Over 150 volunteers after and new 20 about to be selected I think it is a time to write a bit more about the tips for preparation of EVS volunteers planning to implement their activities in the other partner countries of the world. I am currently I the kick off meeting to prepare one project that will have an EVS mobility and a lot of inspirations came up.
Before going to the concrete tips, if you don´t have any experience about the preparation of volunteers you need to know that the process is much different then in the European level projects. You need to take into the consideration that the culture, meaning style of work, is different, understanding of EVS and volunteering is different, and somehow many times motivation of volunteers is different. And all of this need to be taken into the consideration. So below you will find the list of tips and experiences that I have collected in the last 5 years of my work.
1) Work on volunteers motivation – they are not going to save the world
I can see the tendency that volunteers who are going to implement the projects out of Europe have a very specific motivation – to HELP. And from one perspective we consider it as something good, person wants to engage, do something, be active. Unfortunately the understanding of the word HELP brings a lot of challenges and can complicate the project a lot. So what happens… first volunteers have a very low motivation to work if they are not placed in the activity that fits to the picture what the media tell us about global south – volunteer with the clean T-shirt with the EU logo around a lot of ¨dirty¨ children, with hunger, or women in the very remote areas. Secondly, volunteers have a very low motivation if they are not permanently repeated that the work they are doing is saving the world, and they are essential. Thirdly, volunteers tend to try to change the way the hosting organization function within the first month of the project without actually knowing how they work, and without understanding the cultural and political context.
While you work on the preparation of volunteers it is important to talk about the real motivation, and if volunteers are not aware of it (talking about helping it is the easiest answer), we should support them to discover it. It is highly recommended to focus on what volunteers want to learn and why, what the EVS project can bring to them, what they would like to change in their lives.
And finally it needs to be clearly stated that volunteers are not going to do humanitarian aid, they are not experts either. They implement the project to exchange what everyone can offer, to learn from each other, to bring the intercultural and global dimension to the volunteers and local communities. And of course it is as well to do something productive. But if a volunteer doesn´t want to learn from the project, better look for another one.
To further read about it I strongly recommend this article: ¨Dear volunteers in Africa: please don’t come help until you’ve asked yourself these four questions¨
2) Expect unexpected – it is impossible to know everything
Let volunteers know that they will never be 100% prepared. Of course we need to inform them about activities, accommodation, practicalities etc., but many times in the mid term evaluation that I am doing with volunteers I hear the comments like ¨you should have told me that I need to bring black cloths because the country is still in the mourning period, because the king died¨, ¨you should have told me that I need to bring something for the rain¨, ¨you should have told me that I need to take off the shoes when entering the flat¨ etc. Those are just examples, and there are many, many more. The challenge is that each volunteer has different needs and different perspective, and if you would like to prepare them for everything I guess you should write a book, the size of Encyclopedia.
I already accepted the fact that I am not able to answer all the questions, and prepare volunteers for all the situations. What I do, I am honest about it. I explicitly say that it is impossible to know everything, and the flexibility is very needed. Moreover I recommend volunteers to take responsibility for this part of preparation, to investigate by themselves, to contact people who have been in the places before, to talk with the hosting organizations. My recommendation on what to inform volunteers about, are the legal issues.
3) Put the global perspective
Important although many times forgotten aspect of the preparation, and I think this point deserves the separate article, therefore I will just mention few aspects. EVS activity is design to bring the positive impact, although it might happen that the impact is negative. How? Well… actually there are a lot of things, like spreading a ¨bad¨ habits, reinforcing stereotypes, creation of the intercultural conflicts, up to the point of influencing the local economy.
Important point to mention is the image of our project we send to the world. Most of us like to take a photos and send them to mama, papa, best friend, colleagues, ex-classmates, people whom you met during your travels, and actually all the people who can have any access to your social mediaJ The question is if we thought what kind of image we pass with the photo we post, what are the consequences, what people can learn from that. And the most important are we reinforcing stereotypes of the Global South, or are we breaking them?
