Volunteering has received a lot of bad press over the last few years due to unprofessional and unethical voluntourism agencies cashing in at the expense of local communities who may not receive much in the way of tangible benefits. Whether it is orphanages in Cambodia that buy children from impoverished parents to ‘display’ them to wealthy tourists, or high school graduates that build a library in Tanzania, only for it to be torn down and rebuilt again overnight by locals as the quality was so bad.
Reality vs. expectation
As someone who has volunteered in three different countries over the past four years, I have met many volunteers who were very unhappy about their own volunteering experience. This was often due to the fact they didn’t do their research beforehand or didn’t have relevant skills that could benefit the community in which they were placed. Many ended up doing what was for them ‘boring’ admin tasks – tasks that didn’t seem to make a difference to the locals or ‘save lives’ – or tasks they simply didn’t know how to do.
I think this is a big misconception that a lot of volunteers have. Volunteering for a few months, let alone a few weeks, is often unlikely to make a huge difference to the organization or its beneficiaries and unless you are a nurse or a doctor, you probably shouldn’t be expecting to save many lives!
There are some great exceptions where even short-term volunteering is very beneficial, for example in conservation projects, however it is probably safe to say that most organizations would benefit more from having long-term volunteers.
In my experience when starting any new job, it usually takes at least three months to get settled into a new work environment.
That includes getting to know the organization, its programs, all the acronyms, its beneficiaries, and generally the way it works. So naturally, staying somewhere short-term, volunteers will get much less out of a volunteering experience and will also make less of an impact. Volunteers also have to bear in mind that it also takes a lot of time and resources from the organization to train any new volunteer and if volunteers only stay for a few weeks, then local staff may spend more time training up volunteers and less time with the beneficiaries of the project.
Helping through ‘Experteering’
This is where experteering comes in. Experteering is a new buzz word, but not such a new practice actually. Experteering tends to be for working professionals – i.e. those people who have already got a few years of work experience – but knowledgeable graduates could also take part in experteering. So what is it?
Experteering basically matches your experience and skill sets with non-profit organizations that are in need of that particular skill.
For example if you are a web designer, you could help design a new website for an NGO. Or if you are you a teacher, you could help teach at an after-school program for disadvantaged children. Or an accountant could help an NGO set up a new finance system.
So as you can see, experteering is not just for seasoned development professionals. Any NGO has to undertake day-to-day admin tasks, whether it is budget forecasting, human resources, public relations, or operational planning. As many smaller NGOs simply haven’t got the budget to hire professionals in that area, they can greatly benefit from professional volunteers.
In return, volunteers can of course benefit greatly from such a placement as well. Not only will volunteers live and work in a completely new environment, they will also be able to learn more about the challenges and successes arising in the world of international development.
As such, experteering is more of a two-way approach to volunteering, and something that can be much more impactful than some of the less specialized or tailored volunteer placements.