Volunteering For The First Time? Here Are Four Things To Consider.

By Natalie Jesionka on 14/08/2016

Background: The writer of this post, Natalie Jesionka, is currently a lecturer of Sociology and Anthropology at Rutgers University, and an Editor at Shatter the Looking Glass – an online ethical travel magazine. She has served on the Board of Directors of Amnesty International USA, and has led and participated in various projects and stories regarding human rights, human trafficking,  volunteering abroad and much more.  GivingWay is thrilled to have Natalie join their Advisory Board, and looked to Natalie for advice for first time volunteers.

Here’s what she had to say.

A friend is launching a short term volunteer project in Za’atari Refugee camp in Jordan. The project will build on the work of her organization and create a model to empower young women living in the camps. Going into her project, we had conversations about what to expect on the ground, and how to adapt quickly during a short term volunteer project. My friend is asking the right questions about building trust, what it means to make an impact, and what can be accomplished in a short amount of time. As we talk about her work, I reflect on my own time volunteering, managing programs and conducting research at home and abroad. When I first started, there was not a lot of guidance or resources to help new volunteers navigate the field and I found myself learning the hard way. Now, there are more conversations about effective volunteering out there, but they don’t always reach volunteers headed to the field for the first time.

If you are a new volunteer, or going abroad for the first time, here are some key things to consider.

Expect the Unexpected, Get Ready to Adapt

You are developing a six month leadership training for women-led NGOs in Cambodia. You set the schedule in your grant proposal and are determined to stick to it. The first session is a great success with a high turnout. Two weeks later the turnout gets lower. Eventually, no one is showing up. What happened?

No matter the plan you write on paper in an application or proposal, you must build flexibility in your programs and be open to change. Always take feedback from the community you are working in on schedules, program content, and events. In the case with the NGO training, the women had other jobs and  family obligations that would not allow them to attend on the same day each week. However, they did not mention that a set schedule would not work for them because they did not want to embarrass the trainer. It was only when no one showed up that the trainer realized that making changes was necessary.

Make sure that you hear all voices and stakeholders in the project before implementing it. Many times, I revised proposals and started my plans from scratch when it became clear that what I drafted simply wouldn’t make sense on the ground. Access to resources, understanding culture, building trust and interpreting timelines require agility and openness to make a project successful.

Most importantly, be open to change and listen closely to the community.  When the participants asked if they could schedule things from week to week, it became much easier for them to attend the training.

Without community buy in, nothing will get done. If your original proposal is not working, don’t push it through just because it was in the plan.

Battle With and Recognize Your Privilege

After a long day working with youth at a refugee camp, fellow volunteers invite you for dinner and wine outside your work site at a nice Italian restaurant that caters to workers in the field. The meal is delicious, and costs far more than what many of the families you work with make in a month. The next day you feel guilty, and try to come to terms with the circumstances, but it still bothers you. How do you navigate this space?

Realizing your privilege is key in the field, because just by having the ability to volunteer, you have it.

There is a constant debate about the appearance of lavish lifestyles of volunteers and development workers, and the issue of acknowledging privilege and determining what you feel comfortable with is deeply personal.

There will be difficult moments to confront that go way beyond nice dinners, and you must prepare for it. Everything from people asking for help you cannot offer, to grappling with the fact that each side trip on your journey, and the ability to go back home at the end of it all, is what the community you are working with cannot access. But that is the reality. Anytime things get too intense, dangerous, or uncomfortable – you can leave. And this is something you need to consider everyday.

This notion of privilege can lead to an uncomfortable and vital internal battle that is important to acknowledge. You must  continuously  let the idea of privilege grow and evolve, and know it will always be present no matter what you do. Think about how you can be the most effective ally, and how you can use your place to leverage the work voices of those in the community (but not be the sole one to speak for them.)

Take the Time to Build Trust and Manage Expectations

As you leave your volunteer site in a teary and hug filled goodbye, you start making a lot of promises. “I will be back and get the money for x, we will fix this problem.” When you get back to your  home country, you get your focus back into your career, and daily life growing distant from the community you were working in.

For many communities who are used to a rotating cast of volunteers, you can just be part of another roving band of foreigners who will leave in a few weeks with big ideas and promises that don’t get implemented, or you can focus on creating meaningful time ground.

We often talk about building trust in the community, but we don’t talk about how fickle trust is.

There are so many instances where people have worked to build trust, and then it can quickly fall apart because of a small miscommunication, mistake, or empty promise.

Be realistic about the goals of your project, estimated time line, and what you actually will deliver. Most importantly, make sure to communicate this. Do not over promise on what you will deliver in the long term. Also be sure to talk about outcomes with the community, and the potential challenges you may come across. Being transparent from the beginning may help mitigate a crisis later on.

And please, note that coming from far away to help can benefit the community, but if not done with respect and diligence it can be harmful, even after you leave.

Understand Your Limitations

You are teaching English at a school in Vietnam and it becomes clear that the school is struggling to stay open and  have enough resources to take care of their staff and students. One of the staff asks you for money so they can purchase books for the students. How do you respond?

There are inspiring stories of famous  advocates and doctors who would literally give the shirt off their back or the watch off their hand to a patient in need. It is extremely generous, but many times it is not in the scope of new  volunteers. These stories, while noble, are the kind that set unrealistic expectations for volunteers and can be harmful. Not only does it strip communities of agency and the ability to make decisions for themselves, but the idea of being the “savior” to anyone is extremely detrimental.

Getting a request for money or food is something you will  have to consider on a case by case basis and use the same discretion you would anywhere.

Think strategically about what you can offer, and how it can be a sustainable change that lasts long after you are gone.

For example, at one school that had a need for food,  small donations from volunteers held the students and teachers over, until a sustainable garden small livestock initiative  could get off the ground. In this case, an immediate need had to be addressed before a long term initiative can get off the ground.

Focus on the specific skill set you bring to your work, but also think carefully about what skills are of value to the community you are working in, how long you can make that commitment, and if you are creating dependency. There are some short term initiatives that work really well.

When we initially volunteer, it comes out of a place of good intentions and a will to make a difference in the world,  but realize that no matter what project you take on, the impact on your life and outlook will be much bigger than on the ground.

So, for volunteers about to head out into the field; there is no doubt, you will learn about yourself and the world. You will have to remain open, flexible, and ready to grapple with complex issues on the ground, when  there are not always easy answers.

If you are ready to embrace that complexity, stay open to new ideas, and listen to others then you are ready to get out there. With these tips in mind, you will grow in vast ways, and your perspective will be  forever changed.

GivingWay would love to hear your thoughts after reading this post. Join our live discussion here , and discuss with us the following questions:

What surprised you most when you first started to volunteer? What things do you wish you knew before you went out into the field? What humbled you the most, and at what moments did you have to learn to really adapt?

For more by Natalie, go here.

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