The AJWS Volunteer Corps program is unlike any other I researched when planning my year volunteering abroad. The application process may appear formidable, but there is a good reason for that -- AJWS makes a strong effort to match their volunteers with grassroots NGOs that have a strong need for their specific skill set and experience. For example, my professional experience entails working as a program manager for software. AJWS paired me with a small NGO working for the Burmese democracy movement that needed help with project management, planning, fundraising, and developing a website. The fit was perfect, and both the NGO staff and I came away having significantly increased our capacity to do our jobs.
The VC program emphasizes capacity building and sustainability. That is, a volunteer is not placed within an NGO to do the staff's work for them, but rather to grow the capacity of the staff and to provide new tools and practices to enable them to do their jobs more effectively. I loved this approach both for its humility and for the potential it provides for long-lasting impact. For me, it was important to find volunteer work that would empower others by imparting skills and knowledge, rather than co-opting a job that could be done by a local (e.g. building houses). I was able to make my work sustainable by structuring it as a series of training sessions that I conducted for the org's staff on topics like project management and fundraising. With each training I conducted, we had plenty of practical opportunities to put the lessons into action. We used the project management content to manage the planning and construction of a new school. And we used the fundraising lessons as an opportunity to work on a number of grant proposals, several of which were funded.
The town in which I was placed was small, quiet, and sleepy, perhaps not the best fit for a volunteer looking for a vibrant expat scene or a large array of cultural events. This worked out just fine for me, as the slower pace of life made it much easier to get settled in and get oriented in a very short period of time. It also allowed me to keep a strong focus on my volunteer work.
Overall, I had a fantastic experience with AJWS. The women I volunteered with quickly became like family,I got my fill of delicious (spicy!) Thai and Burmese food, and I learned more than I thought I would about the Burmese struggle for democracy and even about my own changing career aspirations.
Of course, this program isn't for everyone -- most notably, it is targeted at Jewish Americans.