In addition to being a noble pursuit and adding meaning to your life, new research shows that kindness is good for our health and that those who volunteer have a significantly reduced risk of death compared to non-volunteers. If service work is on your to-do list this year, check out these tips from volunteer coordinators, educators, and experts on what to consider before signing onto a project to make sure your skills are used for the greatest possible good:
1. Spend time thinking about your past and skill set.
Before joining a project, volunteers should think honestly about the skills they already have and look for opportunities where those skills can best be utilized—whether that’s building, planting, or even accounting and financial services. “We always say that the best volunteer project for your 55-year-old aunt who is an accountant would not be the best fit for your 17-year-old niece,” says volunteer trainer, educator, and author Claire Bennett, who literally wrote the book on volunteering abroad. Matching your skill set to your volunteer work helps ensure that the communities you’re serving will benefit. It also often makes for a more enjoyable experience and one that you’ll be more likely to sign up for again.
Bennett also encourages volunteers to be honest about their personal motivations for volunteering. “Try to identify a combination of motivations that relate to both what you want to give and gain from the experience,” she recommends. Another thing to consider is how exposure to other people’s trauma might affect you, according to Grace Kennedy, a longtime volunteer who works with a variety of nonprofits via her eponymous communications firm. “You may feel passionately motivated to help a certain cause, but if you are triggered or affected by past traumas, it is best to avoid working with populations that will negatively impact your recovery,” says Kennedy.Article continues below
2. Consider the community.
Chris Marlow, founder of HelpOneNow, a volunteer organization working to end global poverty by empowering leaders on a community level, says volunteering should always be rooted in dignity and empowerment. Marlow recommends asking yourself how the work you are doing is helping others feel better about themselves and how you are empowering each other as you serve together. This is especially important when volunteering abroad.
Bennett explains how the marketing language for voluntourism projects often makes claims like “Build a school on vacation!” “People think…well, why wouldn’t you?” explains Bennett.” But it’s a bit patronizing to assume that the problems of other countries can be fixed by travelers passing through, as if local people are just sitting around waiting to be saved.” As a more impactful alternative to short-term voluntourism, B Corp–certified tour operator Intrepid Travel champions “Community-Based Tourism” projects—ones where interactions between visitor and host communities are managed by the community, for the community. The goal of these projects is to help build up local economies without harming the environment or disrupting existing ways of life.
3. Finally, mull over the long-term impact.
The best volunteer projects are going to be with organizations that provide evidence of the positive, long-term effects of their efforts. Lauren Muldowney is chief of volunteer experience from All Hands and Hearts, a volunteer-powered disaster relief nonprofit that addresses both the immediate and long-term needs of communities affected by natural disasters. She says that expert training and working in collaboration with local communities are two key things to look for when considering a volunteer project.
Without understanding that context, or what an organization is trying to achieve, volunteers run the risk of causing more long-term harm than good. “Perhaps the worst example of harm done through good intentions is orphanage volunteering,” says Bennett. “Travelers might think that visiting an orphanage is a way to give love to kids that need it, but there is a proven link between volunteers wanting ‘orphan experiences’ and children being deliberately trafficked into institutions as glorified tourist attractions.” Bennett reminds us that these children are extremely vulnerable and in need of qualified, stable caregivers—not the passing affections of foreign volunteers.
Taking time to really understand your own motivations and skills, the community you want to serve and the impact you hope to have is a small step that can make a big difference in ensuring a positive volunteer experience for the year ahead.