Volunteering WITH the community, not FOR it!

Volunteering with the community

Thanks Anna for this guest post! Who is Anna?

Anna volunteered for 6 months with Humana People to People in rural Belize. While there, she pondered the pros and cons of foreign aid in developing countries. Her experience inspired an open-license book about the ways poverty affects the lives of people in developing countries (including a chapter about sustainable volunteering) – make sure you check it out!

Why should you volunteer WITH the community?

Community development projects are increasingly popular among volunteering experiences all over the world. The concept, while broad, encompasses helping out a specific community, usually a village, neighbourhood or social group. And although “development” is the subject of work here, I would advise future volunteers to put more impact on the “community” part of the phrase. Community development aims to empower the community rather than doing things for the recipients. This is not sustainable volunteering!

The biggest satisfaction from volunteering experience comes from the knowledge that your project is sustainable and that it will continue to work long after you’re gone. That can only be achieved by working with the community.

First of all, I strongly believe that all future projects should be discussed with (preferably – initiated by) the community. The fact is, even the most well-intentioned project will fail to yield results if the community doesn’t want it and will therefore not use it. A good example is Pippa Biddle who took an excursion with her classmates to build a library in Tanzania. It turned out that the American students were so bad at laying bricks that every night the villagers were redoing their work, not saying anything to the well-meaning youth. Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there, she wrote several years later.

But it’s not only the decision-making part which should have the community members involved! It is important to not try to take away people’s jobs, but show them what we can do together. The volunteer should bring the skills or experiences that the locals do not have – it doesn’t mean you have to be, for example, a doctor where there are none, but even a college degree and simply a Western way of working will ensure a different set of skills, which you should combine with those available locally.

During my own volunteering experience, my teammate and I didn’t know much about constructing new shelves for a library, but we could design the room, obtain new books and create a digital and printed database of all the books. Just like we didn’t try to teach the people – who, after all, were farmers – how to make their own vegetable gardens, but we did promote organic farming using cheap and eco-friendly local materials. As I believe that the best growth happens at the meeting points, I also think that it was our combined efforts which made the projects successful.

Another aspect of project sustainability is the idea of “owning” the results. If community members have put work into a project they are more likely to care for it in the future. It helps them appreciate the amount of work put into it and doesn’t create the feeling that if something, for example, breaks, the next volunteers will come and fix it.

Volunteering with the community www.grassrootsnomad.com

That’s why the organisation I was volunteering with, Humana People to People, never gives anything for free. Instead of giving away free clothes, they sell them for 1/10 of the price, and when giving a goat to a family, they agree to give back at least one of the kids for another family. Aside from making sure that only committed families receive help, it is also about dignity. After all, nobody likes to receive charity, but most people are happy to get a good “deal”.

When choosing your own volunteering experience, try to check the feedback that your organisation has among the people it’s helping and ask about the way they work with the community. It is relatively easy to come to a poor country and decide what you want to do. It’s much harder – but ultimately better – to ask what people need and want and how they can contribute to the project. Try to make a lasting impact with sustainable projects and by empowering the community to make prevent dependency on international assistance.

Make sure to utilize the skills you already have (though it’s not wrong to assume you will gain new ones during your project). Ask yourself if your work will not steal or replace someone else’s job, but instead, will bring something from outside that the local community couldn’t achieve alone.

Try to spend as much time as possible volunteering. It is easier for the organization, the community, and the volunteer if the service period is longer, i.e. several months, or at least weeks. Finally, enjoy the experience! Volunteering abroad can be challenging, but it can be the best, most memorable and meaningful experience of your life. Choose a project that you feel passionate about and pack your bags!

 

Guest post by Anna Gudarowska, the author of the incredible (FREE) e-book ‘The Law of the Jungle‘ which examines the impact of poverty on people’s lives. Here she writes about the importance of volunteering with the community, rather than for it!

Volunteering is a two way street. Make sure you volunteer with the community not for it for sustainable

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84 Comments
Life, Other Than - - - Shannon

Great piece. My masters degree is in International Studies and one of the reasons I did not go into development work was because most programs tend to force solutions on people and give them no ownership in the process. That isn’t true of all programs, but it was enough to put me off. You have a lot of valid points here about what makes for a successful volunteer program. Great piece!

