First, a BBC article popped out calling attention to lackluster “Voluntourism” programs that provide nice CV boosters for the volunteers and often leave the communities behind worse off (in the net sense). Then, Nicholas Kristoff picked up the story and started a really interesting dialogue on Twitter about it. Finally, after engaging myself, a few of my friends popped the tough question: so where do your experiences (at home and abroad) fit in?
The question hit a sharp note because I’m particularly sensitive to the concept of “service.” As I rmulled over different approaches to the issue, the question I felt most uncomfortable grappling with is the one that titles this post: who gains and who loses when we do work beyond our “qualifications”, and what are the ramifications?
Close to home
I’ll be frank with you: this strikes at the heart of many issues near and dear to my heart. I entered the teaching profession with 5 weeks of training as a Teach For America corps member. However you feel about TFA, about the research on teacher performance, that’s too short a time for professional qualification if we want to raise the “professionalism” of teachers (I believe we do).
And yet the urgency of the inequities in our (broken) educational system require a blend of innovative human capital solutions and long-term, systemic thinking from in and out of traditional methods. Hence TFA et co.
After 4 years in the classroom and 3 years working in ed-focused non-profits (mostly TFA), I decided to jump into fresh water again and volunteer in Tanzania managing a microcredit program. I had no background in microfinance besides a few books and a few college credits in finance and economics. And yet I saw huge opportunities, challenges, and developing methods that I wanted to tackle. Again, “unqualified”, but it’s time to explore what we mean by that.
What is a good volunteer opportunity?
- You’re doing work that has a defined and measurable objective.
- Your effort is expanding opportunities for others while minimizing any downstream tradeoffs.
- You take the time to learn and listen first, then act.
- You have active local partners who support your work and understand the nuances of the community.
- You have opportunities to reflect on how you and the community have changed.
- You aim for sustainability – what will happen when you’re gone?
- You prioritize the community, not yourself or other adults (especially non-local adults).
What isn’t a good volunteer opportunity?
- You’re doing work that locals can be doing for pay.
- You don’t have objectives and aren’t measuring your impact in the short- or long-term.
- Your program does things the Western/rich way because it’s “obviously” better than other methods.
- Most of the money spent for your time is going to someone outside the community.
- Your program/work is dependent on a stream of volunteers.
What’s the difference between volunteering, voluntourism, and ecotourism?
- Volunteering – long or short term commitment to achieve specific objectives and goals for a community in a community that wants you.
- Volontourism – tagging some volunteer time (often the bad kind) to go along with tourism, largely to justify large personal expenditures in developing/underserved areas or get “experience.”
- Ecotourism – tourism, with an eye toward sustainability and supporting local businesses.
I’m biased here. But here’s the underlying problem: is voluntourism good in the net impact to both the participant and the community? If money is spent locally (often a lot is), the volunteer gains useful experience and added empathy/understanding, and some “good” is done in the short-term, is that worth it? Is it any different than how we incentivize people to donate to charities through tax reductions? Are there alternatives?
Direct giving vs Microfinance vs Impact Investing vs Business volunteering
The issue of direct giving, or direct investment, has been a topic on the rise since “aid” hater Dambiso Moyo called Western aid on its shortfalls in “Dead Aid” and more recently, when a start-up non-profit Give Directly launched their direct giving program to what is arguably game-changing results. Impact Investing got its bootstraps when Acumen Fund revolutionized philanthropy and now runs one of the most revolutionary and hugely effective non-profits in the world. Even Microfinance has seen dramatic shifts since its early days to crowd-sourced loans via Kiva.
At the bottom of that heap is what I’m doing: business development volunteering. The truth is that there’s very little research that compares direct giving vs microfinance, and there’s even less research about volunteerism in the microfinance industry. But here’s why I ultimately chose the program:
- it was grant-based and not loan-based. In Tanzania, women aren’t allowed to own property. This means that their largest asset (usually their homes) can’t be used as collateral for business loans. The simple outcome? While there are literally hundreds of thousands of female entrepreneurs, the vast majority still have a functional glass ceiling that prevents growth to the middle class.
- my role was as coach and adviser. I was paired with a Tanzanian who the organization paid moderately and who did (and does) a significant amount of work in the process, from interviewing the applicants to helping decide the grantees, to running the trainings, and playing a key role in monitoring and evaluation.
- I was glad to be a part of something that simultaneously helped create jobs in the middle class and started new businesses for those in poverty.
- there was a moderately-strong emphasis on results and data. Simply “participating” wasn’t enough, and we all pushed to improve our data collection methods and analytical systems to get the evidence we needed to improve the program.
What’s the opportunity cost?
Would more people have ultimately benefited if I invested the full amount of costs I spent to travel and participate in something like DirectGiving, Kiva, or the Acumen Fund?
I believe the short answer is yes.
But that’s only one part of why I came to Tanzania and why I chose my program. And ultimately, when I look at the trade-offs between going to graduate school for two years for more than 20x the entire cost of the experience and the net benefit to me and the community, I think the answer is that I made the right choice.
I wasn’t going for breadth, I was going for depth. And I found it.
So how do you differentiate and make a good choice?
Without a doubt there are things that need improving with my program. Namely:
- Too loose on who qualifies as a “teacher.” Many of their volunteers come in and teach English at the primary level, and most have absolutely no teaching experience. They follow the “if you can speak it you can teach it” approach, and it’s deadly.
- Too little pre-arrival preparation. Whether you’re teaching in a school or working a grants round, so much gets “figured out” in the first few weeks after the volunteer arrives. They chalk it up to the “unpredictability” of the landscape and culture, but I think that’s a lame excuse. Everyone benefits when people take purpose steps to listen, be prepared, and act, and it’s a waste for everyone to squander precious time early in the project phase for things that could be worked through ahead of time.
- Too much focus on the cash-cow college kids. While the organization aims to help the “most under-served”, they also load up on students who are taking gap years or summers. This is fine under the right conditions, but most of the time, these projects aren’t the right conditions for people with no work experience. My basic threshold is whether they would be able to do the work with the Peace Corps?
My wife and I did a lot of research to find a program that met our criteria. While many will say it’s a personal decision, I disagree. It’s irresponsible to think that volunteering, because of the Western charity mentality that we’ve developed, is an inherently good thing. However, there are many great opportunities to offer critical services to communities while also giving yourself a chance to grow. This is true at home and abroad, and comes down to finding something that matches your values and moral compass.