Ella Smyth from Volunteers Peru shares some insights on how to make a social project sustainable.
As all NGOs and volunteer programs will (or should!) know, project sustainability is one of the most important, and difficult, things to achieve. Volunteers and staff often come from all over the world to work with projects. The fact that people are willing to leave their homes and families to work for very little or for free is, for me, rather impressive. However, it also presents multiple problems. The very fact that volunteers and staff come from so far away generally means that they won’t stay for very long (six months, for example, might seem like a very long time to a volunteer, but for the beneficiary community, it passes in a flash).
This in turn means that, while volunteers can be full of energy and ideas, during the moment that they are gone, things that they were working on can fall by the wayside.
Another inevitable consequence of volunteers coming from far and wide to help and to work in communities is a marked difference of opinion between people from different countries and cultures. It can be great to share experiences and learn from one another. However, if volunteers or project staff cannot or do not want to understand the intricacies of the relationships, hierarchies and traditions within a community, then any project implemented by them will ultimately fail. As soon as the staff responsible leaves, local beneficiaries will make no effort to continue it, and it will eventually fizzle out.
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So why is sustainability so important to NGOs and volunteer programs?
The fact is that without it, these organizations may as well not exist. An intervention that does not last does not help a community. It can even do harm, as expectations are falsely raised and communities lose trust in those who claim to want to help. That is not to say that a short-term investment of time from a volunteer is always a bad thing. Whatever it may be (putting a smile on someone’s face, helping them with their homework that day, adding a few more bricks to a new construction) it’s very valuable!
What can I do to make these projects sustainable?
The important thing is to ensure that there is good organizational support and structure in the background. This means that work that individual volunteers do can be continued when they are gone. It also ensures that the organization can get to know the community/project well enough to understand what will work for them, what will really help them, and what they themselves will make an effort to continue.
Involving the local community in the project and making them actors of their own social development is essential to make projects sustainable.
All volunteers come to a new country with the aim of making a difference. It is only with local support that a project or an intervention will survive and sustain itself for long enough to achieve its goals.
Ella from England. Project Manager of Volunteers Peru and Social Worker in Arequipa since January 2014. Volunteers Peru is a NGO that works with two projects, a home for abandoned girls in Arequipa and a school in the rural area Tomepampa. Each week she is giving an update about the volunteer experience she gained in South America.
You are interested and you want to apply for an Volunteers Peru Volunteer program? Click here for a teaching placement. Or click here to support the staff in a girls home. Apply now. Volunteers Peru is waiting for your application!