By Nafessa Kassim
In increasing numbers, professionals are turning to travel and international service as a way to diversify their experience and help them start careers in the global development sector.
It’s no secret that international volunteer experience–provided it’s skills-based and relevant to your field–can be critical in the hiring process. And the United Nations, amongst others, has highlighted that volunteers to play a crucial role in sustainable development.
But, there is a right and a wrong way to volunteer your skills overseas. One prominent horror story of volunteering overseas (aka voluntouring) is the sketchy orphan business that Al Jazeera documented in Cambodia. Informally, many people have shared their personal experiences by openly criticising their own work overseas.
We see that voluntourism is getting a bad rap, and we think volunteering overseas can be better then that. So, regardless of where you want to go, here are six steps to finding an impactful and ethical international skills-based volunteer experience that we call Experteering:
1. Pick the right organisation.
There are so many social impact organisations around the world, making it daunting to select the right one to work with. Here are a few tips for researching legitimate and ethical organisations:
- Is it legally registered, and not on a watchdog list?
- Does its work appear to be ethical and safe for all parties involved (from the staff to beneficiaries to the environment around them)? Review their program descriptions, theory of change and evaluations, and analyse whether they are using ethical practices. Search for reviews or comments about the organisation.
- Is it driven by foreign entities, or is it supporting locally-led development?
You can probably find most of this information on the organisation’s website. If not, try to schedule time to Skype with the organisation directly. If you’re not sure where to start, look at matching sites like UN Volunteers, VSO or my company’s site, MovingWorlds.
2. Volunteer your real skills.
Select a volunteering project that matches your skills AND meets a mission-critical need of the organisation. It’s okay to also volunteer something you do as a hobby, but make sure you’re working on a project that needs your professional experience as well.
It’s also important that your role doesn’t erode the job of a local person. So make sure your work is filling a real gap and that it provides the opportunity for you to transfer your know-how to the team of people you’ll be working with.
3. Plan ahead of time, and then plan some more.
If you are doing skills-based volunteering and you know the project you’re going to be working on, plan ahead as much as possible. And then, when you’re done planning, plan some more. Though this seems excessive, those who shortcut the planning process have reported that this is the most critical part of the trip and they wish they’d spent more time planning.
Ironing out all these details before you hit the ground will make for a successful and enriching experience. We find that following a planning process (like this one) and a having a couple hours of Skype calls with the organisation is typically sufficient. Note that your organisation contact is likely strapped for time, and you should take the lead and handle most the planning process, while asking him/her to review and comment on your planning.
A word of caution here: there are many things you just won’t have the content to work on until you hit the ground. It’s best to simply “shut up and listen” (more about this later) and follow a human-centered design approach. However, taking time before you fly to discuss key details, stakeholders, cultural differences, goals, project sustainability and success criteria will help you be prepared to make a real impact.
In addition, it’s important to reflect on your own personal and professional goals for the trip and to set an intention. Be ready to adapt those once you get there, but it’s helpful to be aware of what you hope to leave your trip with.
4. Work alongside the community and organisation as partners.
When you volunteer overseas, you’ll be launched into a different context and culture. You might be an expert in a certain area, but you’ll have a lot to learn from the organisation and the people in it. Ways to do that include:
- Focus on building personal relationships and trust–integrate with the people you’re working with and understand their drive and passion. Create a professional relationship/friendship. Avoid isolating yourself or only spending time with other expats.
- Make sure the project is driven locally–support projects that are led and approved by the local community, making it their own. If an organisation is being built, the majority of the staff should be locals and the long-term plan should include decreasing expat senior staff over the years. Or if you’re providing a resource, try to have it locally sourced to improve, not hinder, the economy.
- Seek to empower efforts, not initiate your own–if you see a need you want to fulfill, avoid automatically creating your own individual program. Instead, evaluate whether there is a way you can add on to or adapt an existing program.
Ernesto Sirolli told an enlightening, light-hearted example of NOT doing these things in his popular TED Talk, “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!” In it, he shares a story of going to Zambia with a group of aid workers from Italy. They led a farming project on fertile land the Zambians weren’t using. Instead of asking the locals why they weren’t growing produce, Sirolli thought, “Thank God we’re here, just in the nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation!” Tomatoes grew, only to be consumed by a herd of hippos, days before harvest. “Yes, that’s why we have no agriculture here,” local Zambians replied. “Why didn’t you tell us?!” Sirolli asked the locals, to which they replied, “You never asked.” (The story can be found at 1:20 of his talk).
For additional tips, take this free training on Udemy about international volunteering best practices.
5. Make it impactful AND sustainable.
Success is something that’s measured after you leave.
When volunteering your skills overseas, you should work hard to make a lasting impact. For example, as a doctor, you can go and treat patients for a short period of time, but this will make the community reliant on ongoing charity efforts. Alternatively, you can train local health workers on improved sanitation techniques or using processes/checklists to improve health outcomes. This can create an impact that’s more likely to remain after you leave.
6. Be ridiculously humble.
You’re coming in as an experienced professional to volunteer vital information, but your host organisation and the local people also have vital information. Maintain personal humility and you’ll be more likely to be successful.
Volunteering your skills can have a valuable impact on your career and be an inspiring life experience. But it should also have a lasting impact on the organisation you work with. To create that positive experience for both sides, it’s necessary to be intentional about how you volunteer. The six steps described above will support you in creating a long-term impact, while having an amazing experience!
We would love to hear your story about volunteering your skills. If you used these steps during your experience (or if you didn’t!), please share your story in the comments.
Nafessa Kassim is the Director of Global Engagements and Founding Team Member at MovingWorlds. She recently consulted for Purpose, and has previously served as a Clinton Foundation fellow in Hyderabad, India, and worked as a fellow at Albright Stonebridge Group. Nafessa holds an MPH and an MSW from Columbia University.
Featured image shows a German doctor working in Kolkata, India. Photo by German Doctors for Developing Countries.
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