Volunteering with an international or a local non-profit can be a great way to gain experience living and working in development environments. You probably won’t get paid, although the host organization may well be able to help you find free or cheap accommodation, or at least negotiate a better deal than you can likely get on your own.
Volunteering or interning for an international organization
I’m using the terms ‘volunteer’ and ‘intern’ pretty much interchangeably here, for our purposes there really isn’t much difference – the main thing is to use them to get experience living and working in the places you want to get a job. Doing this with an international organization comes with all the advantages and disadvantages of an international organization. It can be harder to line these kinds of things up, they may even ask you to pay for the privilege of working for them, but it might help you position yourself more effectively for a job. It’s vital to point out that not all international organizations are equal in this regard. It is going to be easier to leverage this into a job if you are working with an organization that actually does the kind of work you want to do, rather than one that is set up to offer travel abroad opportunities to students.
Volunteering for a local non-profit
This can be a great option for people looking to build their resume, or help out in a very direct way. One thing to bear in mind is that by no means all local non-profits in the developing world have an internet presence, and it may well be that the only real way to discover a lot of the smaller ones is to be there on the ground. It can be tempting to try to get everything lined up before you go, and while this can work, it isn’t going to be possible with many smaller groups.
What can you gain?
Alongside a genuine desire to help, this may be the number one motivation for many people. How well you vet the organization you want to volunteer for, and how well it has thought out what it will do with you will play a large part in determining how useful your experience is.
If your concern is to improve your qualifications for a career in development, an unconventional work experience may enhance your candidacy.
– Caitlin Hachmyer, Alternatives to the Peace Corps
A better understanding of the local situation outside of the air-conditioned-Land-Cruiser lifestyle.
You will likely be living outside of the expatriate bubble that can insulate development workers from the realities on the ground. Getting to know local people and understand their frustrations and aspirations will give you an insight you won’t get working for an international agency. You won’t have your experiences mediated by a translator, or be isolated from life by a bunch of ex-pat friends who live in a compound with you. You’ll also have a lot of fun.
Understand the way international development agencies are viewed by local people.
When you work for a well resourced international agency, people who might be wanting grants or resources from you can tend to tell you what they think you want to hear, not what they really think. When people know you have no resources to give them, they tend to be more honest (this is actually a major obstacle for many international organizations). Communities in developing countries have a very sophisticated (although not always 100% correct) understanding of what development organizations are. They formulate their own theories about how best to manipulate the system, and this influences the information that organizations get.
I remember a meeting in Kosovo about revitalizing post-war agriculture that involved two completely different estimates of the number of farm animals that communities possessed. It turns out that one survey had led beneficiaries to believe that the organization would be giving animals to families that did not have them, while the other led families to believe they would be providing livestock feed based on the number of animals that families possessed. Needless to say, people reported radically different numbers!
A chance to learn the local language.
Working for a local agency can be a blessing, because they often operate in the local language, while international agencies tend to operate in the language of their donors (usually English, sometimes French or Arabic). Nothing helps you understand the local context and situation faster, and nothing will motivate you to learn a language more than not being able to do anything until you figure it out! I was a mediocre language student in school, but managed to pick up more Croatian in three months than I did French in 8 years of schooling.
Being able to speak the language is such an advantage in itself that I almost hate to sully the purity of the goal of by pointing out that – yes – speaking it will help you get a job.
Opportunities to network with international agencies.
Helping local organizations to figure out international organizations and vice versa is a great opportunity to build relationships in international organizations (see text box). You can use your position with a local agency to talk your way into coordination meetings, set up meetings to discuss potential funding from international organizations, and cook up any number of other opportunities to get your name out there. One tip on ingratiating yourself to international NGO staff – there is almost always some commodity that is very hard to get in country (cheese, good wine, whatever) – bring back small quantities of this as a gift to bring to parties will generate a tremendous amount of goodwill!
What can you offer?
