Volunteering 101 Series:
An Orientation on Grassroots Volunteer Work
What You Perceive and What It Is: Volunteering Outlook and Actual Impact
subjective vs. objective evaluations of volunteering results
Chennai / India · 2018 kids demonstrating their language skills to teachers and parents during English day
This article is part of a series titled “Volunteering 101: An Orientation on Grassroots Volunteer Work” exploring the dynamics of volunteering with nonprofit organizations. My insights are based on two years of personal volunteering experience with nonprofits in Latin America, Asia and Africa as well as research and conversations with people involved in the sector. By volunteering I typically mean self-organized participation in grassroots projects as opposed to voluntourism or government postings, even though I will touch on these as well.
Some people ridicule volunteering abroad as Westerners visiting low-income countries, building brittle walls and posting pictures of their “humanitarian achievements” on Facebook to bathe in do-gooder recognition. And maybe sometimes it is just that, especially when we’re talking about voluntourism. Yet, under the right conditions, volunteers are not only a free source of labor for nonprofit organizations, but a valuable asset for their projects. The actual impact is determined in large parts by the skill set and work ethics of volunteers as well as the organizational cultures of nonprofits; the perceived usefulness, on the other hand, depends on an individual’s personal expectations and outlook.
volunteering expectations & outlook
A volunteer’s expectation of the experience, as much as a volunteer’s motivation, is a personal matter. I have met people whose unrealistic expectations preceded disappointment. After all, it is unlikely that you will leave a lasting footprint in local communities by volunteering abroad for a couple of days or weeks. Don’t get me wrong, some people do and time is not the only determinant of impact. But the reality of grassroots work is often one of little steps, detours and dead ends. The occasional doubt about sustainability and effectiveness might overcast a volunteer's experience even after months or years of engagement.
That is why your personal mentality and outlook on projects and tasks is crucial in shaping your perception of usefulness and meaningfulness: if you focus on your impact on an individual level, teaching one kid the alphabet might suffice to make you feel valuable. Sure, somebody else could have done the same job, but in that moment you did. For some, this is enough to keep going. If you set out to save the entire world in one week though, you might fall a little short of your goal, which can be frustrating.
Another dimension of volunteering expectations is the scope of work. If you apply to an educational project, you expect to spend time in the classroom; if you’re volunteering with a wildlife conservation nonprofit, you want to be around animals. However, volunteering at the grassroots is not always that straightforward. An educational project might need a helping hand with a broad array of activities that are only loosely or not at all related to a classroom experience. For instance, during my first weeks at Escuela Katitawa in Ecuador I taught elementary school as I had expected. But throughout the year of my stay I was asked to participate in many other tasks and became a volunteering jack of all trades. My scope of work encompassed project management, volunteer coordination, administration and fundraising as well as jobs such as librarian, web designer, content writer, gardener and construction worker.
Salasaka / Ecuador Educational projects like Escuela Katitawa in Ecuador might need help with an array of activities besides teaching, such as event management, gardening and construction works.
As a volunteer you might bring a certain skill set that makes you more valuable in a field that isn’t the one you had in mind or that is your preference. I’ve come to find that people exhibit different reactions when being asked to help out in an area they didn’t anticipate: one is welcoming unexpected tasks as a challenge and feeling useful when doing whatever is needed most; another is seeing unexpected tasks as a drawback to your own agenda and feeling frustrated about not applying the skills you intended to use.
Ultimately, a volunteer’s expectation towards impact and the scope of work as well as the outlook on actual circumstances on the ground shape the experience and perceived usefulness. Take a friend of mine who volunteered with the Peace Corps in Botswana: there were moments when she was not too confident about the impact of her HIV prevention assignment and her placement within the community in general. But she was there for the three little boys on her compound when their mom died and without a doubt this unexpected side mission became life-changing and meaningful to herself and the boys.
actual volunteering impact & evaluation
Our individual outlook on the volunteering mission and tasks is a subjective matter that shapes our personal experience and perception of impact. Measuring actual results of grassroots volunteer work, by contrast, is essential for evaluating the objective overall effectiveness of a volunteer program. Such an analysis is as important as it is challenging, due to limited measurability and loose organizational structures, especially in smaller nonprofits.
impact factors associated with a volunteer’s commitment
time A longer participation in projects generally leaves more room to make a difference and implement sustainable change. Better insights into the project and the local community foster ideas that are directly applicable to the identified needs. In addition, volunteers can participate in long-term projects and in a larger variety of tasks.
skill set & creativity The duration of a volunteer’s stay often correlates with the impact, but short-term volunteers can still come up with or contribute to long-term projects, especially if they bring along a unique skill set or creativity. When I arrived at Escuela Katitawa I was amazed by the ongoing recycling project a short-term volunteer had implemented years before my time there.
While new ideas are great for innovative progress, keeping established projects going is essential to the long-term vision of grassroots nonprofits and requires volunteer workhorses that put in the hours. In the end, a skill set that fits right in with an organization can be just as helpful as one that adds fresh perspectives.
