you know how to be most efficient and effective with the extra hands on deck,” said Amy.
- Where Did She Volunteer? Nepal
- Volunteer Abroad Project: Orphanage work
With the end of college looming and no job lined up, Christie Koness found herself itching for an overseas experience. She and her boyfriend grabbed their passports and joined a volunteer teaching program in Nepal. After a week of teaching, the school went on break for a local holiday, leaving Christie and Dan with no work to do and the uneasy feeling that they weren’t making the impact they’d hoped for.
“I got so bored that I redid their entire bulletin board in the main lobby and I felt that I didn't go to Nepal to be sitting around fixing bulletin boards,” said Christie. “So we were insistent about being transferred to another location.”
They ended up getting reassigned to an orphanage in Pokhara, where they provided much-needed helping hands for daily activities. For the next six weeks, they worked with the children wherever it was needed, from getting ready for school, helping with homework, and simply being there to provide support.
“Many of the children just needed someone to hug them, give them attention, and teach them simple things like how to braid hair or tie their shoes,” said Christie. “Not necessarily someone to teach them English, but to be a positive influence and role model. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t think about my time there or the children we spent time with at the CWA. They probably had more impact on me than I did on them.”
The people running the program are essential... because volunteers are temporary, it is so important that they are trained and prepared for the situation properly.
Christie’s experience, like Glinda’s, didn’t go quite as expected in the beginning, but proved to be successful in smaller, less planned ways by the end. Their stories serve as reminders for what you should be looking out for when picking your program, and what you can do on the ground when things don’t go according to plan. They're both also great examples of how unpredictable volunteer impacts can sometimes end up being. We have to adapt to the needs of those around us, not force on our host communities what we think they need.
Christie also stresses that there are a few important elements to watch for when making plans to become an international volunteer. “The people running the program are essential,” she said. “The need may be there but without someone capable running the show, it can’t function. I also think that because volunteers are temporary, it is so important that they are trained and prepared for the situation properly.”
- Where Did She Volunteer? South Africa
- Volunteer Abroad Project: Camp counselor with Global Camps
Alexa’s background as a camp counselor unexpectedly led her to a month-long stint as a volunteer in Africa, which just goes to show that you never know where life might take you! While attending the national conference for the American Camping Association, she heard a presentation about Global Camps, and immediately became hooked on the idea. Shortly after that conference, she was a “Vochelli” (counselor) at Camp Sizanani, just outside of Johannesburg, South Africa.
“I do believe I made a difference in the lives of the children I worked with,” she said. “These children are given a warm bed, toiletries, and an opportunity to ‘just be a kid,’ and lessons on living a healthy lifestyle, which included learning more about the HIV virus and AIDS. The campers were also shown love, which for many of them was a new experience.”
Her experience wasn’t without its challenges, especially in a country that is still struggling with the aftermath of Apartheid, which led to an impact that the counselors weren’t necessarily expecting.
“I was honestly naive when I arrived, thinking I was immune to the leftover pain of Apartheid. What I faced was the hardest and best challenge I have ever encountered thus far, as our volunteers really weren’t welcome with open arms,” said Alexa. “By the end of the week, though, we accomplished a huge feat: earning our fellow Vochellis’ appreciation, respect, and acceptance.”
Alexa’s volunteer experience ultimately led to her current position as an employee with Habitat for Humanity. The organization focuses not only on providing volunteer opportunities, but strives to engage the people they are trying to help. This fosters a sense of participation and leads to lasting impact, not a project that falls apart as soon as the volunteers leave the scene.
Offering your time to others or for a cause creates a sense of ownership in the world, like you truly have the ability to make the world a better place.
“Another key element is staying connected,” said Alexa. “At Global Camps Africa they offer programs after camp has ended, which helps the kids to carry the camp experience into their everyday lives. They feel like there is a safe place to go, and are reminded of all the love that truly does surround them.”
Alexa highlighted the importance not only of the volunteer program, but of the volunteers themselves. There are so many factors that contribute to a successful international volunteer experience, and the potential to make a difference is always there, despite the roadblocks that some may face.
“Offering your time to others or for a cause creates a sense of ownership in the world, like you truly have the ability to make the world a better place,” said Alexa.
How Can You Help?
Thanks to these five ladies for showing us that it’s possible to make an impact as an international volunteer, and that this impact can look different in each situation. Sometimes you have a small impact on a large group; other times it may be a big impact on one person. There are no rules for how to measure the difference you make, but there are some things to look for that can help you have a meaningful volunteer experience.
- A program that is well-regarded in the local community
- Ways to apply your skills in projects that you’re qualified to do
- Clear expectations of volunteers and clear goals to achieve
- Training, whether it is pre-departure or on-the-ground
- These 10 traits of a responsible volunteer abroad program
What you can do…
- Ask questions and do your research
- Be proactive in seeking out a project that meets your abilities
- Be aware of the possible volunteering scams
- Seek out sustainable projects that have a long-term impact on the community.
In many cases, one of the people who will be the most changed by your volunteer experience is you. Does that mean that you had selfish motivations for volunteering? Of course not. Part of the benefit of volunteering is that everyone has an impact on each other, and we all hope to walk away with a little more global -- and personal -- understanding.
Don’t let the concerns about international volunteering discourage you from trying. It’s still possible for one person to make a difference, and that person could be you.