The upside of overseas volunteering – Lindsay Seegmiller, Director of International Outreach for Students Offering Support (SOS)

The Toronto Star published an editorial on January 4th entitled “The downside of overseas volunteering”. It raises great concerns about the transiency and true benefits of international volunteering. I agree with the criticisms whole-heartedly; however, this likely sounds hypocritical given that I lead the International Outreach arm of SOS, which has roots in two-week volunteer trips to build schools.

So. How do I sleep at night (or, at least reconcile that hypocrisy)? I use my own experiences with voluntourism, and through building off critiques such as this one, work to turn voluntourism into a more constructive experience.

A few basics need to be accepted in order to create a constructive process:

  1. Short-term volunteering will greatly benefit the volunteer. Volunteers learn immense amounts about the world, themselves and their peers through these trips. These lessons often prompt the development of global citizens who pursue a future goal.
  2. A volunteer’s biggest contribution is not their manual labour. Our projects are organized and led by local labourers and foremen with experience in the field. Volunteers support them with additional hands.
  3. Donors and volunteers want a shortened distance between their contribution and the result.
  4. Volunteering is incredibly trendy.

These basics can easily lead into the experience criticized by the Star. I firmly believe however, that “those” trips are not the only outcome. Here’s what we do…

  • Prioritize the community and their self-identified project. This is paramount. SOS finds partners who work with communities through participatory processes to identify potential projects. We support projects because they are relevant to the community’s self-identified needs…not because they allow us to make a trip.  Trips are the icing on the cake.
  • Remind volunteers they are going to learn, rather than change.
    • “The construction project is not the most important part of your trip”
    • This project and community exist well beyond the two weeks you spend”
    • “Ask questions. Learn from the people you’re visiting”
    • “You’re a guest. Be considerate. Learn Spanish. Remember that your time is temporary.”
  • Reflect. The biggest benefit I have seen come out of these trips is their ability to bring perspective to stereotypes. Through conversation with community members, within the team and through independent reflection exercises, we hope to promote the idea of community members not as grateful recipients but as active agents for change who face – like all of us – structural challenges.

Now, the intent of this article isn’t to make everyone come volunteer with SOS, or talk about how awesome we are. There are dozens of great organizations creating really thoughtful experiences. It takes research and reflection as the experiences that are easiest to find are rarely the best.  So, as you consider the question of “What will I do this summer?” or “How do I make an impact in the world?”, try to think critically about these questions.

  1. Why do you want to go abroad? Motivations alone will guide you to different styles of organizations.
  2. Do you need to go abroad to make the best contribution? My international volunteers and interns make wonderful contributions to our organization, but they would never exist without the devotion of our in-Canada interns working in Public Relations, IT, Finance, Monitoring and Evaluation, Project Development, Research etc.

If you still want to go abroad, seek out organizations that:

  1. Prioritize locally-driven initiatives,
  2. Work off existing projects, rather than creating projects to meet volunteer demand,
  3. Offer thorough pre-departure training and build a post-trip network,
  4. Show thorough monitoring and evaluation of the projects that volunteers contribute towards during their placement.
  5. Encourage listening and learning, rather than doing,
  6. Offer lean pricing options, with the majority of the pricing being directed to supporting your living costs in community (rather than organizational overhead). Hint: look to volunteer through non-profits rather than for-profits!

If you find an organization that you feel satisfies your expectations and makes a meaningful contribution towards the host-community, I would encourage you to take that leap! These early experiences will change and shape how you understand the world, and your role within it. Go with an open mind and act like a sponge.

If you are interested in getting involved with one of our outreach trips (2-weeks) or outreach internships (3-months), please e-mail me at lseegmilller@studentsofferingsupport.ca. I would be more than happy to discuss what we do, why we do it, and what your role might be. Or even just to give a bit of advice.

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About the Author: Katie Idle

About our business, Study and Go Abroad is the 'go to' site for Canadians looking to study abroad, travel, intern or volunteer. We organize fairs twice a year in various cities in Canada, and I'd recommend getting down to one of them to check out all the exciting options. As for me, I'm a business woman and a travel junkie! I have always had a passion for travel and for experiencing new cultures. Brought up in England, I traveled Europe in my teens and early 20s. I have lived and worked on 3 continents; Europe, Africa and North America. I have traveled extensively worldwide both for work and for fun - and still can't believe how much of the world there is still to see!

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