Are you getting the most out of your volunteer experience?

"How effective are volunteers?"

Last year we had the opportunity to take a look at one of the aspects of international work that comes up a lot. We got to look at a very interesting question: How effective are volunteers? and how is their work perceived by those who live and work in the countries where they go to volunteer?

We spoke to volunteers, Cambodian staff members from various organizations, and local leaders from Human Rights NGOs here in Cambodia. We wanted to find out what works well and what doesn’t with regards to short term volunteers. 

"Unfulfilled expectations were brought up by volunteers and organization leaders alike, and can ruin an otherwise acceptable experience."

Immediately we noticed everyone we spoke with had already formed an opinion of one- to two-week teams; they knew the advantages and drawbacks and could decide what was beneficial to them. What was missing from the conversation was information regarding, and experiences with, one- to six-month volunteers. These volunteers typically come alone, sometimes with a partner, and tend to play a larger role in the organizations they join.

Through the report we came up with a number of observations and recommendations for organizations looking to start or improve their volunteer programs, and for volunteers preparing to volunteer overseas. Below are some of our key findings and recommendations, some of which I will expound on further in future posts, though you can always download the full report here and read ahead!

"...the longer a volunteer was able to stay the more effective they could be, and their chances were higher of having a lasting impact."

The first observation that came up, was that the longer a volunteer was able to stay the more effective they could be, and their chances were higher of having a lasting impact. We heard this from volunteers themselves, as well as from leaders. There are always exceptions, but typically the takeaway we received was: If a volunteer is planning to stay 1 month, try to stretch it to 2 months; instead of a semester make it a semester and a summer. Many organizations spoke of having a minimum commitment, often around 6 months, because less than that was often too little.

Unfulfilled expectations were brought up by volunteers and organization leaders alike, and can ruin an otherwise acceptable experience. We saw many cases of volunteers feeling let down because the work they came to do did not work out, and they felt mismanaged and misused. Volunteers often had their own expectations for the type of impact they would have, and had a hard time assisting with less demanding tasks, even when that was what their organizations needed. Likewise, many organizations would over promise when they sold the volunteer opportunity, causing volunteers to distrust or even dislike the organization.

"Overall, organizations that treated a volunteer opportunity like a job seemed to have the best results from their volunteers, and those who treated the volunteers like special guests had the hardest time getting results."

Overall, organizations that treated a volunteer opportunity like a job seemed to have the best results from their volunteers, and those who treated the volunteers like special guests had the hardest time getting results. We even heard this from volunteers themselves. One volunteer told us “They don’t want to tell me what to do, because they don’t pay me. I could spend 2 weeks just browsing Facebook and no one would say anything.”

In the end, we learned a lot from the experience, from pulling out these big concrete steps to just getting a sense of the overall motivations and drive of volunteers. I have a few areas I’m planning to expand on, but if you have questions about the study, leave a comment and I’ll reply or I’ll add it to my queue to write about. 

-Charlie Smith-Brake

For further reading download the full research report here. 

 

Charlie Smith-Brake has been working in the field of counter trafficking since 2008, when he first volunteered in Cambodia with the Chab Dai Coalition. Currently, he is the Human Resources Coordinator for Chab Dai Coalition. He holds a B.A. in International Development Studies from Canadian Mennonite University where he captained the Men's basketball team, and led them to two Central Plains Athletic Conference championships.