The real learnings of returned long term volunteers

The big hopes of many volunteer programs are not only the direct outcomes created by participants but what the volunteers do with the learnings they gained through volunteering overseas afterwards. Volunteers leave their host countries with new knowledge, understanding and new perspectives that will stay with them long after they have returned.

In our earlier article we have already outlined how difficult it is for volunteers to create real change through their work. Through the exposure to local communities, their way of living and their problems volunteers are supposed to change their mindset. A good volunteering program is supposed to create a learning experience in addition to a useful job. The idea: if volunteers have seen and felt the living conditions countries of the global south, they will start engaging for a more just world and committing to this for the rest of their life. For now, this has been a hypothesis and never been sorely investigated.

Most optimistic researchers believe that volunteers will start engaging in local volunteering work, join initiatives such like FairTrade, emphasize others about what they have seen and learned when being abroad. They encourage others to go, they rather choose to work in a social enterprise and support international organisations. As you can see, hopes are high. But are they fulfilled?


The Study

The DEval Institute, one of Germany’s most respected research bodies in the sector of international development has taken a closer look. DEval not only made a survey among 8000 former volunteers. The results were also compared with data from similar people who did not volunteer. They also questioned the volunteers social environment such as family and friends, surveyed sending organisation and organized focus group discussions. With such a broad set of tools used, the results can be expected to be valid and reliable.  

They investigated exclusively former volunteers from the German “weltwärts” program. This program, launched in 2008, is a long term volunteer program where young adults, usually at the age of 18 – 20 spend one year in countries of the global south working in social institutions and local NGO.

The programme is operate by organizations from the german civil society which fund the program jointly with the German government. Volunteers receive a full scholarship for participating.

Volunteers have to participate in at least 20 educational days before, during and after their stay to prepare them for their time abroad, including their future volunteer work and evaluate their learnings.

So, what are the key learnings from the evaluation?


Volunteers gain knowledge about the country they are active in.

That should not be a surprise, but it is good news. Many volunteers who join programs for short time only do not manage to obtain a profound knowledge on their host county, because they spend evening and weekends with other international volunteers. Long term volunteers also increase their language skills in the respective language.


Volunteers develop their capacities

This point really emphasises the fact, that international volunteering is much more learning than helping. Through the activities,  volunteers can increase their skills and knowledge they bring into the project. Most volunteers never worked before volunteering so there is a lot of potential to be developed. It is to be expected that this gain of knowledge gives volunteers an advantage on the labor market later on.


The type of engagement changes

Many volunteers already conduct some kind of engagement before volunteering abroad. They support local libraries, teach sports or swimming or volunteer at church. The evaluation discovers that after their return the type of engagement is changing. They are more likely in engaging for a better global world and their engagement is turning to be more politically motivated. In this context, policitally can be understood in the interest of improving existing structures and systems.


No increase in intercultural competencies

Surprisingly, an increase in intercultural competencies could not be identified by the study. Volunteers are not more sensitive towards other cultures although they might have learned one to know better. The capacities in changing perspectives does not increase significantly.


Effects on the social environment

The report states clearly, that volunteers like to communicate about their learnings and their experiences after they return home. In doing so, they also have an effect on their immediate social peers such as their friends and parents. Through the shared opinions peers start changing behaviour, become more interested in news from the respective country or region and are more sensitive to matters of global justice.


No change in personality

No matter if you volunteer or not – you stay the same person. The characteristic traits and personality does not change through volunteering. That should not be a surprise, but who expected to become a better person through volunteering might be disappointed.

To conclude, the evaluation gives some hints that the expectations mentioned above do not come out of nothing, although the various effects remain below the expected level. We wonder: If all these facts apply to a program of 12 months of volunteerings, how much of this can occur if you volunteer for only one or two weeks. What do you think? Let us know your opinion in the comment section!

