Thursday, 14 June 2012

Responsible volunteering - some thoughts

Recently one of the readers of this blog asked for my view on responsible volunteering, having read the entries (February to April 2011) for the time we spent in Kenya volunteering at the children's charity Watoto Wa Baraka.  This reader wrote a polite and flattering comment - a surefire way to get my attention. 

Clearly, I'm no expert, having only volunteered once, but with my ego suitably stroked I started typing out some tips by email.  And then I figured what's the point in having a blog if you can't spew out brain-farts into the abyss that is the internet.

What follows is this brain fart, or: responsible volunteering - some thoughts.

1) Do your research
How does the organisation spend their money? What are their objectives? Are they aligned to any other organisations, and what is that relationship? Don't expect a full financial breakdown - frankly, that's none of your business.  But do try to assess what goals the organisation has and how they go about meeting these goals, in the context of point (3) below.
Speak to past volunteers - charities should happily put you in contact with past volunteers, who are normally open to share their experience with you.
Use the web for independent insight, like reading blogs, or by looking at discussion forums or travel websites such as Lonely Planet.  Google is your friend.  Just remember - one person's opinion is just that, one person's opinion, so always take it with a pinch of salt.  Except mine, of course. I'm always right. 
2) Are they sustainable? 
I don't necessarily mean environmentally sustainable, unless this is particularly relevant to the type of volunteering you want to do.  I mean - have they got a structure that can and will continue even if they don't have volunteers?  The volunteering fees* may, for example, be a critical part of their operating budget, but can they still operate if this money dries up?  Do they employ local people to do the core part of the work, and who therefore operate the charity on a day-to-day basis regardless of who is volunteering and when?
It's like when you did work experience at school.  You could help out by doing photocopying and shredding, and learn a bit at the same time, but they didn't expect you to do their annual accounts, and rely on you to operate their business.  Unless they were Enron, of course, in which case doing the shredding was, in effect, doing their annual accounts.
* I realise that paying a 'volunteering fee' is an oxymoron, and prompts huffs of disdain from both the (a) hardcore charity folk, and (b) the linguistic pedants.  To which I respond (a) read this post to understand why a fee is important for many volunteering organisations and (b) what-evs!   
3) Ask yourself the question 'how will I contribute'? 
It's important to be honest with yourself when answering this, but also it's a difficult question to answer.  For example, do you have a particular set of skills that are directly beneficial to that charity?  If they need to build something - do you have building skills?  If they are setting up a school - are you a teacher?  If they want to establish an online presence - do you have web skills?  If they provide medical assistance - are you medically trained? (an important one, that).  If they want to run the charity like a business - do you have business experience?  Good charities will ask you these types of questions when you apply to volunteer. 
It might be that you just want to help out day-to-day, and that the fees you pay are just as important as the skills you share.  This can be valuable too, and often volunteers with the right attitude and general skills can contribute just as much, if not more, than those with specific skills. 
In my opinion it's important to conclude your volunteering with confidence that you had a net positive impact, even if it's just a small and transient impact. 
I'm a realist - volunteering is not necessarily an intrinscially 'good' thing to do.  It absolutley can be, but it can have negative impacts too.  For example, it can introduce a disjointed working environment as volunteers come and go, it can deprive local people of employment, it can put strain on a charity to cater for their volunteers, at the expense of their core objectives.  You're more likely to have a positive impact if you're aware of and sensitive to the ways in which you could have a negative impact.
If you can assess the things I mentioned above, and keep them in mind when you're actually volunteering, I think you will be a responsible volunteer.
In our case, we did a bit of the above before we applied to Watota Wa Baraka as volunteers, but didn't spend weeks agonising over it.  We got lucky - it was a great charity, very well run, and we could find  small ways to contribute in specific ways.  For example, I enjoy writing and my first language is English, so I frequently write the biographies of the children for whom the charity are seeking sponsorship.  Our contribution was small, but I was proud of it at the end of our time there, and it fulfilled our own simple objective of 'doing more good than harm'.
Right, I'm going to stop now.  I'm making this up as I go along.  I'm sure there are many more qualified people than me to comment on the subject of 'responsible volunteering'.  I did some volunteering, tried to be responsible, and by and large succeeded, I think.  That's where my expertise ends.  
Well, other than the fact that I'm always right, of course.