As the world becomes more and more connected, there are countless opportunities to create positive social change – especially through travel. Purposeful or meaningful travel can take many shapes and cover a wide spectrum. Something as simple as contributing to the growth of a developing community by purchasing local goods or services can make a huge impact. In addition, working directly to improve communities through sustainable volunteering can change lives and foster lasting growth. However, purposeful travel isn’t always black and white. If you’re considering a volunteer trip abroad, there are a few very important steps you should take in order to ensure you are creating lasting positive change.
What is Sustainable Volunteering?
In this context, sustainable volunteering refers to a program that considers the long-term social implications of the work its volunteers are doing. Let’s use construction volunteering as an example. Out of the following scenarios, what do you think is more sustainable for a developing community in Guatemala?
Scenario one: A single school built on the outskirts of the community with modern amenities such as air conditioning, computers, Internet and running water. Current schools are overcrowded – this school will help distribute the number of students by creating new classrooms. Architects and volunteers from the U.S. will be brought in through grant money to design and build the school. It will be designed off-site and will be introduced to the community after it’s completion as a surprise.
Scenario two: A series of additions will be designed and built on existing schools to increase classroom sizes and update the current buildings. Local architects and contractors will work in collaboration with volunteers from the U.S. to design and build these additions. Before construction begins, the community will be consulted, including local residents, teachers and even students on what is most needed to improve conditions.
Both sound appealing don’t they? So what’s the right answer? Scenario two. But what about the modern amenities, computers and internet from scenario one? Surprising the community with a brand new school would have been an exciting and heart-warming experience. There are a few problems here. The most notable is that surprising the community with the school after the fact means residents, teachers, and students would have no input during the design process. The school was also being built on the outskirts of town. What if certain students were unable to make the trip? Another downfall of scenario one is the people working on the project. Of course Architects from the U.S. would be qualified, but this means they would be taking jobs away from local architects and contractors. See where we’re going with this? Even projects with the best intentions can do more harm than good.
How Can You Find Sustainable Volunteering Programs?
1. Do your research
Not only on the organization, but on the surrounding area. Make sure the economic, social, environmental or other relevant developments of the area align with what the organization is doing.
2. Talk to former volunteers
Talk to people who have participated in the program before you. Was the program organized? Was there a plan in place, or were volunteers winging it? How was the volunteer staff? There are often horror stories about education programs in developing countries where volunteers were thrown into a classroom with absolutely no curriculum, and no contact with past or future volunteers. No one wins in this situation. The children don’t learn anything, and the volunteer has a bad experience.
3. Is the Volunteer Organization Researching You?
Sustainable volunteer programs should require background checks on their volunteers. This ensures your own safety and the safety of anyone participating in the program.
4. Ask Where Your Program Fees Go
If the organization can’t give you a straight answer or refuses to do so, that’s not a good sign. Any reputable volunteer organization will be able to tell you what percentage of your fees go towards supplies, overhead, and hiring local help.
About the Author: Chad Johnson is a co-founder at Build Abroad, an organization dedicated to socially responsible construction volunteering around the world. Chad has a background in Architecture and has been volunteering internationally throughout the course of his life. Chad started Build Abroad because he believes construction volunteering is one of the best ways to create lasting impact in developing communities.