Most volunteers really do want to make a difference. We talk to hundreds of prospective volunteers of all ages, from different countries and with varying experience, and there is no denying the real passion to go out there and do some good.
But an increasingly cynical society will ask whether it is possible for a short term volunteer, with less experience, to really make a difference. We agree it is right to hold up the mirror and reflect on that point, but at Outreach International we use it as a motivator to get things right, rather than an obstacle to stumble over. Is the glass half full, or half empty, or in reality is it a vessel you can take to the tap and fill up?
How much of a difference a volunteer can make relies on three primary factors:
But it is a much bigger picture than that and the variety of ways volunteers can make a difference is best described by using some very different examples:
We recently placed a mature woman with a fledgling NGO in Cambodia for 6 months. An office manager, she wanted to do something different and being able to apply her administrative and general commercial skills in a volunteer project was appealing.
The developing NGO needed help getting organised, putting in place the processes that meant they could be more effective in delivering their mission; something that even larger NGOs would recognise as an issue.
At the end of 6 months, having spent most of her time working independently, (which is tough in any country, but especially hard when you are working in a culture so different as Cambodia), not only had the volunteer sorted out their administration processes, but she had used her general commercial and report writing skills to find & secure additional funding for the project. The funding would come from a trust that will pay most of the operating costs of a new school for the next 5 years.
This volunteer clearly made a difference. A huge one in fact. But it was not necessarily the project that created the opportunity, but the application of the volunteer who used her generalist skills in an innovative way to make something extraordinary happen.
At the other end of the spectrum, we place volunteers in a turtle conservation project in Mexico. It looks nice (beautiful in fact) with the glamour of sharing a camp on the beach with other international volunteers, working hard at night collecting nests and being more restful during the day.
Having any prior knowledge of turtles would be interesting but not essential. No real skills required – so how can you make a difference?
Well at one level a project like this may look trivial; something for a young ‘gapper’ to do while waiting for University.
The reality is that the project is helping recover the population of a number of endangered turtle species. Before the camp existed, the turtle population was rapidly dwindling due to the poaching of eggs from nests, primarily for human consumption.
Few Mexicans recognise the issue or are in a position to volunteer their time to do something about it. An inspiring local marine biologist, initially working with the University and determined to do something about it, has been using international volunteers to provide the capacity to collect the turtle nests at night, saving them from poachers. The volunteers provide an enthusiastic and energetic workforce, and the fees they pay help finance the modest budget of the camp all year round.
The volunteers also get involved in collating research data and the fact is that the turtle population is now recovering. The volunteers have made a real difference. You can’t say a single volunteer saved the day, but without any volunteers we would leave endangered species in greater peril.
Not only that but the extended local community work of the project, the data collected and the political interest that the international volunteers attract, means the turtles are more on the local agenda than ever before, increasing the chance of long term success.
This story could be replicated for all of our conservation projects that use international volunteers to create work capacity and ignite local interest in the issues, whether volunteering in the highlands of Galapagos, working with rescued wildlife in the Amazon rainforest or supporting conservation efforts in Costa Rica.
We are lucky enough to support volunteers with professional skills such as physiotherapists, occupational therapists, nurses and teachers. When they apply their experience in a developing country, this not only increases the short term capacity in a clinic or school, but it can also lead to the transfer of skills and methods to local staff. This can have a long term lasting benefit.
It is potentially more difficult when an aspiring or part-qualified volunteer wants to work in an area of interest, but they do not have the qualifications or experience to act independently. Can these volunteers really make a difference?
Last summer we had a volunteer working in a special needs school. She was not experienced, but was hoping to go into this profession. She found it really hard work; having to deal with the culture shock, integrating with staff and adapting to working with the children in a short space of time.
In the two months she was there, however, she connected with a young boy and over the placement found that working with him she was able to teach him to do a number of tasks independently that he could not do before. Her fresh energy and incremental capacity in the project made it happen, and we would expect that the boy still benefits from the learned skills.
The lack of caring capacity (not the lack of care) in many projects cannot be underestimated, and this provides the potential for volunteers to make a difference. Three local staff members caring for twenty severely disabled children means that the children receive the very basics of care.
The attendance of a caring volunteer means a higher level of engagement with each child is possible, whether they are trained occupational therapist or an aspiring graduate, whether they are there for a month or a year. Someone who cares can make a difference in a moment or a month.
Teaching English as a foreign language has long been recognised as an activity for those taking a year out to live and volunteer abroad. In long term roles it can mean a qualified volunteer taking a full time role in a school where, like any other teacher, they have the opportunity to affect the educational standards of the students and play a role in steering their overall development.
But what about those volunteers who want to teach for perhaps just one or two months, and are not qualified or experienced teachers. Can they really make a difference?
The answer lies in supporting the right projects, and matching the skills and expectations of the volunteer correctly.
For example, in short term teaching roles the volunteer will usually act as an assistant, supporting a local teacher and offering help to individuals and smaller groups in the classroom. This increased support can have an immediate effect, in the same way a classroom assistant does in a UK school suffering from large class sizes and varying student capabilities.
Volunteers do not always act as assistants, however, and there are opportunities to stand at the front of the class for those with the basic knowledge and confidence to do so. This may be in an orphanage school in Kenya, where they only have half the number of teachers as they do classes, or in a youth centre or school in Cambodia or Mexico where they have a shortage of English speaking teachers. In these cases, the volunteer makes a difference by filling a real gap in teaching resource.
A big benefit frequently quoted by school Directors is that having a native English speaking volunteer in the school enables children to practise their English informally, in break times and during after school activities, which dramatically improves their pronunciation.
And an enthusiastic volunteer who is there for only two months is the type of volunteer who is more likely to stretch themselves creating home-work clubs, sports activities and arts, music and drama programmes. The nature of a short term placement can be the very motivator that drives a volunteer to make a big difference, even in a short space of time.
Of course the students may be disappointed when that volunteer leaves, but are we really saying that a volunteer should not go unless committed for 6 months plus, or do we commit to finding the next volunteer to replace them, filling that glass back up to the top.
One thing that is less talked about on the question of ‘making a difference’ is the lifetime benefit to a volunteer. How does their experience shape their future, and therefore their attitude to others?
A long, long time ago I was on a gap year. I confess to not having volunteered during my trip all those years ago, but even today I have a very real sense of how the insights I picked up during my trip shaped my future outlook.
With the naivety of youth, I recall walking in the downtown local markets of Nairobi, being wonderfully lost in the poor backstreets of Calcutta (as it was then), sharing local mini-buses with locals and all their farm produce on 8 hour overland journeys in Vietnam. I remember seeing poverty, vibrant colours, the inspirational endeavours of those struggling through everyday life, and I remember lots of friendly and welcoming smiles; those same feelings I have when I tour our projects.
And I believe that broad insight, which helped shape my understanding of the world, would have been focused more sharply if I had lived and volunteered in such a community. In doing so a volunteering experience creates a lasting difference through the lifetime development of the volunteer, not just through their actions on the project.
For more information from our Guide to Volunteering, see Part 1, ‘How to Choose a Project’
To get started planning your volunteering trip, visit our presentation guide to review how it all works