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks so much Shannon, I completely agree! Thanks so much for your comment 🙂

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Anna

Thank you, Shannon, I thought about similar career, but even if I had a positive experience in Belize, I decided it’s to easy to mess up in this field. And anyway, it’s not like people don’t need help back in my own country.

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Its A Travelful Life (@atravelfullife)

The saying ‘give a man a fish and he’ll for a day but teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime’ comes to mind. It’s important for the community to be able to sustain itself long after the volunteers are gone ☺

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Anna

Thank you for reading and leaving feedback. I believe you’ve managed to convey in one sentence what I took the whole article to write about 😉

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Chantell

This is really interesting! I have to say that I was put off from the idea of voluntourism by recent articles posted and people’s accounts of unqualified volunteers who didn’t actually contribute anything useful to the community. This concept sounds a lot more sustainable. I love the idea of selling the clothes rather than giving them. I agree, it is important to be working together rather than just giving handouts.

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Grassroots Nomad

So true, Chantell. I think there needs to be a big shift in the way we all approach volunteering overseas – it is essential that people work with communities to establish sustainable projects and relationships!

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Anna

Thank you for your feedback, Chantell! I’m not claiming that my project was better than others, but I like to think that we did at least some good with the community.

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Shayan Naveed (@ShayanBkk)

This article is great! It ties in very well with the work and concept that one of the company I freelance for stands for – Yunus Center at AIT. It’s like saying we need to stop CSR and focus on social business or social enterprises.

Great post and will be sharing on their FB page.

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Grassroots Nomad

Thank you so much Shayan! I will have to look into the Yunus Center and find out more about your work 🙂

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Anna

Thank you very much, Shayan! It’s always great to hear about other responsible initiatives. It seems that maybe this sector is going in the right direction.

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Hung Thai [Up Up and a Bear]

This reminds me of a story I heard a few years back: someone from the States wanted to help people in a poor region of Tanzania (or something like that – I forget). He goes over there and gives out loans to farmers to get land and tools and taught them how to work the land responsibly. The farmers agree to pay him back over time. This way, he was able to help the people come up from poverty without feeling “useless.” I totally dig the way he went about it – and what you’re sharing here is very similar to his approach.

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Grassroots Nomad

That’s great! Microfinance is a great way to stimulate entrepreneurship as well 🙂

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katy@untoldmorsels

Laura, do you have any advice on choosing effective microfinance programs? I have participated via Kiva for several years but I guess I’m unsure whether the funding is being utilised effectively

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Grassroots Nomad

Hey Katy – I think a good way to put your mind at ease is to email Kiva directly and ask any questions that you may have. With any charity donations you can never be certain but it always helps to ask questions. Have you heard of Good Return? I’ve financed some projects through them – e.g. I loan money to a lady to help her set up a small stall, after some time (often many many months), I get that money back. I can either keep the money, or reinvest it with someone else.

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Anna

Hey Hung, it seems that’s just the way to do it! Besides saving the dignity, I also believe it makes people more responsible for their small projects and so, more likely to succeed.

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Sally E

I love this post and wholeheartedly agree with it! I think there’s a giant voluntourism market that doesn’t really help locals. If people truly want to help, they should focus on projects that are long-term and sustainable. Communities always thrive better when you work with them than simply give handouts. Great post!

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks so much Sally, I completely agree with you! I hope there is a big shift in the way people approach volunteering over the next few years, with the focus being more on a mutually beneficial arrangement rather than just something for the volunteer’s CV!

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Anna

Thank you, Sally! I like that “our” organisation in Belize still works with the community, and our short stay was just a way to boost the cooperation, which hasn’t ended after we left.

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Jo

This is so apt I love the title – One must work “with” the community always. Else there is basically no point. My next goal is to head out for my own volunteering experience and I will def choose a project thats close to my heart to be 100% into it.

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Grassroots Nomad

That’s great Jo! I have a monthly volunteering guest post series, so have a look there and see if you get any tips about places/project to work on. Good luck! If you need any tips, let me know!

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Anna

Thank you, Jo! I think with this attitude you can do many great things, and I wish you a wonderful and meaningful experience.

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Cristal

What a great perspective. Thank you so much for sharing! I completely agree that the desire for change should come from within and based on my experience volunteering in Latin America the ones that accomplished the least were always the ones run by North Americans with an “I know best” attitude. The most successful allowed locals to manage change as they saw most apporpriate.

