Lack of clarity around the role of the volunteer causes many organizations to struggle in matching offers of help with their critical needs. This article aims to help organizations and individuals identify the right volunteer model for their engagement. 

While almost every nonprofit relies on the support of volunteers, not all of them are using those volunteers to their full capacity. Because of a lack of clarity about the role of the volunteer, many organizations struggle to match offers of help with their critical needs, and sometimes they get it wrong. This article aims to explain the three models of volunteer engagement, including what the volunteers must know and what the organization must be willing to do to ensure success in their volunteer program. You can also check out our free Voluntourism Checklist to get this info in a 1-page chart.

Model #1: Volunteer as Learner

Many of the criticisms organization face regarding volunteers stem from their failure to distinguish between the volunteer as doer (model #2) and as learner. Often they think the point of the volunteer service is “to do” when it really is “to learn.” In this role, the volunteer is there to see, experience, and learn. They are not actively doing, advising, serving, or solving. The most important job they have is to apply what they learned on-site when they go back home and advocate for the cause.

One commenter on the article by Vu Le said that the walls of her homeless shelter were painted seven times in one year by seven different corporate volunteer groups. Each corporation wanted an opportunity for their employees to volunteer, so the nonprofit created that opportunity: paint the walls. Without a learning component, painting a wall for the seventh time is wasteful and unnecessary. But what if we could revision the opportunity into something different? What if we used painting (or any kind of activity) as a vehicle to build empathy and understanding? Then the value of the opportunity is  not that the walls got painted; the value is that those corporate employees now better understand homelessness and are poised to take their learning back to their lives and places of work and maybe even talk to their elected officials.

The value of bringing a group of American high school students to lay tiles at a school in Guatemala is not that the school floors got tiled. (There are undoubtedly a number of skilled professionals available locally who would have done this for pay). The value is that the U.S. students now understand more about Guatemala, about poverty, about culture, about foreign aid, and about the complexities of international development. They may now go on to pursue degrees in those subject matters, take up professional positions in those domains, even influence U.S. foreign policy someday. The value is that they learned—not that they “did.”

When the organization understands and accepts the volunteer as learner, they are better prepared to recruit, prepare, and measure the value of their volunteer program.

To be effective, the organization must:

  • Be upfront with prospective volunteers about their role as learners. Do not mislead them with false promises (“you will transform these children’s lives in only two hours”) or pander to their egos with dishonest praise (“our homeless clients will forever remember you as a hero for painting the cafeteria wall”).
  • Be willing to provide educational opportunities (e.g., present on homelessness to corporate employees, present on Guatemalan culture to the high schoolers).
  • Be able to brief people in advance so that they have an enriched understanding of the environment and circumstances before the date of the opportunity.
  • Be able to measure the value and impact of their program. Is it revenue generating? It is leading to increased awareness? Is it moving the mission forward in a positive way?

The volunteer is also not without responsibility.

To be effective, the volunteer must:

  • Accept their role as a “learner”  – strive to not feel guilty about their lack of “doing” or let their ego lead them to believe they are an “expert” in this area.
  • Be aware of their privilege (race, wealth, nationality, language, education, gender, lived experience) when they enter the space.
  • Be willing to suspend judgement of others.
  • Be willing to question what they know.
  • Be willing to learning something new.
  • And most importantly, be willing to be changed by what they learn.

Model #2: Volunteer as Doer

The volunteer as doer is probably the most common form of advertised voluntourism. Travelers, unsatisfied with the prospect of merely learning, want to actively affect change at the site. Unfortunately, this is an easy category to mess up. Complaints are rampant of untrained, unskilled, unqualified volunteers performing menial jobs that take away from the local job market, deliver sub-quality services, and in some cases are not needed at all.

Organizations using volunteers as doers need to heavily consider whether the work they are doing is essential, whether it could be done locally for pay (and thereby contribute to the local economy and economic justice), and whether the volunteers they are bringing have experience and skills that could contribute meaningfully to this project. If not, then the experience is really in the best interest of the volunteer—not the mission.

When the volunteer arrives as a doer, they must perform critical services that cannot be performed on-site by local people. The volunteer must already have demonstrated expertise in this skill—they are not doing this to build expertise. Organizations are not sending them to “practice on poor people” before they develop their talents in their home countries.

In addition to all the points listed in the learner model, organizations must do a few more things in order for doers to be effective.

To be effective, the organization must:

  • Carefully screen and qualify volunteers. (And if you don’t know how to vet the skill of clinicians or coders, seek outside expertise in this area).
  • Match skills and expertise appropriately with the task at hand.
  • Be willing to turn down offers of support if the volunteer does not possess the skills needed.
  • Be willing to train people on the customs and norms of the site, not just brief them, in advance.

In addition to all the points listed in the learner model, volunteers as doers must also do a few things in order to be effective.

To be effective, the volunteer must:

  • Possess valuable skills that serve the needs of the organization.
  • Demonstrate their expertise through experience, licensure, training, or certification.
  • Be willing to take direction from local staff, treat them with respect, and follow their lead.

Model #3: Volunteer as Expert

As organizations assess the sustainability of their programs, volunteer as expert has become a more prevalent model. The problem with sending volunteers to sites as doers is that it is unsustainable. Local communities will always need those services—and it makes little financial sense for an organization to constantly be supplying new volunteers to fill their needs. In this model, the volunteer is not needed to perform a function indefinitely; the goal is always for the local community to be self-sufficient. In the Volunteer as Expert model, the role of the volunteer is to impart their skills and knowledge, so as to increase the capacity of others. One example may involve sending engineers or medical professionals with niche expertise to train their counterparts in other locations.

On a global level, it is worth explicitly mentioning that flow of expertise does not only move north to south (as in from countries in the Global North to the Global South), or from more industrialized locations to less industrialized ones. Much is being learned and applied through the South-to-South Knowledge Exchange (to use the Worldbank’s terminology). And at a more micro level, it is important to remember that expertise is not just found in donors, board members, or senior leadership. We need to be conscious of whom we are deeming “experts” and work continuously to remove barriers that  prevent us from recognizing expertise in others.

Identifying the right expertise is only the first hurdle. Not only do organizations need to recruit experts in a particular domain but these experts also need to be able to teach or train others—a completely different skill. Training the experts may be needed so that they can train others. Also, accommodating these busy professionals (who are undoubtably using their expertise in their careers and are likely in high demand for it) is a challenge. They may not be able to travel at the times when they are needed most. Their time on-site may need to be shorter.

Finally, in the field of adult learning, we know that few one-off trainings are effective. The experts may need to train people several times in order to change behavior or apply new skills. Results can take a long time to reveal themselves.

In addition to all the items in the learner and doer models, the host organization must do the following to effectively use volunteers as experts.

To be effective, the organization must:

  • Screen for attitude—we don’t benefit from the “sage on stage.”
  • Be willing to turn down offers of support from people who are un-coachable or overly egotistical.
  • Be prepared to pay a stipend and/or cover travel expenses (not all expertise is highly paid and some experts should not have to shoulder the burden of their costs)
  • Accommodate the schedules of busy professionals.
  • Train the trainer: not all experts are teachers—they may have the knowledge but not know how to facilitate that learning in others.

The volunteer must also, in addition to what they do from the learner and doer models.

To be effective, the volunteer must:

  • Be teachable, trainable, or coachable—just because you know your subject does not mean you know how to teach it in another culture.
  • Keep their ego in check.
  • Be willing to take direction, pivot, improvise, and make mistakes.
  • Demonstrate resilience. Teaching and training in a foreign environment almost ensure you will mess up and embarrass yourself. Be ready to bounce back and try something new.

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