10 Fatal Mistakes that Every First Time Volunteer Must Avoid
We rarely allow guest posts, but we made an exception for Global Vision International (GVI) due to the quality of their programs. GVI is an award-winning, responsible volunteer organization that has been featured on National Geographic, CNN, the BBC, and the Daily Telegraph. They are especially well-suited for high school volunteers and first-time volunteers. This is the one organization I trust above all else, so when my son decides to volunteer abroad in a few years, it will be with GVI.
As you get ready for a volunteer experience abroad, you no doubt have a mixture of feelings. GVI offers international volunteer experiences that are perfect for high school students or first time volunteers. Along with the excitement and nervousness of your upcoming trip, you may also be wondering how to make the most of it, and how also to be the most effective community worker throughout your experience.
Before you go abroad, it's also important to consider what makes a successful volunteer, and what kind of rules a volunteer (and volunteer agency) should follow. These rules can help guide you in your decision-making before, during, and after your volunteer trip.
As volunteers, we strive to do good, and we can take a few precautions during our experiences abroad to ensure we are engaging in responsible development. The following is a list of things international volunteers should do on community engagement projects, in order to maximize the positive difference we wish to make.
1. Find long-term projects
Do your research before you leave! Make sure the project you are joining is long-term. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to go for long-term. You can be a short-term volunteer on a long-term project. To review a full list of GVI's long-term projects, click here. The important thing to know is that the program you go with has a sustainable impact and doesn’t end with the volunteer visits. Many organizations offer short-term volunteer options or international internships that contribute to their on-the-ground projects. For example, GVI runs projects geared towards addressing the United Nations's 17 Sustainable Development Goals. To review how these worldwide initiatives accomplish this, you can read more here.
2. Partake in community and environment-centric programs
If the volunteer agency makes it seem like it’s all about you going abroad (your adventure, your experience), then consider doing some deeper research! While that is one of the critical parts of a volunteer experience, it is not the central focus. A volunteer organization should address these things for you, most definitely (as an example, you can review GVI's support and services). However, the community is the center of the trip, and your primary focus should be the work you are doing. If you are going to participate on a teaching project, such as GVI's program that teaches English to Buddhist novice monks, then that is your priority. Or, if you are interested in participating in wildlife conservation projects in South Africa, or marine conservation expeditions in Fiji, then you must keep in mind the conservation project is your purpose for being there.
Your presence should be a positive addition to an already functioning project that has been going, and will continue to flourish, without you. This is critical for sustainable development. If an organization is claiming you are the center, be wary, as this may in fact be harmful for the local community. Find the volunteer programs that talk about their partners, and have community project profiles/blogs.
3. Join projects that provide basic labor
As a volunteer, you want to have an impact on empowering a local community to thrive, not an impact on the economic workflow. This means you want to avoid taking over a skilled job sectors where a local employee could be hired (which then boosts the local economy). Volunteer programs should not be taking over a local sector of skilled labor – this work should be done by locals who are compensated for their work as it would be anywhere else. This means you provide supporting labor, or associated tasks in order to allow the community infrastructure to flourish. As an example, GVI runs a project in Thailand that helps rehabilitate elephants, and volunteers work alongside the Karen community, providing basic support and observing the elephants in their natural habitat.
4. Find organizations that involve the local community
Volunteer projects should consult the local community and should also be run and directed by in-country personnel. This means that an organization should have partnerships with locally-run organizations who are in charge of project specifics. At GVI, we have projects that achieve this sort of collaboration, and one of our most popular programs is a community development project in Fiji. The locals are the experts here, and responsible volunteering means offering resources and listening to the needs of the resident community. To more thoroughly review GVI's global partnerships, please click here. Remember, you are a guest in a different country, and the local community is your host. Even if (and perhaps because) you are coming from a privileged position (socially, economically, etc), it is important for you to refer to their expertise and knowledge about their own needs.
5. Prepare yourself (mentally, psychologically, perspective-ly)
Before you leave, think about your own cultural perspectives and how that may have given you a unique worldview. Incorporate a period of reflection time before, during, and after your experience, when you consider what you are doing, why, and what it all means. Ask yourself what your role is as a volunteer. It is even better if you join an organization that offers service learning courses, which incorporate reflection as an integral part of the experience (sometimes you can even get college credit for this!). GVI also offers projects for high school aged students should they be under 18. Regardless of your age, an organization should offer you with adequate pre-departure orientation and in-country support, so that your questions or concerns can be addressed.
