Last year, Chab Dai, a faith-based anti-trafficking organization based in Cambodia, released a study on the impact of short-term volunteers, both on their own lives and on the organizations they volunteered with. The findings, based on a literature review, surveys of thirty two volunteers, and interviews with sixteen non-profit leaders, provide an enlightening glimpse into the phenomenon of volunteering. Posited within the framework of neoliberalism* — the dominant ideology of our globalized world — the findings suggest that while short-term volunteers often experience noticeable transformation in personal development, cross-cultural perspectives, and the expansion of a more global perspective, there is often little to no positive impact on the host organizations. Further, the impact on short-term volunteers is often a short-term attitude change versus a change in long-term beliefs. While the literature tends to paint a dismal picture of short-term volunteers, the surveys and interviews offered more insight and hope.
The entire study is a fantastic and crucial read for anyone interested in working in the non-profit world or international development. After reading it, SOLD staff writer and researcher Dan Olson thought it would be fun to use its findings as a springboard for a discussion with our President Rachel Goble about her experience with both hosting volunteers and being one. Here’s what she had to say.
Dan: What was the best volunteer experience you ever had?
Rachel: Two come to mind. During one of my summer breaks while in college, I volunteered at a battered women’s shelter in Livermore, Calif. called Shepherd’s Gate. I oversaw the donation drop off point. It was super-mundane (laughs) but also fulfilled a real need. I loved it. Also, I was in charge of a folder where the women in the long-term residential program submitted requests, so I got to learn about their lives and needs and understand some of the non-profit’s systems. We also started a thrift store while I was there, which was super fun.
Oasis in India is my second. I could tell that some of the staff were skeptical of me us volunteers. I got that. Even while I was there, another volunteer, who wasn’t dumb or lazy but just wasn’t a self-starter, sat around and waited for people to tell her what to do. Fortunately, I knew enough by that point to be proactive. I came up with ideas and asked if I could implement them. People would be like no or yes or that’s ok, but this would be more helpful. So it took a little time, but it led to me putting together a prevention curriculum. That was the best moment, because after this one of the staff members, a guy who was really hard to please, came up to me and told me that I was the best volunteer he’d had. That was rewarding.
My time at Oasis shifted my perspective on volunteering. Before, while finishing grad school and looking for a practicum, I was frustrated by the hoops the organizations made us jump through. I was like, we’re graduate students, we’re educated, and we’re offering our work for free. Why aren’t they ecstatically saying yes, yes, yes? Now I realize that to have it be mutually beneficial for both the volunteer and the organization you have to weed people out.
Dan: How about the worst? Have you had a worst?
Rachel: I’ve observed organizations, but I can’t say that any of my volunteering experiences were bad. I’m sure I was bad! (Laughs.) I was probably someone’s worst volunteer at some point, but I never went into volunteering with a consumer mentality. I always felt like if the experience wasn’t great, it was up to me to get something out of it. The thing I wanted was to help. So I could always find a way to do that by trying.
Dan: In the Chab Dai study, it’s clear that volunteer expectations, specifically in regards to the impact they would have on the ground, were often too high. Have you found this to be the case when working with volunteers?
Rachel: That’s interesting. One of the challenges that I think people find when they volunteer, especially when they fly half way around the world, is that cultural differences are huge. In Thailand, things move slower. Whether it’s staff or volunteers, I think this is one of the things that non-Thais who work with us struggle with. I’ve seen it be incredibly difficult for some to learn how to navigate their achiever mentality in Thailand, which tends to be a much more relational cultural context versus an achiever cultural context. I’ve seen that transform people’s perspectives, but that takes time.
Dan: The study also highlighted some cultural tensions and potential power dynamic issues. Khmer NGO workers spoke about power dynamics more frequently than the volunteers and even felt that the volunteers communication with them was abrasive and belittling at times. On the other hand, some of the volunteers felt they had not been adequately prepared for the culture they were in and one even that the staff was resentful towards her for having her own computer and other signs of wealth. How have you tried to manage this? Have you had to?
Rachel: What comes to mind is, first, the way that we’re structured. First and foremost, it’s local leadership. Whenever a volunteer comes in, we draft terms of reference for them, so they understand their role. The Thai staff participates in creating this for each volunteer. Second, our staff tells us what the needs are on the ground, and they have to approve each volunteer. If someone applies, their app comes to the US office first. If we think they might be a good fit, it goes straight to our Thailand office. There our Resource Centers’ Directors look it over with our Volunteer Coordinator, the only Western staff there, and discuss the volunteer’s experience and education and how this could fit in with our needs.
