Many people have written recently about the negative impact of ‘voluntourism’. These short-term volunteer placements are often seen, usually correctly, as providing very little benefit to beneficiaries and the local community. Often the only benefit is the financial assistance that some organisations receive through volunteer placement fees. Many people argue that volunteers would be better off staying at home and just donating the money that they would have spent on the placement. Many other people would argue that this is unlikely to happen, and with a choice of either receiving the volunteer and some financial assistance or receiving nothing at all, it is better to take the former.
How does this compare to ‘proper’ long-term volunteering though? Can the misuse of long-term volunteers also have a negative impact on an organisation, even when that organisation has the best intentions? In my experience, many NGOs tend to see volunteers as an absolute positive and are far too willing to accept any volunteer who expresses an interest in working with them. Initially this may seem like a good thing, but this is often not the case. Taking on too many volunteers and not properly understanding how volunteers can benefit your organisation can lead to a wide variety of issues. Volunteers can end up feeling that they are not making any kind of impact and that the work they are doing is not necessary. Staff can feel frustrated at the amount of time that they are being asked to spend on supervising volunteers when they have so much other work to do. Vital finances are being spent on volunteers, either through accommodation, work-related costs or attempting to keep volunteers happy, that could be better spent on working with the organisation’s beneficiaries. Finally, projects that could be better implemented by a local staff member can end up being held back due to volunteer involvement and local or professional inexperience.
I am currently volunteering part time for a rural development NGO in Udaipur, Rajasthan. Though this organisation has no link to 2Way Development, it has a very large volunteer programme often hosting more than twenty international volunteers at a time. The organisation sees accepting volunteers as an integral part of its ethos, which is admirable. It is after all incredibly important to provide the next generation of development workers with initial experience. However, due to this decision to accept almost anyone and a reluctance to restrict roles to volunteers who have the required experience, volunteers very often come away from their placement feeling like they have contributed very little. This is unfortunate as the organisation is doing some fantastic work and well-placed volunteers could both provide highly valuable assistance and have a very positive experience. Fortunately, the role that I have been given is something that interests me and is important, but I know many people who haven’t been so lucky.
This is in stark contrast to my time at Shaishav, 2Way Development’s South Asia hub. At Shaishav there is a very strong understanding of how volunteers can best be used and a great deal of need for volunteers in these areas, mostly communications and fundraising. This meant that I was always very busy at Shaishav and ended my placement feeling that I had made a significant difference to the charity and its beneficiaries. I was also able to learn a great deal from my time at Shaishav and gained skills that I will be able to utilise in future roles.
On the whole, the issues mentioned here can be fairly easily fixed. Organisations need to recognise that international volunteers are not an absolute positive. They need to place restrictions on the volunteers that they accept, taking on only those with the experience and skills needed to contribute to their work. Finally, they need to have a serious think about how volunteers can best be utilised to benefit the organisation, whether this is in project management, communications, fundraising, research, advocacy or another area, and only utilise volunteers in these areas.
At 2Way Development we ensure that volunteers are only sent to organisations that have recognisable volunteer needs. We mainly work with smaller organisations without large volunteer programmes of their own. Finally, we ensure that the skills of the volunteer match the requirements of the organisation and the work of the organisation matches the interests of the volunteer. In this way, volunteers have the best chance of undertaking a placement that both enables them to create new skills and utilise their existing skills to benefit the organisation’s work, creating a positive experience for all involved.