From the blog

8 rules to create a successful volunteer experience

Working internationally with non-profits offers fantastic rewards. You learn new things. You meet new people. You see and do things you’ve never before seen and done. In the process, you help other human beings.  But like all things worthwhile, it’s not always easy.

There are  likely to be misunderstandings based on cultural or language differences. You may hold different values, and that can cause friction. Through our work with various communities and NGOs in Panama, Argentina, Costa Rica and even in the United States, we’ve learned some simple methods that help you connect with communities in ways that foster greater understanding as well as facilitate and support your projects making for an overall better experience.

Create an exchange.

There should always be a give and take in any interaction. Too many people make the mistake of thinking the community in which they’re working needs them. Yes, your input is valuable. Your work is and should be appreciated. You are not, however, indispensible. Nor should you see your only role as helper.  Instead, look at your time with the community as an opportunity to both teach and learn. You give and you get.

This creates an equal partnership which allows for greater trust.

Realize that trust is earned 

How can you develop trust? Follow through on your promises. Don’t promise anything you’re not sure you can deliver. Be honest.  Be respectful. Allow the community leaders to take an active role in planning. If you do all this consistently, over time you show you are worthy of trust.

Do your research. 

There was an NGO in Bolivia who had a technology that could purifty water up to  a certain level of toxicity. The NGO brought in purifiers and showed the community how to use them. It seemed a simple and elegant solution. The community used them, but no one bothered to test the water purity levels prior to beginning the project. Turns out, the water impurity was higher than the purifiers could hand. Missing this simple yet crucial detail lead to an entire community drinking unsafe water they believed potable.

Talk about a breakdown in trust!

If you’re not sure, ask. Ask the community. Ask local companies and NGOs. Ask other groups who have done similar projects for tips and cautions.

Learn the language.

You don’t have to be fluent. You just have to try.

I’ve been slowly learning the Wichi language in our years working in Hickmann. Wichi is like no language I know. When I speak it, I sound like I’m speaking Klingon. When the Wichi speak, it is soft and gentle. I can say “would you like an orange?” Wat lach a’tsah. I can name different animals. Every time I visit, Simon, one of the leaders in the Hickmann community, gives me a language lesson. The fact I’m willing to try, however successful, distinguishes me from most of the others who come to work with the community.

This is part of the exchange that helps break down the Us vs Them mentality. I am not there only to give, help and teach. I’m also there to learn.

Always ask permission.

Before taking a photo, before inviting volunteers, before delivering resources like clothing or food, before bringing in specialists to check water or to set up drip irrigation, we ask the community first if they agree.  It’s a matter of respect. How would you feel about someone coming into your home, asking questions, changing things and not taking who you are and what you want into account.?

It’s also important to know if the resource you bring will actually be useful.

We’ve seen people bring tools to the Wichi community without asking if they need them. They don’t. Tools, they have. What the community needs is a reliable water source.  They don’t, however, say no to the tools, because they can sell them and use the money for food. This, in turn, leaves those who bring the tools complaining that the Wichi don’t even use the tools effectively.

A couple well timed questions could keep this kind of misunderstanding from happening.

Be realistic

If the leader of a community is male and that community is heavily male dominated, then you must talk with a man before working with the community.

If women are the ones who traditionally farm, weave or make crafts, then it’s pointless to ask the men or children to play a role that is foreign to the culture.

It’s not easy to change a well set pattern in a community even when the circumstances of the community have changed. The Wichi, for example, are historically nomadic. Unfortunately, they no longer own the land where they used to fish, hunt and gather. It is not realistic, though, to think they will become farmers overnight. It takes time, patience and consistent experimentation in partnership with the community to determine what will help the community most.

The reality of this other culture may even offend your personal politics. In which case, you have to decide whether you can put aside your disagreement in order to work with them or find creative and respectful ways of supporting a change you believe to be necessary. If neither of these is possible for you, then it’s best you not work with the community.

Create lead roles for the people in the community

We bring in resources and volunteers to help with everything from teaching art classes to digging holes in the dirt to plant corn, but all long term roles must be played by people who are in the community. We do this to avoid creating community dependence on outside resources.

Donations and charity are wonderful, but they are not endless. Foreign volunteers are not permanent. When they run out or leave, the community cannot easily replace them. If we instead buy the tools, and other resources we need from inside the country and teach someone in the community how to use them, we create a system that functions from within and self-sustains the community.

All our engineers in the Wichi/H20 program are Wichi. They come from nearby villages to teach those in the Hickmann community to set up drip irrigation for themselves. We buy all hoses, equipment and seeds in the same province from people who know what is needed to grow crops in this particular climate.

When we leave Argentina, the community will have what it needs to continue gardening. They are not reliant on us.

Let the people in the community take responsibility

This, I learned from Alec Deane of Fundacion Siwok. He brings kits of hoses, seeds and other equipment to the different Wichi communities. He pays an engineer, Antonio, who is also Wichi and lives about 30 kilometers away from Hickmann, to visit regularly, teach the families to set up the drip irrigation and how to plant. Antonio returns at crucial steps during the growth cycle of the corn. The families in Hickman must take responsibility for regular weeding, watering and addressing any issues with the gardens in between Antonio’s visits.

You cannot force people to complete a project simply because you think it is the right thing to do. The people in a community must take ownership of their work. That is the only way they will use the resources you give them in an effective way that will lead to results. They will take over those projects, teach others as they learn to do it themselves.

Interested in learning more about Cloudhead and the work we do? There are many opportunities to volunteer with us!

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