Voluntourism: 5 pieces of advice after 5 years of working with volunteers

Primeros Pasos-7 [800x600]By Julia RaoDirector of International Donor Relations

If you haven’t heard this word before you probably will hear it a few days from now, casually in conversation or on the radio. At least this usually happens to me whenever I learn something new. The word voluntourism, beyond being important because it is now a word in the Oxford dictionary, is relevant because it defines a new, increasingly common trend of people who volunteer as a form of travel. Some people may find this counter intuitive, why on earth would you work on your time off? Why would you put yourself into an unfamiliar, potentially difficult spot when you could be taking the much needed vacation you deserve? I think the answers to this are plenty and varied but I from my experience, personal and professional, I think I found a common thread, it’s about learning that begins by entering into the unknown.

The comfort zone is a place, situation, circumstance, or person that bring us comfort and familiarity. It is known and for that we love it and hold on to it dearly. The only problem with the comfort zone is that it is, in and of itself, a place where little growth or learning can be done because we already understand it back and front. And this can be a good thing for a time, but the longer we stay in the proverbial comfort zone the less we can learn, the more rigid we become and the harder it becomes to escape.

So when people come down to Guatemala (an unknown country) to build a home (never having built a block home) for a family (whom they never met) they are not just leaving their comfort zone, they are running, jumping and/or sticking their tongue out at it. This is NOT a bad thing because it will be there when you get back. Although maybe a little less familiar than before, but hey, all the more reason to continue trying new things and learning something new.

Whenever I pick up volunteers at the airport I always see wide eyes; sometimes people are bubbling over with excitement, sometimes people are overwhelmed into silence and others are just nervous and ready to get on the bus. Once we are settled in is when the questions start. Sometimes these questions are impossible to answer like; who owns that horse, why is that guy walking on top of that bus or how do 5 people fit onto 1 moto? But I love the questions themselves, albeit sometimes unanswerable, because it shows the natural human desire of inquisitiveness. It is this intrinsic quality which makes humans great. It is what allows us to evolve as individuals, families, societies and countries. How do you think we found out cheese was the best thing ever…curiosity to taste that moldy milk forgotten outside!

That is not to say all curiosity is a good things. I mean, finger in a light socket, not so smart. But I think for the sake of this discussion, when people are eager to help and learn this is a positive combo.

That said, I think voluntourists, as foreigners with good intentions still must be aware that of a few essential things that will enhance their learning experience and their interactions on their journey to help others and improve the world.  Here are five essential attributes for successful volunteering that I have learned, sometimes the hard way, from the last 5 years living abroad.

1) Humility.

I put this as number one on the list because it really is the most important quality for a person to have if they want to a) be truly open to learning from others, and b) meet someone without prejudice or assumptions about your differences.

I think the best example of this is our interactions with kids. There is so much to learn from children but the assumption is that the older the wiser/smarter/more able etc. This prevents us from even thinking about being humble to the fact that we actually have a lot that we can learn from children. Next time you are with a child, watch how they become enrapt in a task, watch how they laugh wholeheartedly or play without care that they might fall. I think that these are all teachable moments for adults. Yet it takes humility to be able to recognize and appreciate this.


2) Leave your ego at home.

In other words- BE OPEN. I think we all have a concept of who we are and have our list of likes and dislikes. This can be really limiting when you are traveling and encounter new options and situations. When you forget who you are supposed to be it opens you up to a world of new ways of being and most importantly new relationships and experiences. When you travel things are inevitably going to be strange, different and at times uncomfortable but it is how we react to this which will either make it great or disastrous.

3) Listen.

Again, an essential part of learning is to stop and listen. Even if you are teaching or an expert, if you are trying to help someone out you must be open to hearing their needs. Telling someone what they need is counterproductive if you haven’t taken the time to learn the ins and outs of the situation. So be open to hear stories, ask lots of questions and don’t assume that as the “helper” you don’t have something to learn.

4) Enjoy the ride. IMG_2227 [800x600]

The best thing you can remember as a volunteer is that NO you are not going change the world in a week or a month. However, what you can do is be loving and giving and try and make someone smile. And it is those little things that accumulate and grow and are paid forward, which eventually (if you are an optimist) will change our world for the better. Manage your expectations about how much you can do and how much change you will see and focus on the details of the small things you can do. The best way to achieve that is to be flexible. If it rains, if someone is late, if your shovel breaks just accept it and do your small part.

The BEST time I have ever had on a worksite was when our steel cutter broke, essential bringing our operation to a halt. What we ended up doing was amazing. We found a soccer ball, put on some music, danced, sang and played with the kids. It really are these type of moments that stay with people. It’s not what we say or do but how we make others feel that will resonate.

 5) Finally, Better than Nothing is NOT the way to view your voluntary work.

This is a pervasive thought that I think is the most destructive perspective a volunteer can have. Setting the bar at zero is not fair for the people you are trying to help. And yes, sometime that idea is true. I’ve taught in schools where if I wasn’t there, there would be no classes, no lunches that day. However that is not an excuse not to do your best. Being a volunteer is hard. There is no pay, and little incentives, and sometimes no thanks but if you always try your best you can walk away from the experience with the comforting thought that you didn’t just do better than nothing but rather you did everything within your capacity to help another person. And that in and of itself should suffice as incentive. Plus if you believe in Karma, this right effort will come back to you down the line when you need help.