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About Daniel Großbröhmer

Daniel is currently working as adviser for several local and international NGO in Myanmar. He covers topics like impact orientation, monitoring and evaluation and organizational development. Before moving to Myanmar he has been working for seven years at one of Europe's biggest private funded NGOs and was in charge for the impact measurement and development of volunteer services. He is consulting governmental agencies and NGOs in how to improve the quality and administration of volunteer services. Daniel spend one years as a volunteer in Brasil and has working experience in Cameroon and Angola. He studied French, Portuguese and Economics in Germany and France and completed his MBA in Berlin and Cambridge in 2015.

3 thoughts on “The real learnings of returned long term volunteers

  • Frank Seidel

    Interesting study. On the site I found a short presentation of the study, but not the study itself. Do you know where and how to get it?

    From my experience, the learning effect of volunteering depends very much on the individual and less on the program that the volunteering happens in. There are long term weltwärts-volunteers who left as white saviours and don’t change, just as they are shorter term volunteers who change their attitude after only a few weeks.

    Volunteering abroad is an opportunity, not a guarantee that an individual will change. As such, I would be most interested in the part of the study that compares how volunteers have evolved compared with peers that haven’t had the opportunity. Unfortunately, I don’t think that you mention the results in your summary.

    You suggest several times that shorter term volunteering, outside of a regulated program, doesn’t provide sufficient chances for learning. First let me remark upon the extremely short time frame of 1-2 weeks that you mention. This duration is a rare exception and I find it misleading to suggest that it is representative. The average duration that we at found in our study on the duration of flexible volunteering (outside of government funded programs) is 7.3 weeks, for young volunteers comparable to weltwärts-volunteers it’s even 2 weeks longer. More than 2 months is a very good opportunity to learn. And just as there are weltwärts-volunteers who spend their time with other foreign volunteers (many host projects also host shorter term volunteers), there are also many shorter term volunteers who live in host families or immerse themselves in other ways into the local culture.

    Do you know of any data that looks at the learning effect of volunteers of flexible volunteering programs?

    In this discussion, it think that a very important aspect is also how much a volunteer progresses in her learning during the volunteering experience, as opposed to what level of knowledge she reaches at the end.

    weltwärts-volunteers need to go through an application process and need to beat on average three other candidates to get the position. It is very likely that sending organisations will choose candidates who are already quite advanced in terms of global learning, because they are less likely to create problems on the ground, and require less work to bring them up to speed. There is some data that suggests that programs such as weltwärts give to the already rich (who are already global citizens) and don’t provide much progress.

    Flexible volunteering and shorter programs give the chance to learn to people who can’t or don’t want to engage in long term programs. If these are learning opportunities, one would need to accept that the person at the beginning might not be very advanced on the way of global learning. But it seems possible that the learning progress might be more significant than with long term programs.

    Do you know of any studies that look at these questions?

    Frank Seidel, founder and

    • Daniel Großbröhmer Post author

      Hey Frank,
      thank you for your thoughtful reply! You are making some very good points. I did not want to discuss the specifics of weltwärts too much here, but there are a lot of learnings for the implementing organisations from this study. Especially the selection of volunteers has to be reformed,if you ask me.
      As for now, I am not aware of any study focusing on short term programs, but I would be very much interested in it, too. Problem is, that I am not aware of any short term program with a notable intervention logic or even developmental goals at all. (apart from the advertising, of course)

      You can find the full study here:
      Unfortunatly in German only.

      • Frank Seidel

        Hello Daniel,

        Thank you for the link! I realise now that I already had the study, but hadn’t come around to read it yet. Will it now move up my to-do list.

        Not sure what you want to say by “notable intervention logic”, but there are a number of organisations that do monitor their impact. So what you say is really a bit cynic and doesn’t match with reality.

        And again I would also say that many government program sending organisations are not any better and don’t do impact monitoring either. The fact is that most host projects of governmental programs that I looked at, also accept short term volunteers, sometimes even for as little time as 1 week.

        I think it’s not appropriate to oppose fundamentally governmental programs and flexible volunteering for shorter durations.