If your volunteers are interested here is a good material about responsible photo taking and sharing: Code of conduct on imagenes and messages by CONCORDE
Other aspect is the influence on the local economy of the hosting country. In the end volunteers will leave in the community and will form part of the local economy system. Here they can as well be responsible, they can take into consideration the possibility of supporting local businesses, be aware not to support economical activities using the child labor, and simply be responsible. Let volunteers know that they can think about they economical activity and what are their consequences. A lot of learning can come from this.
4) Be transparent – let volunteers know how much does everything cost
Somehow I experienced that volunteers many times felt ¨cheated¨. In the evaluation I have seen many comments that the organizations are benefiting themselves with their money, that they spend money badly, that they don´t invest all the money into the volunteers. Whenever I explain volunteers how much money there is actually, how the money is divided and what the money can be spent for, the problem of ¨feeling cheated¨ ends.
And yes volunteers need to know that not all 100% of the grant goes for their food and accommodation. Sometimes organizations manage to get accommodation that is very cheap. And this is OK. Because in majority of the cases the money goes to the activities, and this money brings a positive impact in the local communities! Moreover volunteers should know how money people are behind one project, and how much work we put into the preparation, and usually this work is not paid. There is a huge work done in order to give the possibility for volunteers to make a project.
5) Prepare volunteers to work, be clear what you expect from them
Volunteers are going to implement the project that means to do the activities that the organizations ask them for. Some of the activities they will like a lot, and some not that much, but well someone needs to do them. Moreover it will happen for sure that volunteers will have a problem to see the direct impact of their activities. It is our task to prepare them for that. Especially for implementing the activities that doesn´t make a lot of sense for them on the first sight.
This is the story that shared with me a colleague who works in the different organization. She sent the group of volunteers to Nepal, and they were collaborating mainly with the reconstruction work after the earthquake. One day they felt very bad since they were sent to the house that looked good, meaning belong to the middle or higher-class family, and they didn´t want to collaborate since they prefer to ¨help poor¨, and this family they assumed had money to get support. So this is one perspective. But is there any positive impact from this? Definitely!!! In this case the family was one of the families with whom the organization collaborates and they normally host volunteers, without charging much for this. That means that the organization in this way gets more money, that can be dedicated to other activities, like materials to reconstruct houses of families that cannot afford it.
With this I want to say that you can help a lot, although maybe on the first sight it is not really visible what the impact of your actions is.
6) Security training is a must
This should be implemented in collaboration between the sending and hosting organizations. And volunteers needs to know AND UNDERSTAND that there might be some things that are not recommended to do or places that they shouldn´t go. The part of knowing is easy, the part of UNDERSTANDING it´s quite difficult.
I remember myself, during my first trip, when I was very young. I went to Asia with the programme and everything was perfect, but the fact that I felt controlled permanently. I was always said not to go alone, not to do something. And my independent European mind was telling me, the people here are not independent, but I am so I can go alone and explore. And since nothing has happened this time, I was convincing myself that I was right! And right now with the perspective and 15 years more of experience I think I was not right that time.
So the task of the sending organizations is to prepare volunteers to understand, we are not able to inform what to do and what not to do, but we can prepare the ground for the hosting organization, so the volunteers will be able to receive and understand the information well.
7) Intercultural preparation – let´s do it right
This topic is so complex that I have decided to dedicate it a separate article, since there are a lot of things to discuss. Do we need to prepare volunteers about the customs in the hosting country, or we are just reinforcing stereotypes? What the intercultural learning really is, and how much it is connected with learning about music, dances, food and history? What happens when two different people from different cultures meet, and although they talk in the same language, they don´t understand each other. What are the conflicts of values?
All of this will come soon
8) Share with volunteers the publication with advices from the ex-volunteers
Finally, we have developed the publications with advices from volunteers to volunteers. Feel free to share them with your EVS-ers.