How To Create Change As A Volunteer

One of the biggest debates in the volunteering and voluntourism world is the question if volunteers can create change at all. On one side, most developmental organisation deny this idea completely. They feel their well established project designs and models of professional support challenged by well-meaning amateurs.

On the other side volunteering organisations and volunteers are convinced to contribute to global development and understand this debate as an attack on their (business) model. Future and former volunteers feel neglected in their efforts and ambitions. This often leads to very emotional debates, but when taking a closer look, one will recognize that actually all sides are lacking proper arguments.

That is why we want to take a closer look on what is needed to create change through volunteers and where it might be possible.


So what is change at all?

Creating an impact or a change is what all volunteers strive for, but only few of them can explain their intention or understanding of this idea. From a technical perspective, a change is a lasting impact of a one-time intervention. Changes remain after the volunteer has left the project or even after the project is finished.

For a better understanding it is very important to be aware of the difference between charity work and developmental work. Charities address urgent needs of people such as lack of food, education or similar. Charities are quick and experienced about filling these gaps by providing material or ideal support where it is needed.

Development work has a different approach. To create a developmental change, these projects address the reason for the existing gaps in supply of what is needed and try to change the overall conditions. The most obvious difference is that development activities should be limited in time and efforts. When a development intervention is finished the circumstances ought to have changed in a way that the urgent needs are not opening up anymore. This idea of a sustainable change is most popular. Everyone will have heard that teaching to fish is much better than just giving fish away.

But what is often neglected by the development community is the fact, that charity work addressing the most urgent needs is also needed to apply a development approach. No starving person will have the time or the patience to learn fishing before eating.

In most debates there is no clear differentiation between charity and development. This can easily lead to misunderstanding and frustration. But for creating a lasting change only the development approach is suitable


Taking a look at the impact levels

Having said this, let’s take a look where it might be possible for volunteers to create change at all and what is needed to do so. When designing a sustainable project, the experienced development worker will search for where it is possible to create a change at all, this are the so-called impact level. He will strive to address the highest level possible that can affect the biggest number of people.


Impact level: Community

For an average volunteering project this level would be the society or the community the project is located in. It will be very hard to argue that the sheer presence and work of a single volunteer will be significant enough to a community to create a lasting change. The range of a volunteer is just not big enough to influence change makers and decision makers of a community in a lasting way. Two things might be possible here: The volunteer can serve as a good example of altruistic engagement and inspire a broad range of people to do the same. But it is hard to think of an example where this is likely to happen, just because there is usually no interaction between volunteers and steering members of the communities. The other influence could be the funds brought into the community through the volunteers and that is spread through the staff salaries, purchases and rental fees. But as most volunteers travel on a short budget and the lion share of the application fees stays with the agencies, a significant change through the money is also not realistic.


Impact level: Project

So how about the next level, the project itself? As most volunteers do not bring a specific set of skills, it is also very unlikely to make a real change here. It can be compared to an internship: Interns work and learn and they might contribute to the success of the company, but it is very unusual that interns change the companies themselves. This is especially the case with volunteers. 99% of the volunteer placements are focussed on working with beneficiaries or the target group of the project. They do not focus on the organisation itself. For a lasting impact, it would be necessary that the volunteers transfer their skills to the staff and the organisation itself must be open to new ideas and approaches. But as most volunteers are doing unskilled labour this cannot happen. Skills brought by the volunteer such like a profound knowledge of english cannot be transferred to the staff in only a couple of days.

In addition, most organisations receive volunteers on a regular basis. For many volunteers it is an exciting first time experience being in the project, but for the regular staff it is just a day like every other else.

One skill, that is often underestimated is the “third-party perspective” of volunteers. Usually volunteers are frequent travelers who might have seen similar tasks handled differently in another place or in their country of origin. If staff members are open for learning and discussion, it might be a valuable insight for them to reflect on their work and develop some changes themselves. But even if some staff is convinced to new ideas, it is hard to feed them back to the institution who often do not have many capacities in learning and maintaining knowledge. Most successful projects you will find are successful because they have a strong and charismatic leadership, not because they are a strong and sustainable institution.


Impact level: Target group

The target group is of course the most obvious impact level and the most discussed one. If is very difficult to discuss it in general as it depends very much on the activities of the volunteer and the design of the target group.

One example: If volunteers teaching english are working on a tight curriculum and the knowledge transfer between volunteer is guaranteed, it is most likely that children from that school have the chance to improve their skills through the volunteers and the transfer of knowledge can definitely be seen as a lasting change. But as always, there are many open questions: Will the child be needing the english skills at all or will it later be working as a farmer anyway? Would it have been a better use of the time to learn maths? Are the topics of the lesson relevant? …

Designing a good activity is incredibly difficult and requires a lot of thoughts. What is important in this case is that the assignment of a volunteer be the answer to all of these questions, if should not be the starting point. Resource driven activity design is very common (If we have a volunteer, what can he/she do?), but it cannot guarantee any significant impact. Only if you think about what you need, not what you have, it is possible to create a sustainable project.


Impact level: Volunteer

For now we see, that only under very certain circumstances it is possible for volunteers to make a change, although it is not impossible. But there is one last level and that is the volunteer himself/ herself.

This level is often overlooked and it interferes with many volunteers auto-image. This is where many of the fundamental critics such as the white-saviour complex come in. But actually many volunteers join a project for their own experience and learning. It is a unique opportunity to learn about the living conditions in other places of the world. The experience will stick to them for their lifetime. With a good supervision and enough time, volunteers have the chance to connect their own life to the things they have seen in person. When digging deep enough into the problem analysis of the respective project, they can realize that in most cases the reasons for the misery can be related to their own life in the western countries, for example on the historical level of colonialism or their consumer lifestyle. Who has worked with rural communities close to the pineapple plantations in Costa Rica will probably never ever again eat imported pineapples again, because the heavy use of pesticides leads to the illness of hundreds of people. Now will he/she ever again eat cheap chicken breasts because the export of other chicken parts to Africa destroys local enterprises and drives people into poverty. Hundreds of other examples could be added.

It can be hoped, that the volunteering experience will create a lasting change in the lifestyle of the volunteers. To achieve this, a good and knowledgeable mentoring and accompaniment of volunteers is needed. They must be taken into the position to critically ask themselves about their own contribution to global poverty and if they can think of a better way to reduce it than volunteering. But volunteering must be seen as a valuable first step in this direction.


A lasting impact through volunteering is possible if the circumstances are right and the project is well designed. But in fact, it is much different than most volunteers will expect. Only if volunteer companies embrace the idea of being an educational program for young participants the scratched image and reputation of these programs can be renewed and the industry more respected.