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 Some advice from an ex-volunteer

“Take your time. Prepare yourself. The longer, the better. Be realistic about your skills and use them wisely. And finally: Work with people. Solve problems shoulder to shoulder.”

Sharing volunteering experiences

This is advice given by Anna Gudarowska who wrote a book about her volunteering experience.
It inspired us to look deeper into the meaning of responsible volunteering, or “volunteering shoulder to shoulder” as Anna puts it – and share the most important aspects of this approach.

In her book “The Law of the Jungle”, Anna Gudarowska shares her experience as a long-term international volunteer with Richmond Vale Academy’s programme. She exposes the truth about volunteering and takes notice of the importance of responsible volunteering over short-term voluntourism.

Our actions have a great impact on others and if we are not careful we can easily end up causing more damage than doing good despite all the well-meaning intentions we have at heart.

One of the insights Anna shares is this: If volunteers want to achieve positive impact and long term change they need to be properly prepared and trained. Proper preparation is also essential for the volunteer to avoid disappointment by being more realistic about what to expect and simply get the best possible experience.

 

Prepare yourself. The longer, the better!

Anna emphasizes how important the training period before the actual volunteer work was for her. It helped her grasp the scope of the project and the impact she would be making in people’s lives. It also showed her that volunteering must be taken seriously to have the desired effect.

As she says – the longer the training, the better prepared you will be for the project. Her studies, field trips and workshops gave her the knowledge on poverty, inequality, colonialism, possible causes and solutions, the reality of the country where I was going, health, nutrition, organic gardening, sustainable energy, recycling and much more.

The community life at the training centre also contributed to her problem-solving skills, resolving conflicts in an appropriate way, finding the best ways to reach goals by cooperating with others, taking initiatives and overall teamwork skills.

 

Taking time to understand

Anna explains that the start of the project period also took some time. She and her team spent the first weeks after arriving in Belize, where her project was based, together with the volunteers who had already done work there and who were familiar with the environment.

The people who had already worked in the community shared experience and educated newcomers with the essential things they need to know. Furthermore, they helped the new volunteers get familiar with the way the community in Belize works, getting advice and tips based on the learned lessons.

Spending time with the project leaders to get an understanding of their reality and talking to them was also essential. Getting familiar with the structure, studying and adjusting guidelines, learning rules and objectives.

The first month was spent getting to know people, doing surveys with every family in the village, meeting the village council and other community leaders such as the principal at the school.

Anna writes: “This wasn’t a fascinating time, but it was necessary for us to create the change that was needed and supported by the community.”

 

Working with the people

Anna describes the project itself as “working with the people not for the people”. This is the fundamental difference between responsible volunteering and other types of volunteering.

Working with the people means that volunteers are offering support and collaborating with the community instead of “saving them”, doing the job, and leaving. The latter would leave the people with little value as they will not know how to sustain the effects of the project after volunteers are gone. On the contrary, working with the community has many benefits and serves as a foundation for a long term positive development.

 

Listening to the experts

To begin with, volunteers who go to “help people” in a foreign country are not the experts there. The experts are the local people – they know best what the biggest need is and how most situations should be approached. Seeking advice and guidance from people who are familiar with the needs of the community is the only way to make sure that your project will have actual value and will benefit people in a meaningful way – also in the long term.

This is what sustainability means: “the ability to continue a defined behaviour indefinitely”. Therefore, a development project needs to ensure that all factors involved – environmental, social and economic – are in balance. The community will have a deep understanding of the project, know how to maintain what has been started and continue the activities by themselves, far into the future.

 

Be realistic about your skills

Anna gives examples of how her team was contributing to their library project in the right way. The volunteers were not trained carpenters so instead of building shelves for a library they focused on obtaining new books, designing the room and making the digital and printed database for it.

Clearly, the volunteers were not better farmers than the villagers who had been farming for generations, so they did not try to teach them how to grow their own vegetable gardens. Instead, they promoted the use of organic local materials and sustainable eco-friendly farming methods.

 

Combining skills

The best results can only be achieved by combining the volunteers’ knowledge and skills with those of the community. This utilizes the competences of all parties involved and leads to long-lasting results with relevant improvements which the community actually needs.

