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Pros and Cons of Short Term Volunteer Programs

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Rare is the person who can afford the costs and time commitments required for long-term volunteering. Spending six months learning a local language, building relationships, and working toward sustainable development goals might be ideal in terms of impact and experience, but is probably unrealistic for the average working (or studying) person. To accommodate the challenging schedules of passionate but busy volunteers, short-term volunteer trips have become prevalent and popular.

One example of a successful short-term volunteer is Dan Bello, a global-minded American with a demanding career in finance who has served as a repeat volunteer with Habitat for Humanity International’s Global Village Program. Over the past few years, he has taken part in short-term trips (usually around 15 days) in Chile, Cambodia, Colombia, and Bangladesh in order to help construct housing for those in need. He enjoys the flexibility of shorter volunteer stints and says:

Dan Bello

“With the limited time that I can take away from my life as a working professional, the shorter duration has allowed me to comfortably fit in each trip, while allowing me to participate in several of these trips to many different and diverse places. While I don’t have the experience of completely immersing myself in a culture, I do have the benefit of experiencing several different cultures and viewing the lives of the needy and impoverished in several corners of the earth. Knowing that I have had a small impact in so many different places around the world is an extremely gratifying feeling.”

While Dan enjoyed a positive experience as a short-term volunteer, others have lamented the limitations of only committing a week or two. Also, the increasing popularity of short-term volunteer trips has brought about critiques of the “voluntourism” industry for bringing streams of Westerners into foreign locales for hefty fees, without always producing results for the local communities. So how can you be sure to maximize your own experience and have a positive impact like Dan described?

The Downsides of Short-Term Volunteering

First, let’s examine some of the frustrations that a short-term volunteer will face. As you may well know, there is much debate as to whether short term projects are truly beneficial to the communities welcoming volunteers. Here are some setbacks volunteers should acknowledge and avoid:

  1. Jetlag. Anyone who has taken a transatlantic flight is familiar with the frustrations of jetlag: headaches, disruptive sleeping patterns, disorientation, even stomach ailments. When you have three months to enjoy a new locale on the other side of the planet, you can sacrifice a week or two to let your body adjust. As a short-term volunteer, you’ll usually need to fight through those symptoms and start your work immediately.
  2. Limited interaction and immersion. As Dan Bello explains, “It might take locals two or three days to really warm up to you being around in their community. For instance, in my most recent trip to Bangladesh, it wasn’t until Thursday or Friday of the five-day week when the children in the village started to interact with us a little bit more. Unfortunately, by the time that that had happened, our work there was done.”
  3. Digging in the dirt
  4. Limited impact. Because it does take some time to connect to strangers and have a personal impact, some types of volunteer work simply are not as effective in the short-term. Teaching children, for example, is a job that usually requires time to connect to students and to work through a curriculum. If often takes a week or two simply to get used to your new setting and become comfortable in your role.
  5. No room for error. If you happen to catch a stomach bug midway through a ten-day trip, you’re pretty much done for. A longer trip gives you the cushion of getting sick and missing a few days of work (which is very common when you’re eating new foods, drinking unfamiliar water, and volunteering with drippy-nosed kids), or faltering in your strategies as a volunteer. In a shorter trip, there is little room for hiccups along the way.
  6. Feeling rushed. One of the joys of long-term volunteer programs is the freedom of those lazy days when you can sit and observe the flow of society around you, fall into the rhythm of the local culture, and make random acquaintances that might blossom into friendships. When you only have two weeks to accomplish a project and hit all the tourist sites in a new country, there is limited time to relax and digest what you’ve experienced. This can leave volunteers feeling rushed and harried.

The Benefits of Short Term Volunteering

These challenges are by no means a reason to skip a short-term volunteer trip altogether. There are methods to alleviate these frustrations and optimize your time and impact, if you are willing to put in a little extra work and thought.

TIPS FOR PRE-TRIP PLANNING

You can avoid having a negative impact on your intended destination community before you've even left your home country. With these few tips, your short term volunteer experience will be off to a good start!