While we’ve had great experiences overall, we have had times where our Thai staff felt that volunteers did not contribute as much as they said they would. But this has mostly been with teams. Teams are really hard. They basically turn our entire staff into hosts for a day, which would be fine if they didn’t have other important work to do. We’re not a hosting organization; we’re an anti-trafficking one. If we accept a team now, it’s usually just for a one-day activity that is very well planned.
That being said, we’re all about education. If an individual comes through or a team who wants to learn, we have that opportunity built into our model.
Dan: Yeah, one of the things the study said was that the discourse around voluntourism, a common name for short-term volunteering, should move from a focus on development and aid to a focus on international and intercultural understanding.
Rachel: Yeah. I love that. I agree.
Dan: The study also highlights words used to describe ideal volunteers such as resilience, self-awareness, self-starter, relevant life experience, relevant training, and life experience in general. What do you look for in volunteers?
Rachel: I would add entrepreneurial and self-drive. The reality is that when you come in to volunteer unless it’s a giant and very well organized organization, you’re going to have to do a lot on your own. We only have one person to coordinate this, and even then it’s only ten hours a week of her job description. We need to bring people on who we can trust to make decisions in the best interest of the organization.
Also, I would add humility. I don’t know what word to put to the other thing I think is crucial, but it’s incredibly important that they have an awareness that their view of the world is not the only view of the world and that it may not be the best. I guess that could be summarized in openness, depending on how you defined that.
Dan: Some of the organizations in the study said that six months was the shortest they would accept a volunteer for, but that a year was better. Does SOLD have time constraints or limits when it comes to volunteers?
Rachel: It depends on what they’re doing. I find that if somebody wants to do a workshop, such as teaching a skill set or encourage and support a staff member in a particular role, then even one day might be enough.
Logistically, we’re limited. If you want to be a volunteer in Thailand for over three months, you have to get a work permit. The government only gives a work permit for one in every six of the staff who is national. We’ve had people who come in on an educational visa because they want to learn Thai and volunteer, which has worked well.
Really it all comes down to the volunteers’ skills and expectations and the needs of the organization being aligned. Long term volunteers definitely get treated more like staff, and their opinions are valued more because they’ve built trust. I would never put a short term volunteer, someone who’s only there for three to six months, in a position where their work required them to make decisions or work with the staff in a way that required them to have a high level of trust.
Dan: Is there anything else that stuck out for you or advice you’d like to give someone who’s looking to volunteer overseas?
Rachel: The power dynamics are huge. In the West, and I think especially in the Church, we have been taught that we can fix the world. There’s an element to this that is true and incredibly powerful because we do have choices and these choices can have huge negative or positive impacts on our world. But this has gone astray in the sense that we feel we are somehow more powerful. What I mean is, well, there are things people say like, “I just want to go love on them,” or “I can’t believe people have to live that way, and I just want to help.” That language shows an unrecognized feeling of superiority versus a real skill set.
Dan: Yeah, like why do they need you to come “love on them”? Do they not have love in their culture?
Rachel: Right. Exactly. I do see a desire in our staff for training and education. They want management training and counseling training. There’s definitely a place for education and training. That’s needed. But we need professionals, not just good intentions.
SOLD tries really hard to protect our staff from people coming in and telling them what to do. I still don’t understand what saving face is after eight years. I cause Tawee, our Founding Director, to lose face all the time without being aware of it. And he tries to save face for me sometimes, and I get offended (laughs), because that’s not my culture. We talk about it, and it’s okay, but to assume that a volunteer can step in and offer insight immediately is unrealistic.
My hope is that volunteers have a particular skill set and professional experience to offer. I always go back to the Brian Meyers’ quote, “the poor deserve our very best.” Somehow we’ve belittled the poor into these helpless human beings when the reality is that those who grow up under challenging conditions often become the most resourceful and resilient people. We seem to forget that.
Dan: Well, that seems like a good place to end on. Thanks for chatting Rachel.
Rachel: Thank you.
*“’Neoliberalism‘ most often refers to a loosely cohering set of economic, social, and political policies that (1) seek to secure human flourishing through the imposition of free markets and (2) locate ‘freedom’ in individual autonomy, expressed through consumer choice.”