In addition, it also helps build trust and promotes cooperation – Anna mentions that at first, the locals were skeptical to trust the newcomers but by getting to know them and working together for a while they got quite close to each other and managed to improve their teamwork in a great way. By the end of the project, the community was eager to have more input from international volunteers in their future projects.

Some advice for prospective international volunteers

At the end of her book, Anna summarises her successful experience and formulates some simple guidelines for people who are thinking about becoming an international volunteer:

 

  1. Take your time. Volunteering abroad is an adventure of a lifetime, so make sure it will make a positive impact. Research the organisation you have found. Talk to former volunteers and investigate where the money goes.

     


  2. Preparation period. Relevant training is gold. The longer, the better!


  3. Utilise the skills you already have. Don’t steal anyone else’s job. Make sure your input to the projects is an asset to the community.


  4. Work with people. Work shoulder to shoulder as equals.


  5. Spend as much time as possible at the projects. Months.


  6. Enjoy the experience! It might be the most memorable and meaningful experience in your life. Choose a project you feel passionate about and pack your bags!

 

 

A structured gap year can be just what you need.

Working with the people means that volunteers are offering support and collaborating with the community instead of “saving them”, doing the job, and leaving.

The Law of the Jungle by Anna Gudarowska

An ex-volunteer shares her experience

The best way to truly understand the value and importance of responsible volunteering is by hearing about it from a person who has felt its impact first-hand. “The Law of the Jungle” – a book by Anna Guadrowska tells about her encounter with volunteering and its various aspects in around 90 engaging pages.

Responsible Volunteering

Some advice from an ex-volunteer

Let's talk Responsible Volunteering

Sharing volunteering experiences

This is advice given by Anna Gudarowska who wrote a book about her volunteering experience.
It inspired us to look deeper into the meaning of responsible volunteering, or “volunteering shoulder to shoulder” as Anna puts it – and share the most important aspects of this approach.

In her book “The Law of the Jungle”, Anna Gudarowska shares her experience as a long-term international volunteer with Richmond Vale Academy’s programme. She exposes the truth about volunteering and takes notice of the importance of responsible volunteering over short-term voluntourism.

Tree Planting

Our actions have a great impact on others and if we are not careful we can easily end up causing more damage than doing good despite all the well-meaning intentions we have at heart.

One of the insights Anna shares is this: If volunteers want to achieve positive impact and long term change they need to be properly prepared and trained. Proper preparation is also essential for the volunteer to avoid disappointment by being more realistic about what to expect and simply get the best possible experience.

Working with the people means that volunteers are offering support and collaborating with the community instead of “saving them”, doing the job, and leaving.

Prepare yourself. The longer, the better!

Anna emphasizes how important the training period before the actual volunteer work was for her. It helped her grasp the scope of the project and the impact she would be making in people’s lives. It also showed her that volunteering must be taken seriously to have the desired effect.

As she says – the longer the training, the better prepared you will be for the project. Her studies, field trips and workshops gave her the knowledge on poverty, inequality, colonialism, possible causes and solutions, the reality of the country where I was going, health, nutrition, organic gardening, sustainable energy, recycling and much more.

The community life at the training centre also contributed to her problem-solving skills, resolving conflicts in an appropriate way, finding the best ways to reach goals by cooperating with others, taking initiatives and overall teamwork skills.

 

The Law of the Jungle - Anna Gudarowska

The best way to truly understand the value and importance of responsible volunteering is by hearing about it from a person who has felt its impact first-hand. “The Law of the Jungle” – a book by Anna Guadrowska tells about her encounter with volunteering and its various aspects in around 90 engaging pages.

Taking time to understand

Anna explains that the start of the project period also took some time. She and her team spent the first weeks after arriving in Belize, where her project was based, together with the volunteers who had already done work there and who were familiar with the environment.

The people who had already worked in the community shared experience and educated newcomers with the essential things they need to know. Furthermore, they helped the new volunteers get familiar with the way the community in Belize works, getting advice and tips based on the learned lessons.

Inclusive Education

Spending time with the project leaders to get an understanding of their reality and talking to them was also essential. Getting familiar with the structure, studying and adjusting guidelines, learning rules and objectives.