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Grassroots Nomad

I completely agree Cristal. Where did you volunteer? I would love to hear more about it!

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Anna

Thank you so much for reading, Cristal! I would also love to learn more about your own experience.
The US have a lot of development projects in many countries so it’s easy to see some pretty ignorant ideas but in fairness I’ve also encountered very useful and responsible ones. I guess it depends not only on an organisation, but the volunteers themselves as well.

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Gina Bear

I really like this idea of not giving anything for free because when you work a bit for it, then the family appreciates it more. I like your open minded perspective and not the whole, “I know better” attitude!

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks Gina! If you have time, I recommend checking out Anna’s free E-book, she has plenty of great advice and insights!

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Anna

Thanks, Gina! I agree that people appreciate more the things which they need to work for, and that’s also why those projects where some commitment in necessary have, in my opinion, a greater chance of success.

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Anna

Thanks for the feedback, Mel! It’s great to read comments from people who understand the issues.

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Megan Indoe

This was a great read and something anyone who wants to volunteer while traveling should read! It’s unfortunate that alot of the volunteer tourism that people participate in are not beneficial at all- whether the person volunteering realizes it or not, it’s just sad. There needs to be more volunteering like this in the spotlight inspiring people! Thanks for sharing!

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks Megan! I think the key to volunteer work is research, research and more research to ensure you are making a meaningful and sustainable contribution.

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Anna

I think most volunteers just want to do good, and those shady organisations usually exploit both sides of the equation and take all the profits for themselves. Thank you for reading and commenting!

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Safari Junkie

I like the philosophy of never giving away things for free. As far as I could see personally in Tanzania on some projects where donated things go free, locals in those programs get lazy and expect things are free and need no effort to get them and what is more they find it for granted. Which in long term does no favour to the community.

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Grassroots Nomad

I agree – would love to hear more about what you have seen/experienced in Tanzania – do you have a blog post about this topic?

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Anna

I couldn’t agree more! People just value more the things they have to work for, and that goes for all of us. Plus, if you have to put even minimal effort, it ensures that only truly interested people will participate.

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Eloise - MyFavouriteEscapes.com

Awesome piece. Having the locals involved is the best way to make the project sustainable. It can be harder to organise but it will work better in the long term. I hope this will inspire many travellers who want to volunteer 🙂

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks Eloise! I agree, responsible volunteering is a lot harder to organise because it often requires you to do the research and legwork yourself, but I have found that it is much rewarding!

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Anna

I agree, Eloise; besides being harder to organise, it can also get much less “romantic”, e.g. playing with kids all day is fun, but what would make them really happy is if they can get nutritious food and money for school, so securing income for the family might end up being your main job.

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katy@untoldmorsels

Thanks for sharing this Laura. As always you are providing very important insight. Another blogger I follow recently posted on the sometimes tragic impact of orphanage volunteerism. Do you have any thoughts on this or plans to do a post? We think many of the people attracted to this are young female travellers and probably your audience. As a mum it almost brings me to tears thinking about children being separated unnecessarily from their parents.

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Grassroots Nomad

Hi Katy. Orphanage voluntourism is a horrific practice. I’ve written a draft post about it but I’m still trying to decide if I need to tone it down a bit and am being a bit too outspokenly harsh… :S In the meantime, I recommend you having a look at the Think Childsafe Campaign established by Friends International – http://thinkchildsafe.org/when-i-volunteer/

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Anna

Thank you, Katy.
I have done some research about the orphanage voluntourism for my book and it’s a truly awful proceder. Those organisations use the people’s pure desire to help and turn it into something disgusting, exploiting both sides in the process.

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Kerri

Very interesting and definitely so important to have communities to be able to self-sustain when the help goes away. One of the people I am connected with at a university is doing a PhD in how infrastructure planning needs to be considered in the light of natural disasters so that people can be better prepared and I think this aligns greatly with your intent.

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Grassroots Nomad

Hey Kerri, infrastructure and design is a great topic. The next post in my volunteering series actually is on this very issue!

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Anna

I agree that it’s a very important issue to address. Thanks for your comment, Kerri

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Anisa

I agree with a lot of the points here. The theme I kept thinking a out was that you can’t help someone who does not want to be helped. I really respect that things are not given away for free. I also think these points relate to volunteering at home too.

