Labels: Is There Really a “Best” Traveling Volunteer?

Voluntourist, volunteer tourist, digital nomad volunteer, volunteers who travel, international volunteer, the traveling volunteer, paid-to-volunteer-experience-when-traveling, finding a free- place- to-live-in-a foreign-community-while volunteering adventurer, and the list goes on. There are so many terms to describe the person volunteering outside their home-front, and within this activity, so many elements attached to it such as: length of time, cost, skills needed (or not) and what project(s) to volunteer for. However, there is another topic lurking within this mainstream societal topic that should be addressed.

Is there a “best” traveling volunteer?

I think most people would agree, to be known as a Peace Corps volunteer, for example, is a good thing! They have historically provided a valuable service to the community so their reputation is well deserved. But what about the one time event volunteer, such as the beach-cleaner-upper? The travellers that “only” spend an afternoon outside their vacation time to volunteer to clean up a local beach over-run by trash? Is their contribution to the destination community less valuable than work of their Peace Corps friends? Typically this type of minimal volunteering or what I call “soft volunteering” on a predominately tourism-focused trip is viewed as less worthy. But why?

Contemporary society says there’s a “best” and labels all such activities.

Last fall I wrote a blog post about various terms (labels) to describe the activity of traveling to volunteer and if any one of these labels really matters to the general public. Then, now months later, it appears it still does. The term voluntourism, for example, has a stigma associated with it and is labelled as bad. On a recent discussion board, in a free-accommodation-for-volunteering-site, a poster said they were not a voluntourism site because they only featured volunteering opportunities that provided free accommodation. After some reflection I replied – a volunteering opportunity with free accommodation does not necessarily mean it is better.

I say a “best” depends on community impact.

 Oh I agree. To spend a large sum of money to essentially pad a sending organisation’s pockets is not what I support. I recognise (and support) community projects that utilise long term skilled volunteers and agree with the same discussion-board-poster who implored people should not be “paying for a poverty experience.” Many labels have been rightfully applied to many organisations because of how they’ve conducted themselves and exploited marginalised communities. But by applying a mismatched or ill-informed label on an entire group of volunteers unfortunately cheapens the effort of a traveling volunteer’s community give-back based on the negative activities of some. This is not doing us (common planet dwellers) any good. So, what is a solution?

The “best” traveling volunteer is well-informed and participates in dialogue.

Being an educated and dialogue-seeking individual may be a flippant answer to what is a “best” traveling volunteer… but, I cannot get away from the importance of this. If people, whether traveling solo to volunteer or in groups, armed themselves with more information about, for example, accessible community reports that show objectives met by the sending organisation, understanding the cultural context in which they will be working with, or creating a dialogue with community members once in (and out of) country, I believe this will change popular media’s labelling of traveling volunteer activity as “all things bad.” How? Because active engagement between all traveling volunteer players (community, organisation and volunteers) will ultimately focus on the most important recipients (and drivers) of any development project: the community.

I believe the traveling volunteer has the power to change current negative labelling through the purposeful actions they take before, during, and after a volunteering experience. Ultimately it is what the traveling volunteer chooses to call out, focus on, and move forward with that will change the narrative.

Will you be that “best” traveling volunteer?

*Featured image by Jazael Melgoza (Venture With Impact)

Skilled Traveling Volunteers: Does It Really Matter?

Not long ago I had a conversation with an individual who was thinking about traveling to volunteer. They were struggling with elements related to this activity, such as, how much money it would cost; the necessary time off from work; and what skills (if any) would be required. Although the conservation varied, the discussion tended to stay focused on the topic of skills-based volunteering. Many questions emerged. Should they consider utilising their skills, or would a great attitude be enough? Do community projects really need skilled volunteers, or does it really matter? While there may be some merits associated with needed unskilled labor in some contexts, such as clearing trash from ocean-side beaches, according to academic research, skills-based volunteering does matter. Here are top four reasons why.

Satisfied Volunteers. Traveling volunteers who are skill-matched with a community project tend to be more satisfied overall with the volunteering experience than those who are not matched because they expect their skills will meet specific project objectives. When project objectives are met, they likely feel a sense of satisfaction because their work made a difference to the community. On the other hand, take for example, a volunteer who is expected to work on a construction project when they do not have the skill set to do so. As a result, a build might take longer than necessary (or in extreme cases, aspects needed to be redone), produce higher costs (if walls need to be repainted for example, then more product needs to be purchased), leading to volunteer (and community) dissatisfaction with the process. For skilled volunteers and unskilled volunteers, satisfaction/dissatisfaction levels tend to appear on opposite sides of the satisfaction spectrum. Skilled volunteers are also likely to become repeat volunteers, which most likely leads to sustainable community development.

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Hives For Haiti: Mango Tree Permaculture Class

Build Capital and Lessen Dependence. Highly skilled traveling volunteers are effective at building local and organisational capacity, producing noticeable social capital, and creating community partnerships. Projects utilising expert volunteers leans toward being community driven, meaning the community has had input into the type of project needing expert foreign volunteers. In addition, expert volunteers may find themselves as catalysts for partnership development between community-driven projects. Due to skilled volunteers contributing to local capacity and social capital building, community partnerships have the potential to create community empowerment. An empowered community may, in turn, stop long-term colonial-like dependency on foreign assistance.

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Venture With Impact

Development Outcomes. Clearly defined project objectives and measurable goals should be accessible for skilled volunteers, so they can make knowledgeable decisions about who they may volunteer with, and where the activity takes place. Accountability and transparency of project reporting tends to be linked with specific development outcomes and highly desired skilled-to-project-matched volunteers. Simply said, skilled volunteers are one of many driving forces in keeping an organisation accountable for development in a foreign community. Skilled traveling volunteers also have the propensity to be interested in understanding individual community member perspectives on how a project, for example, is personally impacting them. Project organisers understand skilled volunteer interest in community voices and respond with reporting community member impact stories.

Hives For Haiti: Garry Training

Sustainable Program Development. Sustainable development is much more than a green thinking type of development, it is, according to a popular featured in the 1987 Brundtland Report, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” When traveling volunteers offer their skills to a community, they are not only impacting the current generation of community members but future generations. Skilled-to-project matched volunteers tend be part of the sustainability thinking group. They not only base their decisions on the transparency of development outcomes, but look for projects that are mindful of social, economic, and environmental sustainable community impacts. Project creators/managers who desire these sustainably-minded-skilled volunteers, consider these criteria when developing a project. As a result, the community benefits not only from sustainably-driven volunteers, but the subsequent program is developed with sustainability objectives in mind.

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Venture With Impact: Lisbon by Joel Filipe

It is apparent skilled traveling volunteers, matched with projects that support these skills, makes the most sense for community development. Not only are skilled volunteers more satisfied with their experience, but projects, developed with skilled based volunteers in mind, have the tendency to build social capital and lessen community dependency on foreign assistance. Skilled volunteers also have powerful influence over sustainable project development outcomes for current, and future, community members. After all, people who decide to volunteer nationally or internationally, want to know they actually made a difference in that community. What better way, than to use their skills to do so.

*Article first appeared May 1, 2019 on Venture With Impact website.

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