6. Live simply, and locally
You are a visitor, and you may be looking forward to some nice vacation time after your project work (for a list of GVI's adventure-packed programs, click here). You are excited to explore a new culture and experience a new country. Having fun is expected and encouraged! However, if you are engaging with local communities, you will also need to be respectful of their local standards of living, which may not quite match those of what you’re used to. This means living simply, and basically, and locally. You are there primarily to build relationships with the people, to immerse in the culture and get to know their lifestyles and culture. Volunteers who participate on GVI's marine conservation expedition in Mexico live in simple, shared accommodation on-base near the beach, which allows them to engage with their work and the local community on a much richer level. As another example, GVI's volunteer healthcare program in Cape Town focuses on running general health and hygiene workshops to enhance the quality of life for the community. The success of this project stems primarily from the long-term, sustainable relationships that are built and maintained with the local people.
7. Be patient with your project-based work
Are you on a building project and the wood is two days late arriving? Is your teaching project moving at a slower pace than you’d like because of an unforeseen circumstance? Don’t worry, the task isn’t everything. While it would be nice for efficiency and completion in every volunteer project, the reality of the world of development is often the opposite. Remember that you are in a country with different bureaucratic structures, time management norms, and governments. These things affect the possibility of progress. You may not achieve all you want to, or that you are ready to achieve. That is the nature of this field; there is always more to do! What is important is that you are partaking in community-building, gaining valuable skills, and learning intercultural competency. For example, if you are participating in an international internship with GVI, you will gain a variety of skills navigating your practical, project-based work, as well as your course-based work on leadership. You will leave the experience with better communication, presentation, problem-solving, and teamwork abilities.
8. Be wary of taking excessive photos of the local community, especially children
You are seeing different cultures and impactful scenes, sometimes striking emotional ones of disadvantages communities may face. It is natural to want to document this, share it. However, you must also be aware of how you do it, and of the community’s interpretation of you doing so. You don’t want to make people feel as though they are on display. You also don’t want to take their real-life experiences and make them a part of your own narrative, your own feelings. While those images may naturally make you feel a certain emotion, the goal of the project, and of volunteering, is not just about that emotion; it is about impacting real people in real communities, and empowering their lives so they can prosper. With GVI, if you want to volunteer with children in South Africa for example, you are not allowed to bring cameras with you to the work site.
The volunteer organization you choose should also have standards for child protection, and be mindful about these kinds of dynamics abroad. If you’re unsure, or if you want more clarification on this point, ask someone! There are many tricky lines in this field, and this is one. The organization you are volunteering with should provide guidance and mentorship through some of these more confusing subjects. For an example of these kinds of procedures, please review GVI's resources on support and service.
9. Go with an organization that has financial transparency
This is a big point for responsible volunteering: where the funds go? GVI has a fund distribution graphic that illustrates this kind of transparency. You want to know how much of an organization's finances are actually used on their sustainable projects. This is important because you want to be sure you are contributing to/with a valid and legitimate organization, one that takes to heart the needs of the local community, and one that also provides a clear breakdown of where the money goes. This will help to ensure that you really are supporting the community.
10. Join a project that runs evaluations and provides honest/realistic outcomes
As a volunteer, you will be primarily doing unskilled labor (unless you are being trained on an international internship) so as to not distract from the local workforce (see #3). You may be contributing to long-term sustainability for a child’s education or nutritional health, which does truly signify impact. You will not, however, be single-handedly rescuing children in India from poverty. Any volunteer organization that promises this (or a similar example) should be avoided, as they are most likely contributing to efforts that are not in line with sustainable development (see # 2, 3, and 4).
You also want to be sure that the volunteer organization you are participating with does regular evaluations on the work they do. GVI runs impact reports, which can be reviewed here, so you can see honest results and better understand the project’s progress in realistic terms. A helpful way of measuring the success of volunteer projects is by aligning them with one or more of the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals. These can provide helpful parameters for measuring project success.
As international volunteers, we want to be sure our good intentions translate into relevant action and responsible community engagement. Volunteering abroad inevitably exists on a spectrum. On one end, you have healthy volunteering with communities and sustainable projects, and on the other end you have what many consider to be an extension of colonialism, or of a “white savior” complex. Such volunteer programs tend to target prospective volunteers and draw them in by using their emotions and good intentions against them.
Volunteering itself is a healthy endeavor, and is the first step that many of us can take to assume a more active role in creating a better world. More and more students are deciding to devote their time to learning and growing from an international volunteer experience. GVI offers high school programs, alternative spring break programs, gap year programs, and a variety of group travel options that provide these kinds of opportunities to engage in sustainable development. If done correctly, volunteering with a trustworthy organization can contribute to empowering local communities and the environment, and lead to a life-changing transformation for people of all ages.
It is important to carefully research volunteer organizations, and to thoroughly consider how you as a volunteer will interact with communities abroad. Doing so will ensure that we are, in fact, working towards a more collaborative and equitable global community.
For a complete list of GVI volunteer projects, click here.
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