It’s International Volunteer Day and this year’s theme is global applause – give volunteers a hand. And I’m a bit late with this post because, yep, I’ve been volunteering. You’ll find me at the Angkor Photo Festival most of this week, helping out with blogging and social media.
With an estimated one billion volunteers around the globe, that’s a lot of people helping others. And that’s really what the spirit of volunteering is all about – helping people, helping society and working together to make things better.
We’ve done a lot of volunteering over the last 18 months. It is one of the many reasons we chose Cambodia as a place to live – we believed we would be able to make a contribution to others and help in some small way. We’ve met some great people and made some fantastic friends.
But some experiences have been better than others and there are a variety of reasons for that.
So I thought I’d make a list of tips for volunteers and for organisations working with volunteers.
Volunteer definition: A person who gives their time or expertise, willingly and without pay.
Tips for organisations looking for volunteers
Volunteers should not replace the local workforce
It’s important – especially in developing countries – that volunteers are not used for jobs where local people can be employed. Volunteering should not be about taking away opportunities but filling in gaps and making improvements.
Volunteers need guidelines
An introduction to the organisation, the role and a clear set of instructions and guidelines helps everyone understand what is expected.
Volunteers need to feel useful
Make sure you have jobs for them to do before they arrive. Volunteers need to feel like they are making a positive contribution and that the work they are doing is useful. Sitting around twiddling thumbs is just frustrating when people have donated valuable time.
Know the special skills your volunteers have
It’s always good to know what special skills and qualifications your volunteers have. If you have someone who is an administration wizz then you might make better use of their time by getting them to help organise your office or computer files than having them paint a wall.
Volunteers need to feel valued.
Yes, I’m sure as an organisation you value the help you are receiving, but do your volunteers know that? This doesn’t mean you have to go all gushy and thank them profusely every time you see them. But it does mean thinking about how you let them know you are grateful. While most volunteers are happy for a thank you here and there, some like to have their names and photos plastered all over social media – but if you are doing that for a group of volunteers and forgetting one person – then it can feel personal. And don’t forget to thank your actual paid staff as well J
Volunteers want to feel like part of a team
If you are using a volunteer, particularly a long-term volunteer, and not including them in your information, planning, etc you risk creating a sense of alienation. Make sure your communication is up to speed and everyone is kept up-to-date with what they need to know.
Volunteers take time
It’s great having access to people with skills and expertise, or just an extra set of willing hands. But managing volunteers can take time. You need to be organised and know what you need people to do. If you are after long-term volunteers, you may need to hold interviews. Many organisations need to formulate guidelines, hold inductions or even train their volunteers. Make sure you have the resources to cope with this.
Tips for volunteers
Research your organisation
It’s always good to research the organisation you want to volunteer with so you have an understanding of its purpose. It’s also good to know that the organisation is above board, open and accountable. There are so many in the developing world that are money-spinners and have questionable backgrounds. Ask lots of questions.
Think about how you can help
Just having time is not always the best approach. It’s good to be able to present the skills you have and find an organisation that needs those skills. This is particularly applicable in developing countries, where there are plenty of people able to do menial labour. These places often need specialist skills and people who can value-add and help upskill the local people.
Be prepared to take a back seat
Don’t necessarily expect to come in and take over a project. Of course, that depends on the level of skills you have and exactly what you’ve been asked to do. However, I’ve seen examples of teenagers from western countries, who visit a school and expect to run the class. This is rarely beneficial for the students and can be disruptive for the teachers. Just because you are from a western country, does not mean you know how to teach to students of another language.
Abide by the rules and be sensitive to cultural differences
Organisations have rules in place for a reason. Sometimes it is for administration purposes. Often it is for health and safety. Sometimes it is for the safety and security of people within the organisation – especially children. And often it is about ensuring you respect the culture. For example, in Cambodia it is inappropriate to wear short dresses and shorts and low cut tops.
Think about when to raise issues
If you spot areas where you can see problems or room for improvement, make sure you mention it in a respectful and appropriate way. Don’t admonish staff in public – it can be taken very personally in some cultures.
Take it seriously
If you take your volunteer role seriously you are likely to get much more value out of it and it will be more beneficial for everyone. Be committed to the time you are giving and make sure people can rely on you.
Make sure you are having fun. Not all roles are a barrel of laughs but we’ve met some wonderful people and had some incredible experiences in our various volunteer roles. And there’s always been a lot of humour.
So, this is a huge shout out on International Volunteer Day to all the volunteers around the globe. The wonderful people of all ages and from all walks of life who donate their time and their skills to help others are what community is all about. And together we are building better communities. So here’s applause to those of you who are doing something big or small to help others. Have you got any other tips to add to the list?