While writing my last post on amateurs, professionals, innovations and smart aid, I was also thinking about why organizations or institutions offer volunteering, voluntourism and exchange visits as an option for their donors, students, constituents, and why people (including US volunteers and overseas communities or organizations that receive volunteers/visitors) participate in them.
As another mental exercise, I came up with 4 categories that these programs fall into (feel free to differ or add others if I skipped over something, this is in no way scientific research or a desk study, just thoughts based on my experiences and observations):
Relationship building, cross-cultural learning, solidarity
- Some initiatives are primarily aimed at learning, engaging with the world outside a person’s home country, strengthening cross-cultural relationships, and building links and global movements. These programs tend to stem from a core belief that in order to achieve a better and more peaceful world, we need to reach out and strengthen relationships across cultures and countries; enhance our understanding of one another; better comprehend our global interconnectedness; and build global movements around particular themes to push forward change. This kind of program is sometimes also heavily funded by governments as part of foreign aid (Peace Corps, development education programs funded by USAID, ‘democracy strengthening’ exchange programs) with a goal of improving relations, transferring skills, and showing that Americans really are nice, helpful, friendly people and that democracy is the best form of government.
- Those that sign up for these initiatives are often highly engaged with a particular cause (solidarity movement, peace, environment, religious, women, political viewpoint). They may be going overseas to show their solidarity, share knowledge and skills, or connect around issues they are passionate about. Or they may simply want to travel abroad and have an interest in global issues and a desire to help. Volunteering, voluntourism and exchange programs offer a way travel and/or live abroad in a non-touristy way. These types of programs can be very attractive for youth and people late in their careers or retired.
Career development, field study and gaining experience
- Some programs are offered by academic institutions, non-profits (or perhaps private companies) whose work is focused on or in the developing world, and who believe their students (or employees) need experience in the developing world in order to do quality work that is well adapted to the cultures and people that they will deal with/serve/sell to in the future. These are programs that offer career development, internships or study opportunities via NGOs, universities, etc.; language learning; resume building and experience for future careers in a variety of fields; opportunities to live with and learn about or research a particular culture or field; a chance to better understand the poor and design products and services for/with the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP); insight to build social enterprises, etc.
- Those looking for these types of experiences are often university students, recent graduates, missionaries, foreign language students, or adventurers looking for a way to live abroad. For many in this group, overseas experience is a key factor that will set them apart; build a skill set; allow them to progress in their chosen field of work; and help them be more effective in the types of processes, services and products that they eventually develop. There is pretty much no way to get this kind of experience outside of volunteering, overseas interning or doing an exchange trip during a semester, a vacation period or a summer.
Cultural belief in community service and charity
- Another common reason that organizations offer these opportunities is belief that volunteering is good, charity is an important value, we should appreciate what we have and give back. In the past 10 years or so, mandatory volunteering and community service is growing in US schools as a way to build certain habits and values in young people. Many teachers and parents believe America is the best country in the world, and want their students/children to ‘experience poverty’ so that they will ‘realize how good they have it.’ This type of program sometimes comes from a charity mindset (donor/recipient, rich/poor, us/them, developed/developing) and is based in beliefs about philanthropy that are prevalent in the US (and apparently in Canada, Australia, Europe and some other places too). These kinds of programs seem to be the most common and the easiest to sign up for. (See @TalesfromthHood’s series on American Culture 101, 102 and 103 and related discussions.)
- Those who participate here are often students that need to fulfill community service requirements for graduation. They may also be from church groups or other organized groups that do volunteering as a part of their culture, their way of being, and their belief structure. Many people in the US feel guilty that they are spending money on a vacation and want to alleviate their guilt by doing a bit of ‘service’. Or they are at a time in their lives where they have the means to ‘give back’ and they want to do it physically and personally, in the ‘poorest’ of places, and/or where it’s most convenient for them (like while they are on vacation). There is a belief in the US that giving money is ‘not enough,’ is too easy, and that if you really care, you will go and do. People are often not satisfied with ‘just giving money’ and really have a desire to try to know and understand the people that they are ‘helping’, but they don’t have a lot of time, and don’t want to become professional aid workers.
Donor engagement, fund raising, brand awareness
- Organizations are aware that philanthropy is changing. Articles abound in philanthropic journals about how major donors are tired of bureaucracy; want to ‘do development’ using for-profit models; want to start their own organizations and get directly involved in managing projects they are funding. Organizations are also aware that younger adults, say 18-40, may not have a lot of money to give, but they are at a critical juncture where they are forming ideas about philanthropy, as well as bonds and alliances with the organizations that they will give to in the future. NGOs are aware that Americans believe that it means more to do than to give, and that doing is a richer personal experience for donors.