The first month was spent getting to know people, doing surveys with every family in the village, meeting the village council and other community leaders such as the principal at the school.

Anna writes: “This wasn’t a fascinating time, but it was necessary for us to create the change that was needed and supported by the community.”

Environmental Awareness

Working with the people

Anna describes the project itself as “working with the people not for the people”. This is the fundamental difference between responsible volunteering and other types of volunteering.

Working with the people means that volunteers are offering support and collaborating with the community instead of “saving them”, doing the job, and leaving. The latter would leave the people with little value as they will not know how to sustain the effects of the project after volunteers are gone. On the contrary, working with the community has many benefits and serves as a foundation for a long term positive development.

Child Aid

Listening to the experts

To begin with, volunteers who go to “help people” in a foreign country are not the experts there. The experts are the local people – they know best what the biggest need is and how most situations should be approached. Seeking advice and guidance from people who are familiar with the needs of the community is the only way to make sure that your project will have actual value and will benefit people in a meaningful way – also in the long term.

This is what sustainability means: “the ability to continue a defined behaviour indefinitely”. Therefore, a development project needs to ensure that all factors involved – environmental, social and economic – are in balance. The community will have a deep understanding of the project, know how to maintain what has been started and continue the activities by themselves, far into the future.

Tree Planting Projects

Be realistic about your skills

Anna gives examples of how her team was contributing to their library project in the right way. The volunteers were not trained carpenters so instead of building shelves for a library they focused on obtaining new books, designing the room and making the digital and printed database for it.

Clearly, the volunteers were not better farmers than the villagers who had been farming for generations, so they did not try to teach them how to grow their own vegetable gardens. Instead, they promoted the use of organic local materials and sustainable eco-friendly farming methods.

Rural Community Development

Combining skills

The best results can only be achieved by combining the volunteers’ knowledge and skills with those of the community. This utilizes the competences of all parties involved and leads to long-lasting results with relevant improvements which the community actually needs.

In addition, it also helps build trust and promotes cooperation – Anna mentions that at first, the locals were skeptical to trust the newcomers but by getting to know them and working together for a while they got quite close to each other and managed to improve their teamwork in a great way. By the end of the project, the community was eager to have more input from international volunteers in their future projects.

Responsible Volunteering

Some advice for prospective international volunteers

At the end of her book, Anna summarizes her successful experience and formulates some simple guidelines for people who are thinking about becoming an international volunteer:

 

  1. Take your time. Volunteering abroad is an adventure of a lifetime, so make sure it will make a positive impact. Research the organization you have found. Talk to former volunteers and investigate where the money goes.

     


  2. Preparation period. Relevant training is gold. The longer, the better!

  3. Utilize the skills you already have. Don’t steal anyone else’s job. Make sure your input to the projects is an asset to the community.

  4. Work with people. Work shoulder to shoulder as equals.

  5. Spend as much time as possible at the projects. Months.

  6. Enjoy the experience! It might be the most memorable and meaningful experience in your life. Choose a project you feel passionate about and pack your bags!

 

 

Sunset scenary

Read more about aspects of responsible volunteering

5 tips on responsible volunteering abroad

Are you researching how to go about volunteering abroad in a responsible / ethical / sustainable / decolonised way? Here are some resources that we think could be useful for you – at least we hope so!

Sustainability & volunteering

Sustainability reflects “the ability to continue a defined behaviour indefinitely”. A development project needs to ensure that all factors involved – environmental, social and economic – are in balance.

Solidarity or Charity?

On International Charity Day we ponder the differences between charity and solidarity. Charity, according to the United Nations, plays an important role in bringing about positive change. Is this true?

Voluntourism vs Intl. Volunteering?

Be realistic and honest about your role, be it as a short-term voluntourist or a longer-term international volunteer. Always put the interests and needs of the community first and before your own.

Be aware of stereotyping

As an international volunteer, you need to be aware of your negative stereotypes and implicit biases. You want to avoid unintentional neo-colonial behaviour. Proper training of volunteers is one way of doing it.

Responsible volunteering resources

The topic of how to avoid the neo-colonial, eurocentric perspective in international volunteering is an important one. On this page, you will find articles, tips and news about it.