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!