- Many organizations have programs to engage donors in ways other than giving money. They have volunteer programs; use social media to stimulate community and loyalty; build advocacy programs where donors can engage by clicking and sending something on-line or ‘like’ something to show their support. Voluntourism, exchanges and hands-on volunteering are another way to engage donors. The main goal here is not so much the advocacy or the ‘help’ that the volunteer gives, but rather the opportunity to gain an email address and build a relationship over time that turns into a loyal donor who gives what organizations really need in order to carry out their programs: cash donations, major gifts and bequests. Advocacy and volunteering/voluntourism have an added benefit that they can also build brand awareness and PR for the organization.
- Those that participate in this type of program are similar to those in point 3 above, and don’t want only a financial relationship with an organization. They want to do something direct and meaningful aside from giving money.
What do communities want?
I haven’t directly asked any communities or found any ‘poor’ communities themselves blogging about volunteers, voluntourism, exchange visits or amateurs. From being involved in different negotiations around volunteers and exchanges and donor visits/trips over the years, however, here are some of the things I’ve seen, heard and experienced.
Communities (considered here as geographical or cause-based communities receiving volunteers, voluntours, exchange visits or hosting small new NGOs) that participate in these programs often hope to
- receive funds locally to support their work
- maintain a link to a broader movement or cause that benefits them
- be invited to spend some time outside of their community/country in return
- make social, financial and political connections through volunteers and visitors
- get concrete support for a particular area or build knowledge and skills by learning from those who are volunteering
- get some financial or other kind of direct benefits back through a project or program related to the expertise or study area of the volunteer or organization that sent the volunteer.
Communities may also take and house volunteers as a favor to an organization or institution that they are working with and as their contribution to a partnership relationship. They may genuinely enjoy the company of volunteer groups who bring a burst of energy and excitement into the community. Often projects that volunteers come to work on (eg, infrastructure, certain types of specialized training over the long term) would not be funded or available if it weren’t for the volunteer set-up or small non-profit, and communities are aware of this, so they gladly take an infrastructure project with some volunteers.
In a few cases, local people and organizations might be looking to take advantage of naive volunteers, inexperienced non-profit starters, and voluntourists. [Not forgetting here that volunteers, voluntourists, investors and non-profits can also do harm to a community and the people who live there, either intentionally or unintentionally, if they have bad intentions or don’t know what they are doing].
How is success defined?
You can tell a lot about the real reasons an organization or institution offers these programs if you can find out what the stated program goals are, or how they are measuring/defining program success.
Are they measuring…
- development outcomes and sustainability at the community level? (eg., school attendance, quality of education, health indicators, etc.)
- successful and sustainable entrepreneurial initiatives at the community level?
- the number of schools, latrines, houses, etc., built in a community?
- success in terms of a particular advocacy issue or broader movement around an issue?
- changes in attitudes about something?
- the number of students/volunteers/donors who enroll and complete the program/tour/exchange visit?
- community satisfaction with the program?
- profit from the actual volunteer/voluntour/exchange program? (above and beyond costs to run the program)?
- the number of emails they get that they can add to their list for sending out appeals?
- funds and donations raised during/after the program directly for the participating community?
- funds and donations raised during/after the program for the organization’s work in general?
Who is volunteering/ overseas exchange mostly about?
I realize that there is no category above where the end goal is ‘providing communities with particular skills that only an overseas volunteer can offer’ or ‘providing necessary (unskilled, inexperienced) support in emergency situations.’ I suppose I don’t believe that organizations and institutions really have those goals for their volunteer programs, but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.
I’m pretty sure that if you did some research, you would find that in the short term, volunteer and exchange programs are almost always mostly about the volunteer or the organization’s goals, not about the outcomes and impact at the community level. In the long term, however, they may be directly or indirectly beneficial to communities or the world at large.
I would be interested to know what, if any, is the long-term direct positive impact of volunteering/ voluntourism/ exchange visits
- on ‘poor’ communities (do their development indicators rise?)
- on political and voting tendencies of volunteers (do they vote for candidates who make decisions that favor the poor overseas? do they participate in direct advocacy with the US Government on issues related to their experiences?)
- on business practices (do business owners who have volunteered implement better business practices? do they have fairer practices and policies toward developing countries?)
- on world views (do participants see the world as more interconnected? does that impact on their personal actions and lifestyle choices?)
- on fundraising for the organization’s general programs or for participating communities
Finally, to be honest about it, some volunteers/voluntourists/exchange visitors might not even care what the real reasons are that an organization offers these programs. They just want to travel and feel good that they are ‘helping’.
[Update: I’ve been traveling and behind on my reading – I didn’t see A View from a Cave’s entire great series on Volunteering until now. Highly recommend checking it out!]
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