For many people, running a volunteering organisation may look like the perfect job; taking trips abroad to exotic destinations to review charitable projects. But as Steve Summers explains, there is more to an overseas review trip than meets the eye.
“Our Project Review trips are an important part of the value we offer volunteers. We need to see the projects first hand, to know what they are trying to achieve and assess how our volunteers can help.
Sometimes we are introduced to new projects that do not seem quite right and have to decline the offer to get involved. This might be as simple as not feeling comfortable with the way they are managed, an objection to the ethics of a project, or a sense that they actually don’t need volunteers.
Projects rarely have set roles for volunteers, so it is our job to discuss with a Project leader how prospective volunteers might help – how an unqualified volunteer may usefully contribute in a school versus an experienced teacher, for example. We believe this subtle understanding of our projects allows us to create more tailored roles for volunteers.
Our existing projects also need re-visiting as the Project leader, funding model and even the mission of some projects can change over time. For example, a Special Needs school in Mexico used to have some 60+ students and needed inexperienced volunteers to help manage the students, as well as trained therapists. The downturn in the local economy means there are less children attending the school (the parents can’t afford the bus fare to get them there) and the need for volunteers is reduced to experienced therapists who can transfer skills, with a particular desire for an art therapist if possible.
Care is taken to visit all the different accommodation options too; those that suit different types of volunteer, or different projects. All of our host families are known and referenced by our in-country coordinators, nevertheless we meet them to check their situation, the level of comfort, access to town, transport etc.
A regular part of any trip is to meet those important local figures who help make things happen and provide added assurance to volunteers. On my recent trip to the Galapagos, for example, we met the local minister for social welfare, the minister for education, the mayor and the clerk who administrates volunteer permits; all key people to secure the right permissions and whose support opens up new opportunities for volunteers.
All of these visits involve travelling long distances on a budget, usually with early starts in order to complete them as quickly and economically as possible. We then return home to brief the UK team and update the website and briefing documents that support our volunteer placements.
Friends often mistake my review trips for a holiday. We are certainly privileged to visit the countries and communities we support, but it is fair to say that we do it because it provides a more assured and accessible experience for volunteers. It is hard work but worthwhile and yes, it is better than being at a desk 9-5.”