  1. Choose a type of work that is conducive to shorter trips. Choosing a project-oriented volunteer trip, such as building a school or home, will give you the greatest sense of accomplishment and impact in a short period of time. In contrast, teaching and child care (as examples) are jobs that require bonding with children, knowledge of their language, and time investment in order to be maximally effective. If you are absolutely committed to doing something like caring for children and only have a short period of time available to you, don’t let me discourage you! Just be aware of the challenges you will face.
  2. volunteering in south africa with children
  3. Choose a sustainable program with long-term goals. Is the organization committed to employing volunteers in the most efficient and impactful projects, or simply bringing in as many people (and dollars) as possible in a short amount of time? While it’s often difficult to answer these kinds of questions by simply looking at an organization’s glossy website, you can get a better sense of their motivations by reading volunteer reviews and experiences.
  4. Don’t go too far. This may be meaningless advice for an American who is dying to cross the globe and volunteer in Thailand, but if you are flexible with location, you might want to try to stay within your own time zone. This will eliminate the challenge of jet-lag and save you time and money on plane tickets, which might translate to more time on the ground volunteering.
  5. Do your research ahead of time. Arriving with some knowledge of local culture and history can go a long way in dispelling culture shock and making up for lack of immersion. Many volunteer programs will provide you with some reading materials in advance, but go one step further and read a book or a few articles on your own. Learning some of the local language in advance will also help you feel more comfortable and be more effective, even if it’s just “please” and “thank you.”
  6. Give yourself a cushion, if possible. If you have a few extra vacation days to spare, you might want to try to arrive a few days early (or stay a few days later) in the place where you will be volunteering. Just one or two extra days might provide the time you need to get a better sense of the local culture and rest up before diving into your work as a volunteer. You might also use this time to travel to surrounding areas, rather than breaking up your volunteer experience with an excursion midway through.
TIPS TO MAXIMIZE YOUR IMPACT

Your research and efforts put into planning your trip is only just the beginning. Now that you've arrived and got that stamp in your passport, keep these tips in the back of your mind to ensure the execution of your service is just as beneficial to your new community.

  1. Develop a strategy to combat jetlag, exhaustion, and illness. If a new time zone is a concern for you, start adjusting your sleeping patterns several days in advance of your trip. You could even consider popping a sleeping pill on the plane ride in order to quicken your time zone adjustment. Due to limited time, you’ll be tempted to make use of every free moment to socialize, explore, and make memories. But you might want to devote your first couple of evenings to letting your body rest and adjust. Be gentle with yourself early on; it will provide you with more endurance later on in your trip.
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  3. Be proactive. Sitting idly and waiting for instruction is a waste of your already limited time. Instead, look for opportunities to be helpful and friendly. You can use your free time to build relationships by chatting with locals, playing with kids, or asking for language lessons. Toward the end of your trip, use any extra time you have to help out new volunteers. By sharing what you’ve learned (perhaps about the language or how to perform work more efficiently), you can help other volunteers maximize their impact.
  4. Find opportunities to reflect on your surroundings. The first few days or even weeks in a new country and culture can be disorienting, delightful, confusing, sensational, and strange all at once. Without sounding too new-age, you might find it helpful to take ten minutes in the evening to sit quietly and meditate. Journaling is another technique to help your absorb and digest your thoughts and feelings, and to record the many details that will otherwise be forgotten in the shuffle.
  5. Keep a positive mindset. This one might seem like a given, but as a volunteer, this author witnessed many well-meaning people get overwhelmed by jetlag, homesickness, and culture shock in the course of short volunteer trips. Their optimism quickly gave way to frustration over their perceived inefficiency and annoyance at their surroundings, and they left feeling unfulfilled. Recognize your limitations and make the best of your experience within that framework.

So, even if you are working with a tight schedule, a full inbox, and a demanding boss back home, you can absolutely have a meaningful and effective volunteer experience in a week or two. Just keep in mind the challenges you will undoubtedly face, and prepare yourself for heart-wrenching goodbyes just as you are beginning to feel at home.

Photo Credits: Dan Bello and seanorama's

Meghan Johnson

After studying economics at Harvard and working in finance for a few years, Meghan escaped from her cubicle and spent a year volunteering and traveling abroad. Currently, Meghan writes for Go Overseas and for her own blog, Soulshine Traveler, while pursuing a career in microfinance in Eurasia. Her most beloved cities are Lima, Peru; Moscow, Russia; and Cartagena, Colombia. Follow her on Google+ too!