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The value of volunteering at home

The value of volunteering at home

With instantaneous access to pictures and news reports, the outpouring of support that comes in the immediate aftermath of disasters is natural. The gathering of support for Nepal since the terrible earthquake on 25 April shows the global desire to assist the affected areas. In such times, the real question becomes how to help. While frustrating for people who want to rush to the frontline, oftentimes the most useful thing is to donate funds to reliable organisations. Rushing into a disaster zone without pertinent skills and experience puts additional strain on already stretched resources.

For those who want to contribute more than money, the question becomes how to develop the needed skills and experience to help in the future. Humanitarian aid and international development are sectors that encompass a variety of jobs that require specific skillsets. To help effectively, you have to develop the necessary skills. If you find yourself standing at the edge of these sectors, you may question where to find that first experience that will give you the space to develop useful skills.

There are many ways to embark on a career in the aid sector, and it’s a topic that has been thoroughly covered by others, including here on WhyDev. As mentioned above, one common recommendation for breaking into international development is to get relevant experience and skills. For many people, this means dedicating time–sometimes years–to volunteering for various organisations.

There are quite a few hindrances to international volunteering. First of all, it’s often expensive. Most volunteer and internship experiences are unfunded, and it’s not always possible for students and recent graduates to pay for plane tickets, visas, housing, vaccinations and living expenses.

Second, it’s hard to make the most of an experience if you’re unfamiliar with the local context and not sure how to best utilise your talents. Not to mention the inherent limit to what short-term volunteers can accomplish. If you’re heading back to your home country in a few months, you can only sustainably take on minor projects that won’t be harmed by the constant flux of people.

An alternate entry point for a career in international development–one that is mentioned in passing but rarely discussed in detail–is domestic volunteering.

I personally began my work in the development sector through an unpaid internship in the U.S., and I’m a big proponent of this route into development. Why? Domestic options have four distinct benefits.

1. Experience

You can get valuable experience through domestic volunteer positions, and there are a plethora of local organisations in need of volunteers. Look into any sector, and you’ll likely discover ample opportunities to start building your skills locally. Experience working in your local community is often transferable abroad, as there are plenty of relevant skills that can be learned while working locally: program management, grant writing, advocacy, fundraising, etc. Another option is to look at opportunities at headquarters offices of international NGOs. It’s a good way to learn more about how the organisation runs and the skills they look for in new hires.

2. Context

Context cannot be stressed enough. It comes up in many development-related discussions: understanding the context of your work makes it easier to make informed decisions, design effective programs and accurately anticipate local challenges. Domestic volunteering gives you the home team advantage. You’re less likely to be surprised by the normal day-to-day work structure, communication, or expectations and your pre-existing knowledge of the culture and government of your country will enable you to focus more on learning new skills in the workplace. These are skills you can later bring with you abroad (and to job interviews!).

3. Certain development challenges know no borders

The issues that arise in development–the lack of resources, lack of funding, high staff turnover, the overwhelming struggle of combating a lifetime’s worth of troubles–can be found at international NGOs and domestic non-profits worldwide. Learning how to navigate in a workplace with these restraints is useful, regardless of where you have the experience. Figuring out how to be creative, sustainable and frugal will help you in any future position in the aid industry.

4. Cost

There’s no getting around it. Domestic volunteering can be much cheaper than international volunteering. You avoid a number of expenses, and if need be, you can legally work part-time elsewhere to fund your volunteering. It’s not easy to balance two positions simultaneously, but it can be a way to stay afloat while pursuing that initial experience.

Additionally, some governments and organisations host programs with stipends for citizens to get involved in community service. For example, the U.S. has multiple options, such as AmeriCorps, the Emerson National Hunger Fellows Program and Echoing Green’s Fellowship Program, to name a a few. Individual organisations, like Canada’s Katimavik, run volunteer programs that are funded by local and national government departments. Then there are independent organisations that operate in tandem with existing systems. One well-known example is the Teach for All network, which has independent organisations in 36 nations. Furthermore, you can probably find an online hub for volunteer opportunities in your country; a few examples are Volunteer Canada, Young Opportunities Australia and Youth Ki Awaaz. The number of paid fellowship opportunities is also growing, and while competitive, fellowships offer a means of gaining experience without taking on the costs of volunteering yourself.

So why isn’t domestic volunteerism discussed more?

Despite everything that has been said about the pros and cons of international volunteerism, there is still a preference for international experience. Most development job descriptions list in-country experience as a preferred trait in applicants, even for headquarters positions. There’s no denying it. However, significant domestic experience and the ability to show the relevant skills you can bring to an organisation can still increase your likelihood of getting a salaried position.

So in the end, while domestic volunteerism might lack the zing of an international experience, it’s an opportunity to gain valuable experience that avoids many of the ethical and sustainability issues of international volunteerism. You’ll be surprised at how much you can learn just a few kilometres from home. And most importantly, you just might end up relying on the lessons learned during your domestic volunteer experience throughout your career.

Featured image shows AmeriCorps volunteer Waverly Garner using music to teach children in Virginia about the American Civil War. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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Jessica Meckler

Jessica is a Master’s candidate at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, where she focuses on economic development and NGO management. She also currently works at the Akanksha Foundation as an American India Foundation William J. Clinton Fellow, assisting with impact assessments, curriculum design and system creation in schools for children from low-income communities. Previously, she taught English in South Korea as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant, and she has interned at multiple community development organisations in the U.S., South Korea and Bangladesh. Jessica is particularly interested in sustainable development, monitoring and evaluation, organisational learning and education.

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  1. […] the world is facing? It seemed that the volunteers I interviewed could have had a bigger impact by staying at home and advocating for change in their own […]

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