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Volontourism – important steps before participating in a volunteering project

“As pure as the intentions may be, the actual action can result to be more problematic and not as beneficial as it’s supposed to be.”

In my last blog article I wrote about the problematic aspects regarding volunteering programs abroad. Funny, you could think, since I am participating myself in a volunteering program abroad. I can admit that during my research for the blog article I learned a lot of new things that I didn’t know of before. Nonetheless, my choice to participate with the specific program of the European Solidarity Corps wasn’t totally casual. In my opinion it is a good example of (mostly) successful volunteering projects. In the following I want to respond to the question of how volunteering really becomes a sustainable and helpful action.

I found this website with helpful questions to ask yourself before participating in a volunteering project and I would like to share some of them here.

Do I have the skills and experience needed for the job?

One of the core issues I mentioned was that often people that are not qualified come to work in a field they have no experience in. Depending on the situation, this can either be useless or even put people at risk. For example in case of medical care. If your qualification is not enough or does not fit for a certain volunteering job it might be better to find a different way of contribution than to go abroad to work there.

Am I taking paid work opportunities from people in the community?

If (unqualified) volunteers are sent to work somewhere and those jobs could be done the same or probably better by people from the local community, it’s rather not a good idea to participate in such a project. The aim should be to create working opportunities and the wish of engaging in a beneficial project cannot be placed higher than the sustainable development of the local community.

How much time is really needed to have a positive impact?

Often, short term volunteering experiences don’t really have a positive impact because it always takes time to get used to a new place and work environment. Furthermore, in some specific cases as when working with kids, it can be really damaging. The kids shouldn’t have a constant change of the people surrounding them because this can really damage their development. If you don’t have the possibility to spend a long time abroad, it could be a good idea to find a local NGO and ask in what way you can support them.

Could I use the money I’m spending more efficiently by directly donating to the organization I want to support?

Sometimes you either don’t have the required skills or all a project really needs is financial support. If you still want to support, fundraising or donation could be the better option. This also goes for when you perhaps don’t have the possibility of investing a lot of time in a project abroad. It may be more useful then to find a way of helping the project financially. Of course, here it is important to check where the money goes and if it really reaches the people that are supposed to profit from it.

Which are important steps in order to make sure you participate in a valuable project?
Research and preparation before the departure

So first of all, a crucial part of your volunteering should be the preparation. It is important to truly understand what the project is about, what your own motivation is and what you can potentially contribute to a project. Your research should obviously include the program you’re supposed to be part of. Also, who is behind the association in question, what is their goal and philosophy. In addition, you should prepare yourself for the country you’re planning to go to. Try to find out more about traditions, conventions, history and other important background information about the place / country. Of course, the best way of getting to know a place is by being there. Nevertheless, in order to be able to contribute in a proper way, it’s crucial to at least partly understand the environment you will be working in. 

Educating yourself and others

By learning more about the problematic parts of volunteering abroad, you can avoid making the same mistakes and instead be part of a meaningful project. This way, your engagement becomes more successful for everyone.

I also believe it’s important to educate and sensibilize about the ongoing problems behind these programs. Maybe you have friends that plan to participate in a volunteering project. It is important to raise awareness about those issues and it could also help your friends, for example, to avoid being part of the problem.

Working together with the local community

The top priority should always be the local community and its needs. It is important to create good communication and to really want to work together with the locals. It should be a cooperation and not volunteers telling the local community what’s best for them. So the project should be guided by the following questions: Has a need been openly expressed? What kind of support has been asked for? Am I providing the help they want or operating from my own assumptions about what they need?

The key words here are to ask and listen.

And what about the European Solidarity Corps?

As I was mentioning, it is also important to inform oneself about the organization and program the volunteering project is organized by.

You should make sure that it’s a serious and trustworthy program. And what kind of ESC-volunteer would I be if at this point I didn’t mention the European Solidarity Corps? 😉 But I am not (solely) mentioning that because I am part of it, but because I truly believe that programs like this are worth it to invest in and be part of. If you want to learn more about how the European Solidarity Corps work and how to apply for projects, I can really recommend reading the articles written by Dino, another volunteer of Amazonas. They can be found on the Solidarity Blog as well and Dino gives a lot of information about the ESC and also other Erasmus+ programs.

The European Solidarity Corps focuses on the collaboration between volunteers and local associations / NGOs. The idea is to spread the European message and, as the program title might reveal, to underline the importance of Solidarity these days. All the projects have to be approved by the responsible committee in order to be accepted. Furthermore, volunteers work with local NGOs and are part of their projects. They usually know what’s best and really needed in the local community thus the volunteers participate in useful activities.

To sum it up

In my opinion, there are a few things that we should really consider before participating in a volunteering project. Good preparation is crucial in order to choose the right project which is really useful. And last but not least, the needs of the local community should always come first and good communication and cooperation is fundamental. I believe that we have to consider the mentioned points and be aware of the problems. And if we do so, it can become a successful engagement for both sides.

See you next month again,