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Grassroots Nomad

So true, Anisa. People often forget about volunteering at home and instead only think they are able to make a difference by travelling to a poorer country. Sadly, there are issues within every country and community and it is important that we also remember local volunteer projects as well.

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Anna

Those are very good points, Anisa! As I am saying in another article, one of the main things I’ve realised volunteering at the other side of the world, was that I could be doing all of those things in my own country – which I plan to do, from now on.

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Danielle Des

This blog post brought up a lot of things that I hadn’t thought about before like getting the community involved at the onset and getting their buy in and commitment for sustainability. These are things I will have to think about when choosing the volunteer organizations I’ll be working with in the future.

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks Danielle, it is great to hear that this article has helped you consider these points! Thanks so much for reading 🙂

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Anna

I’m glad that it’s made you think about those issues, Danielle. Initially, I haven’t realised those either, but in the end I am glad that I did my research and ended up on a project I am happy with. Best of luck with your volunteering adventure!

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Sarah @ Expat of the World

Great article! I too struggled with the downsides of voluntourism while volunteering in Kenya last year. Checking out Humana People to People and the E-book now!

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks Sarah!! I’m sure Anna wouldn’t mind you contacting her if you have any follow up questions 🙂

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Anna

That’s right, Sarah, I’m always happy to talk about my experience, and I would like to learn about yours! Thanks for the feedback and for checking out my book.

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Karla Strand

I really appreciated this post. For my doctoral degree in information science (I’m a librarian), I studied how public libraries in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa can help alleviate information inequality in their (semi-rural to rural) communities. The work culminated in a compendium of best practices but the main idea was the imperative that the community MUST be involved at every level, from brainstorming ideas to doing the work to evaluation of the project. For many in developing economies, libraries are designed from a very colonial perspective and thus not very meaningful to many. If we work with the community, then we can create libraries that are useful and relevant! (What a concept!) These “libraries” may look more like information centers or container libraries, or mobile libraries, etc depending on the needs of the community. But they need to come from and make sense to the community in order to help with development. Sorry to write so much but it is rare to see this type of an article written and I very much appreciate it! All the best!

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks so much for your comment Karla. I would love to learn more about your work with libraries – have you spent much time in South Africa? Looking forward to reading more on Global ETA!

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Anna

Thank you so much for your comment, Karla! I think it’s very interesting, especially since my “special project” for the community was a library 🙂 I would love to learn more about your findings and I will surely check out your website. So many infrastructural projects in sub-Saharan Africa failed while they could have been saved had they been preceded by simple anthropological analyses.

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Rosemary

What a great perspective and approach. It’s true the best way to be effective is to engage the locals and be a part of the community. It is not abut doing it “for them”, but teaching and allowing the locals to own the results and the project. Great post and approach

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Anna

Thank you so much for your feedback, Rosemary, I’m glad you liked the article.

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Tamar

So smart, it’s such a great idea to coordinate with locals on what is most useful for them! I think that’s so much more responsible in terms of volunteering, and a better way to integrate yourselves into a community to fully understand their needs. Love the approach, bravo!

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Anna

It seems so simple, doesn’t it? And yet, so many organisations get it wrong somehow, though thankfully we have websites like this one, which spread the knowledge about responsible volunteering to more and more people.
Thank you, Tamar, it’s lovely to read such an enthusiastic support!

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Grassroots Nomad

Thanks Christina! What sort of volunteering are you planning on doing?

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Anna

Thank you for your feedback. I believe it’s better to take your time and think about your choices now than regret waisted opportunity later. I wish you the best possible experience on your volunteering adventure.

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Ann

I love this approach to volunteering! It is something I have always considered doing but held back because of the negative impact stories I have heard. This approach explains how to be an asset not a burden to a community. Thanks for sharing.

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Anna

Thank you, Ann! I hope you can find a project some day which will be beneficial to the receipients and will be a great adventure for you. And it doesn’t have to be far from your home either!

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melinabanana

I really appreciated reading this article. I never thought of volunteering this way but I’m soon to be volunteering WITH a community abroad and I will definitely keep that in mind.

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Anna

Thank you for your feedback. I wish you all the best on your volunteering project – despite the seriousness of some issues, it can be unforgettable time in your life!

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