Salasaka / Ecuador recycling program at Escuela Katitawa
attitude & work ethics As mentioned before, tasks don’t always correspond to pre-arrival expectations since there is no guarantee that all volunteers’ preferences can be accommodated simultaneously. In my experience there are two scenarios: volunteers who arrive with an agenda and want to (or even demand to) engage exclusively in the anticipated tasks, might end up frustrated or angry, which can lead to early termination; flexible volunteers whose only agenda is being useful to the project in whatever way the people in charge see fit, might feel more gratified and contribute to a more productive work environment.
That being said, there is a fine line between demanding volunteers and those with determination, creative ideas, and a proactive spirit, which add value to the project. Along the same fine lines is the distinction between a flexible volunteer and somebody who is passive, less driven and little motivated, thereby bringing an idle work ethic to the project.
impact factors related to organizational structures and evaluation methods
frequency of volunteers & documentation The more frequently volunteers come and go, the more difficult it is to keep track of results and the value created by an individual and the entire volunteer program. This is especially true when no proper documentation is in place.
Take educational projects for instance: to quantify how much a kid has advanced academically thanks to volunteers is a tough task; after all, other people and circumstances might factor into the final grade a child achieves on a given subject. If on top of that a nonprofit organization has no system in place to document and analyze a kid’s advancement, there is just no quantifiable way of knowing how effective a volunteer program is.
Furthermore, nonprofits that don’t employ adequate documentation also fail to keep track of transitions between volunteers, which can hinder progress: when I worked at Escuela Katitawa, there was no record of what previous volunteers had taught in their English classes (which were only one element of a multi-dimensional project, however). Paired with the fact that there was no English course book as a guideline, this led to a situation in which each new volunteer would basically start his class at an arbitrary point and oftentimes from scratch. That’s not to say the kids didn’t benefit from these lessons and from volunteers with a fluent command of English, but their progress was somewhat random and possibly slowed down. On the other hand, conversational English classes for adults seemed to benefit the attendants greatly in terms of speaking skills and confidence, and documentation would have been redundant in this context.
At La Esperanza Granada in Nicaragua volunteers wrote down an account of their activities upon departure, which was a good transitional record in theory; yet, while I did my writing upon departure, I didn’t read the account of my predecessor when I arrived, so the structure wasn’t really enforced and rendered somewhat useless. Then again, the notebooks were just one part of a larger framework and local supervisors made sure that new arrivals were brought up to speed.
Some organizations use documentation and analytical tools to keep track of the effectiveness of a program or a volunteer’s particular assignment. In an ideal scenario you have a large sample size of numbers you can crunch to arrive at conclusions like “since we started the volunteer program, 30 % more kids attend university” or “thanks to the volunteer program the tuberculosis rate in local communities has decreased by 50 %, or “we can’t see a distinguishable impact of our volunteer program.”
Yet, many grassroots organizations don’t have these means of documentation and data analysis, so they employ more of a “help first, evaluate later” approach. It’s understandable: a need within the community might be easily identified and immediately acted upon. Measuring impact is secondary in this situation, even though it might be crucial for a project to be effective and should not be neglected in the long run.
There are also projects that don’t really allow for measurability of volunteering impact in the first place. An orphanage like Greensleeves in South Africa can easily quantify the number of kids it is taking in, but to gauge how much these kids benefit from volunteers playing games with them, listening to them and trying to create a loving atmosphere for them, is basically impossible.
East London / South Africa how do you measure the impact of warmth and love?
If no analytical tools are at hand, the results of a volunteer’s commitment come down to the subjective judgment of supervisors and the volunteers themselves. Again, the personal perspective and evaluation of usefulness becomes central.
introduction & integration of volunteers To increase the productivity of volunteer programs, it is critical that new arrivals get an introduction to the organization and its projects. This is especially true for short-term volunteers, who won’t have the time to learn the ropes on their own. Once volunteers understand the full scope of processes, targeted contributions to long-term goals are facilitated.
organizational set up Just like any entity in the private sector, the organizational set up of nonprofits and their volunteer programs largely influences the outcome. Many of the managerial processes that steer the decision making of nonprofits are equivalent or similar to for-profit settings, along dimensions such as administration, coordination, project management, marketing, finance etc. The more professional the set-up, the better the actual results: great marketing helps attract volunteers in the first place; a well-coordinated program can adapt to highly fluctuating volunteer numbers; a resourceful finance department establishes a stable donation system, while also seeking sustainable income for when volunteers and donations are scarce.
it is what you make it & it is what it is
In the end, the actual impact of a volunteering program depends on volunteers’ abilities and the organizational structures to accommodate them. Results can vary and are often difficult to quantify. It could be a little step on an individual level, like a kid having its first aha moment while learning simple math; or it could be the large-scale implementation of a project that brings about systemic and sustainable empowerment of a community. Whether the tangible and instant impact on one person’s life is more, equally or less meaningful than the broader and often indirect impact on a whole community, depends on your individual outlook and will determine your perceived usefulness.
along these lines
Volunteering 101 Series:
An Orientation on Grassroots Volunteer Work
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