Guest blog by Doug Cutchins, co-author of Volunteer Vacations, and director of social commitment at Grinnell College.
It’s one of the first questions you get when you return home from volunteering in a different place. First people ask how your flight was, where you went, and maybe what the food was like. But then they remember why you went on your trip, and they ask that question. You know the one, right? “So, what did you accomplish, really?”
Anyone who has been seriously involved with development work or volunteerism has, at some point, faced challenges when describing exactly what you did. The problem is that really good, high-quality development work isn’t about products. Instead, it’s about processes, and about challenging and even changing systems. In the end, societal change doesn’t come about when you build a clinic or school room, though those are certainly good things. Societal change comes instead when people have the capacity, knowledge, and desire to change their own circumstances. After all, what good is a clinic or a school if there are not people to staff that building, or if local residents don’t know how to use it, or don’t trust it? And what happens when the bench outside the clinic breaks? “That volunteer built it; they should come back to fix it.” Community buy-in and locally-based knowledge sources are, in the end, more important than brick and mortar buildings (or thatch and stick, if you are using appropriate technologies).
That even means that sometimes you have to let projects fail, as counter-intuitive and tough as that may be. If the people you are working with who the project is designed to benefit are not invested enough in it to see it through to a successful completion, then you might need to question how much they want or need it in the first place. You can encourage, perhaps even cajole, but you should not be the person who makes it all happen. Again, community ownership and grassroots action is absolutely required for the success of a project.
That’s not to say that results don’t matter: they do, a lot. Anyone who has spent any time looking at or studying the history of development work can tell you that there has been a lot of wasted aid in this world, and that we as people have spent too much time, energy, and money for too few results. We should absolutely be results-oriented in our approach, and hold development projects to rigorous standards and outcomes. But there are different ways of measuring success, and the metrics that look at long-term, systemic change are much more preferable than the ones that examine short-term, sometimes flashier immediate outcomes.
But, still…you know that question is coming. It can be uncomfortable to think about updating your resume to show your volunteerism, and to know that you may not have excellent action verbs and impressive numbers to quantify exactly what you accomplished and how much changed because of your actions. And you might be nervous about answering those looming questions when you get home. It’s not easy to explain to your friends and family that, no, I didn’t actually build anything when I was there, but I participated in a process, and that’s what development is all about, really. Those forces can create a real enticement to building a monument to your own volunteerism. “I was here! Look what I built! They shall know my one-week presence in their lives by this lasting monument to me and my altruistic spirit, whether or not they want it or need it!”
But, in the end, volunteering, when done correctly, is not about you and your needs, and especially is not about your resume or your conversations with your friends when you get home. Remember why you are there, and who is supposed to benefit from your volunteerism, and let the process be the outcome that you really care about.