Not long ago I had a conversation with an individual who was thinking about traveling to volunteer. They were struggling with elements related to this activity, such as, how much money it would cost; the necessary time off from work; and what skills (if any) would be required. Although the conservation varied, the discussion tended to stay focused on the topic of skills-based volunteering. Many questions emerged. Should they consider utilizing their skills, or would a great attitude be enough? Do community projects really need skilled volunteers, or does it really matter? While there may be some merits associated with needed unskilled labor in some contexts, such as clearing trash from ocean-side beaches, according to academic research, skills-based volunteering does matter. Here are top four reasons why.
Satisfied Volunteers. Traveling volunteers who are skill-matched with a community project tend to be more satisfied overall with the volunteering experience than those who are not matched because they expect their skills will meet specific project objectives. When project objectives are met, they likely feel a sense of satisfaction because their work made a difference to the community. On the other hand, take for example, a volunteer who is expected to work on a construction project when they do not have the skillset to do so. As a result, a build might take longer than necessary (or in extreme cases, aspects needed to be redone), produce higher costs (if walls need to be repainted for example, then more product needs to be purchased), leading to volunteer (and community) dissatisfaction with the process. For skilled volunteers and unskilled volunteers, satisfaction/dissatisfaction levels tend to appear on opposite sides of the satisfaction spectrum. Skilled volunteers are also likely to become repeat volunteers, which most likely leads to sustainable community development.
Build Capital and Lessen Dependence. Highly skilled traveling volunteers are effective at building local and organizational capacity, producing noticeable social capital, and creating community partnerships. Projects utilizing expert volunteers leans toward being community driven, meaning the community has had input into the type of project needing expert foreign volunteers. In addition, expert volunteers may find themselves as catalysts for partnership development between community-driven projects. Due to skilled volunteers contributing to local capacity and social capital building, community partnerships have the potential to create community empowerment. An empowered community may, in turn, stop long-term colonial-like dependency on foreign assistance.
Development Outcomes. Clearly defined project objectives and measurable goals should be accessible for skilled volunteers, so they can make knowledgeable decisions about who they may volunteer with, and where the activity takes place. Accountability and transparency of project reporting tends to be linked with specific development outcomes and highly desired skilled-to-project-matched volunteers. Simply said, skilled volunteers are one of many driving forces in keeping an organization accountable for development in a foreign community. Skilled traveling volunteers also have the propensity to be interested in understanding individual community member perspectives on how a project, for example, is personally impacting them. Project organizers understand skilled volunteer interest in community voices and respond with reporting community member impact stories.
Sustainable Program Development. Sustainable development is much more than a green thinking type of development, it is, according to a popular featured in the 1987 Brundtland Report, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” When traveling volunteers offer their skills to a community, they are not only impacting the current generation of community members but future generations. Skilled-to-project matched volunteers tend be part of the sustainability thinking group. They not only base their decisions on the transparency of development outcomes, but look for projects that are mindful of social, economic, and environmental sustainable community impacts. Project creators/managers who desire these sustainably-minded-skilled volunteers, consider these criteria when developing a project. As a result, the community benefits not only from sustainably-driven volunteers, but the subsequent program is developed with sustainability objectives in mind.
It is apparent skilled traveling volunteers, matched with projects that support these skills, makes the most sense for community development. Not only are skilled volunteers more satisfied with their experience, but projects, developed with skilled based volunteers in mind, have the tendency to build social capital and lessen community dependency on foreign assistance. Skilled volunteers also have powerful influence over sustainable project development outcomes for current, and future, community members. After all, people who decide to volunteer nationally or internationally, want to know they actually made a difference in that community. What better way, than to use their skills to do so.
Lana Olsen is Faculty Research Associate for Arizona State Univeristy (ASU) Center for Sustainable Tourism. She is also founder, and resource specialist, for Thetravelingvolunteer.com. The Traveling Volunteer’s mission is to prepare and empower traveling volunteers, and communities, to be fully engaged and transformed through the activity of traveling to volunteer.
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