Many people tend to question the sustainability of volunteering abroad. “Will I be able to make a lasting impact? Would I be taking jobs or roles away from locals?” The truth of the matter is, while well intentioned, some forms of volunteering abroad are more beneficial than others.
To understand sustainable volunteering we must look at the major differences between ‘Voluntourism” and “Skills Based Volunteering”
While ‘Voluntourism” has good intentions it doesn’t always live up to it’s full potential. Some of the common faults are:
- Short term ‘weekend-warrior’ efforts that don’t establish enough foundation in the community to create any lasting effect
- Volunteers not focusing on the needs of a community, trying to fix things their own ways instead of learning what truly works best
- Little understanding or regard for cultural and economic differences and how they drastically effect volunteer efforts
In other words, just because we are ‘privileged’ doesn’t mean that we are automatically qualified to solve all of the problems of those less fortunate. Just because other communities or organizations come from lesser leans does not mean they don’t deserve skilled and appropriate aid. We must take time to get to know a community, it’s culture and it’s people before we can expect to contribute any real help.
This is where Skills Based Volunteering comes into play. This form of immersive and targeted aid has been proven to generate sustainable and genuine assistance to communities in need. Some of the key components to Skills Based and/or Sustainable Volunteering are:
- Deep understanding and engagement with the local cultures and communities, beyond the ‘volunteer duties’
- Sharing tailored skills to amplify the already proven success of local talent or further train individuals to continue their work after you leave
- Increase effectiveness and broaden the reach of already existing efforts in the community that are addressing important issues
Let’s take a further look at each of these points…
ENGAGEMENT & IMMERSION BEYOND THE WORK DAY
Whether you are looking to volunteer through a program or independently abroad it is important to make time to understand and experience the world you will be volunteering in. Find a program that provides varied opportunities to engage beyond the volunteer work tasks. An orientation to the culture and area, organized outings to explore the surrounding region, and language class offerings are some excellent ways to connect to the culture and community.
Venture With Impact offers a hands on orientation to volunteers upon arrival in South America. This helps inform and educate participants on the culture, customs and day-to-day life of where they will be living and working. Activities such as local cooking demos and lectures from members of the community give a deeper look at the local culture. Weekend trips to surrounding regions, such as sandboarding the Conache dunes, offer exciting peeks at the natural beauty of the region.
VOLUNTEER ORIENTATION 'SUDADO PESCADO' DEMO CONACHE SANDBOARDING
LISTEN AND SUPPORT LOCALS EFFORTS
Instead of trying to restructure a program to how YOU think it should run, it’s important to listen to the needs and respect the structure of existing community efforts. Things function very differently in different areas of the world and what may seem like a good idea from our western point of view may not be the answer in various cultures. Instead of simply doing a job that locals could be doing, look for helpful efforts that have been initiated locally and contribute ideas to help them grow. Donate tools, knowledge and support to skilled individuals that know what’s truly needed in their communities but may simply be lacking the resources to do so.
Venture With Impact volunteers share their professional skills to help grow local businesses and educate individuals. Past volunteers, such as Alexa, worked with the Moche Women's Collective to teach financial literacy workshops, such as the differences between short-term 'corto' and long-term 'largo' savings. Past venturer Peter taught a physical therapy workshop for fall prevention to a group of elderly patients at a local hospital. These skills shared will help to grow and sustain the local organizations.
SAVINGS LEARNING HOSPITAL WORKSHOP FINANCIAL LITERACY TRAINING
AMPLIFY EXISTING EFFORTS
Instead of trying to rebuild the wheel, help it run smoother. The locals of a community know better than visiting volunteers which efforts will be most impactful for their society. Things we take for granted and overlook such as clean water and literacy are often key issues to address. It’s important to share our skills with locals in ways that can amplify and strengthen THEIR continuing impact in their community. This way, long after you are done volunteering, you have helped to create a self-sustaining system.
Venture With Impact volunteers can help teach english to local children and adults in the community through partner organization Espaanglisch. Past engineering volunteers used topographical mapping equipment to create plans for a piping system to bring cleaner water to a local community. This would have otherwise cost the town over $3000, which the community could not afford. Volunteers help amplify the efforts of the Moche Women's Collective, redefining the role of a female in their community as they are not only caretakers but also support their families monetarily through the creation of their artisan products.
TEACHING ENGLISH CLEAN WATER ENGINEERING WOMEN EMPOWERMENT
So, as you can see, the world of sustainable volunteering has many factors that must be considered in order to succeed. But the core of it is simple:
Be engaged enough to learn deeply and be inspired by other communities and cultures.
Be generous enough to donate your greatest skills in meaningful and lasting ways.
Be humble enough to embrace that your volunteer efforts are a step along the path to help these communities thrive and sustain themselves in the future.