On Tuesday 17th November we hosted our second Global Citizenship Forum in partnership with Tenteleni. This blog post reflects the key discussion points of attendees from across the youth charity sector as we explored how young people engage with volunteering at home and overseas, the question of who benefits (and how), and the role of organisations like ours in communicating responsible volunteering.
When done well, international volunteering presents a great opportunity to affect positive social change, but it’s not a one size fits all. Young people are brave and often do not have a hidden agenda motivating them to volunteer overseas. While there are key things young people should do before they go, volunteering organisations also have a responsibility to support young people to make well-informed decisions about where, with who and how they volunteer overseas.
If you are thinking about volunteering overseas:
Before you go
- Be clear about your motives for volunteering overseas, the skills you can bring and those you wish to develop further. When you’re doing your research to find a project or placement, finding an organisation who shares your values and resonates with your thinking is much more likely to result in a mutually beneficial experience.
- Ask questions about everything, to everyone. Is your skill set relevant? Are volunteers needed? Will you be replacing skills that are already present in the local community, or are you attempting to plug gaps in services? Organisations should be willing to share how placement fees are spent, offer indications of what you will be doing whilst you are overseas, and connect you with previous volunteers. If they’re not being transparent, you should probably ask them, and yourself, why.
While you are on placement
- Learn from the challenges of your placement. Often, return volunteers are keen to speak about all the great the things they were a part of, but it’s okay to talk about the things that didn’t go so well and why – these aspects of your experience are just as significant. Don’t shy away from realising that there are some things you are better at or feel more comfortable with than others.
- Be open-minded and willing to learn. Things will probably work a lot differently than back home and that’s okay! It’s not necessarily any better or worse, just not what you are used to. Similarly, you can learn a lot from organisations who are willing to
When you return home
- Share your experiences. With friends, family, colleagues, the organisations you volunteered with, your university volunteering centre/unit… Everyone! Help inform other young people, advocate for the organisation(s) you volunteered with, and add your perspective to the wider conversations on responsible volunteering.
- Contribute to action at home. The work you continue to do back home is often undervalued, but it’s equally important. Can you use insights of (a) particular issue(s) you gained during your placement to become part of a global conversation or network? A good starting point might be expanding your understanding of a particular issue and how it affects or relates to your home country, volunteering with a campaigning organisation back home, offering to speak at your school, or directly supporting the organisation you worked with through fundraising and raising awareness amongst your own friends and family.
Responsible volunteering organisations should:
- Ditch the jargon and explain why what we do is different, and why that’s important. A number of attendees highlighted how lucky they were to come across responsible volunteering organisations like DiA and Tenteleni, and how difficult it was to find information. While there are a number of initiatives changing this, we need to ask ourselves whether we could do more and how this can contribute to diversifying the typical profile of a young overseas volunteer.
- Challenge expectations of young people aspiring to volunteer overseas, don’t just manage them. Don’t shy away from talking about the critical discussions on volunteering overseas: explain the debates, get people out of their comfort zone and thinking critically.
- Capitalise on alumni. Their enthusiasm for what we, and our partner organisations, do often means they are best placed to talk about your organisation and are more than happy to do so! It’s not all about leveraging funds; they can also offer their time and skills to support our continued work either overseas or in the UK.
- Go beyond sharing good practice. We need to act upon feedback and recommendations from partner organisations and volunteers to develop and improve the work we do, keep our volunteer programme relevant and responsive to the needs of the communities we work in.
- Recognise volunteers’ skills. Training and support before, during and after placements is key to maximising the impact of young volunteers using soft skills to support your partner organisations. Personal and skills development are often strong drivers for young people deciding to volunteer overseas. It also ensures they can communicate the value of their experience.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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