Unless you have some specific technical skill set that is in demand, you will most likely have to fall back on the skills that most westerners have that are in demand in the developing world: Teaching English, and writing funding proposals. Don’t be surprised or discouraged if local non-profits are unimpressed by the insights that your international development theory degree might have to offer.
It’s unfortunate, but largely true, that money and other resources are often controlled by organizations that are led by foreigners. Local non-profits often have difficulty accessing these funds, even when they are available, for a number of reasons:
- they often don’t know what grants or programs might be out there
- they may not understand the requirements or regulations
- they may not be able to write good enough formal English to produce a slick application that hits the right key points
- they tend not to articulate clearly the ways in which their organization meets the funding requirements
- These things are often cultural and linguistic in nature. A westerner can sometimes go into a small local non-profit, look at their plans and programs, and translate them into language and terminology that make sense to donors in ways the local organization is unable to. As a foreigner, you can help local organizations to navigate international organizations. The reality is that as a westerner, you can open doors and get meetings that they can’t. Make sure you take a responsible view of this, and do what you can to bridge this gap and help them reduce it in the long-term.
How helping a local organization helped me get my first job
In 1997 and 1998 I volunteered with ‘I Want to Go Home’, a very small Croatian organization that was supporting refugees who were returning to a particular part of Croatia. The organization was headed (and at that time staffed only by) a woman who was herself a returning refugee. I met her in a cafe in a small town in Croatia after being introduced by a friend who worked for a human rights organization. She spoke no English, and I did not speak much Croatian. Over many cups of coffee, she explained to me in Croatian, sign language, frequent reference to an English-Croatian dictionary, and a sketch pad, her vision for an organization that would provide social and material support for returning refugees. She had some great ideas, and a lot of energy and determination, but no clue about how to approach donors.
I helped her set up a basic accounting system to track income and expenses (a requirement for any donor), we wrote a strategic plan in English that we could shop to donors, and developed a couple of proposal ideas which I wrote up in English. It took months of pushing, but we eventually got two grants, one for material assistance, and one for a car, essential for getting to some of the remote farms people were returning to. One of these grants was from a major US relief and development organization that was running a small grants program for refugee return. Their application process was a little arcane, and I spent a long time working with their grants office and Country Director to figure out how ‘I Want to Go Home’ could fit into their requirements.
In the end the organization got the money, and I built a relationship with the Country Director of the international NGO. When I applied for a job in Kosovo with the same NGO, the Country Director wrote me a reference recommending me, and I got my first job in humanitarian relief.
- The Insider’s Guide to the Peace Corps: What to Know Before You Go has an easy to read question and answer style that covers everything from applying to the Peace Corps if you are married to whether your cell phone will work in your placement site. For my money it is the best practical guide on how to figure out whether the Peace Corps is right for you, what to expect, and how to get the best out of it. Buy it from Amazon or Powell’s Books.
- Alternatives to the Peace Corps: A Guide to Global Volunteer Opportunities is in its 12th Edition. It is a great resource whether you have the author’s ethical qualms about the Peace Corps or just feel it may not be for you. The bulk of the book is a directory of organizations that take volunteers (with some notes on their characteristics), but to be honest I think the more useful (in the internet age) part is the handful of chapters that deal with tips on how to assess your motivation, the type of organization that will suit you, and the practicalities of planning and fund-raising. This is a great start both for helping you think through what kind of experience you want, and begin your search for opportunities. Buy it from Amazon or Powell’s Books.
- How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas is one of the more useful practical guides to figuring our volunteering overseas. It goes far beyond Peace Corps, and stands out to me because it addresses issues of funding, choosing the right program, and how to be effective as a volunteer. Buy it from Amazon or Powell’s Books.
- I think the best book on the relationship between local and international NGOs, and the ways in which external resources, cultural approaches and staffing influence development and relief is Ian Smillie’s Patronage or Partnership? Local Capacity Building in Humanitarian Crises. The good news is that you can download the entire book for free. You can also buy a hard copy from the download link or from Amazon or from Powell’s Books.
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