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Guest Post: Sustainable Volunteering 101

 Melissa Chase of Venture with Impact drops some knowledge about international volunteering and how to give back through sustainable actions. 

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 Skill 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 Skill 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.

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.

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.

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 highest 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.

 

VENTURE WITH IMPACT is an organization that coordinates the accommodation, travel, and volunteer experiences for a group of intrepid professionals that live in cities in South America for a period of one month or more. Their immersive programs expose professionals to new cultures, people and ideas so that they may be more informed and empathetic world citizens, and in the process, provide a positive social impact.  

Founder of Venture with Impact, Ann Davis is an avid traveler, having visited or lived in over 40 countries in 5 continents. Throughout the past eight years, she has had experience founding a non-profit as well as working for several start-ups.  In 2008, Ann co-founded the non-profit organization, Swim 4 Success, which provides free swimming lessons to low-income youth in New Orleans. Ann has worked with many social businesses including Drop the Chalk, Inc., Feelgoodz, LLC, and Haystack EDU. Additionally, Ann has worked with the NGOs Pemón Health, in the Gran Sabana of Venezuela, and La Comunidad que Construimos in Trujillo, Peru.