By Rebecca L. Nelson*
In the course of my recent research in Guatemala, I met volunteer coordinators from a wide range of organizations. More often than not, the conversation among coordinators would turn to swapping horror stories about problematic volunteers, like the one who took to social media to proclaim how delighted he was to be giving back to local communities… without ever visiting his supposed volunteer site. Or, on the other end of the involvement scale, the well-meaning volunteer who took the initiative to redirect an organization’s clients to a new webpage he had designed, without consulting with its leaders.
Volunteer coordinators often find themselves caught between the interests of organizations and the expectations of volunteers.
Raquel, a volunteer coordinator for a local health clinic, told me that she had been workshopping a few other nicknames with her fellow coordinators: “We decided on ‘flaketeers’ for people who say they’re going to work for six months and who go backpacking after two weeks.”
Frustrated with volunteers who view well-intentioned offers to help as practically the same as a sustained commitment, some organizations have become jaded about the whole process and suspended their volunteer programs. Some organizations have deliberately made it difficult for potential volunteers to work with them, weeding out people who will not be as passionately committed to their missions as their long-term staff.
Popular opinion has also begun turning against volunteerism, and many op-eds come down firmly against the practice, arguing that it contributes little to host organizations and creates dependency. However, volunteerism is a growing phenomenon, and if organizations can effectively harness their material and intangible resources, volunteers can provide fresh energy and ideas to organizations that lack other forms of international support.
According to the officers of TelaMaya, a women’s weaving cooperative and my host NGO in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, foreign volunteers carry out projects for the cooperative that would not be possible without their labor. Because they often come from the same communities as TelaMaya’s clients, volunteers bring linguistic and cultural knowledge that is unavailable locally and they donate technical skills that the federation could not otherwise afford. These young people contribute their opinions about the market for textiles in their home countries and their experiences in various fields, suggesting new markets, tools, and strategies for TelaMaya. Volunteers often remain in contact with the organization over the years, forming part of a transnational solidarity network that periodically produces major opportunities for TelaMaya, such as donations, sponsored visits to the US, or major new wholesale clients.
What insights do the collective wisdom of volunteer coordinators hold for organizations that sponsor international volunteers? Based on what I learned from other volunteer coordinators, not all types of organizations have the same potential to benefit from international volunteers. Programs vary greatly. For example, programs for children may actually find short-term volunteers detrimental to their goal of creating a safe and supportive environment for the children, as the children become attached to a series of volunteers who come and go, reinforcing their sense of abandonment.
While each volunteer’s potential value to an organization depends on the context, some generalizations can be made: longer time commitments tend to be more valuable to organizations than shorter terms of service and specific linguistic or technical skills make volunteers more useful to organizations. The challenge for international volunteerism organizations is institutionalizing these best practices that can make volunteers more useful on the ground.
*Rebecca Nelson is the executive director of América Solidaria U.S. She recently graduated with a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Connecticut. Her research focused on volunteer tourism in Guatemala.