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Voluntourism: What do we know about giving out fish?

I traveled to Belize last August with the Rotary International Belize Literacy program. I really enjoyed my time in Belize, it was awe-inspiring in its natural beauty and the people were fantastic. I spent time in the Cayo region, which meant I had the chance to see Mayan ruins in my time off.  Awesome, right? It was.

However, this blog post is not really about the fact I got to swim with sharks or climb Mayan ruins. Rather, this is what I learned about volunteering while I was there.

Belize is about a two-hour flight from Houston, Texas. It is relatively safe, clean, the food is good, and the citizens speak English. As such, it is the go-to location for every church group, hospital, or student group with good hearts and a week to spend volunteering.

The vocational training team I was sent on was tasked with finding out why, after Rotary had been in Belize for over 10 years, it was not seeing the results it wanted. The Coles Notes version of the story is:

  • Belize needed more schools, so Rotary built schools.
  • Belize needed trained staff in their schools, so Rotary sent Canadian teachers down to train Belizean teachers.
  • Belizean teachers needed more support, so Rotary sent Canadian principals down to train the Belizean Principals.
  • Belizean principals needed support, so Rotary sent down a team to work with Ministry of Education officials.
  • Teachers, Principals and Government officials needed more support, so Rotary sent a team down to assess the situation with community leaders (that’s where I came in) and what we found was quite eye opening.

Belize is the half-finished project capital of the world. True, it is the destination of many voluntourism groups, but each group only stays for about one week at a time. Think about your home community – imagine your local community school was falling into disrepair; a group of people descend on your neighbourhood, paint part of it and go home. Great, except who will paint the rest? Who will do touch-ups when it gets chipped? Is the paint even the problem? These questions often go unanswered by communities working with voluntourist groups. Compounding the problem is that no one ever wants to say no to someone offering a hand, even if it won’t be more help.

What struck me as most troublesome was that there seemed to be little concept of sustainability or long-term planning amongst either the volunteers or the locals. The question “what happens when the volunteers leave?” was, for the most part, left unanswered. For example, the Belize Ministry of Education receives old computers from North America almost daily with no idea what to do with them. The places that need computers have no internet infrastructure, aren’t on a reliable power grid and, quite frankly, have greater needs beyond the internet, like access to clean water. Yet, the government receives more computers, at times without warning. Another example is one small town, which already had two community centres, said they needed another because the others were run down.  Without a plan for how to use and maintain the centres, it’s no wonder the community centres get run down.

The developing world, to be cliché, needs heads not hands. I learned that, while places like Belize are always looking for help, what we do while there doesn’t always help.  As the old adage goes “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” All too often, voluntourism programs hand out fish, when they should be teaching not just how to fish, but also healthy, sustainable fishing practises so they can share it with their communities. Admittedly, I may have really stretched that analogy. Fishing aside, the idea that every way in which we try to help should leave a lasting, positive impression seems obvious to say, though I have to admit the point seems all too often missed.

–          Steven Kwasny

Information Management Assistant

What do you think? Have you had a similar or maybe a different voluntourism experience? Share it with us in the comment section below.

 

Lethbridge’s Leaders of Tomorrow Awards Impress

Last week, Rosanne (VA’s Director of Programs) and I attended Volunteer Lethbridge’s annual National Volunteer Week celebration – the Leaders of Tomorrow awards. This event recognizes the exceptional contributions made by youth aged 5-24 years old in the Lethbridge area. I was blown away by the list of hundreds of organizations that Lethbridge youth volunteer for. As the emcee read out the list of where the nominees volunteer, it seemed like the list would never end! I was particularly impressed by the 5-11 year old category – I used to consider myself almost a life-long volunteer but I certainly wasn’t doing any volunteer work at 7!

I was also struck by what one of the winners of the 18-24 categories mentioned in her brief speech. She asked the crowd to remember all these volunteer contributions made by young people the next time they hear someone say, “young people don’t care”. As a young person, I often find myself defending my generation against the apathy others perceive us to have.

Our main purpose for visiting Lethbridge was to wrap up our Intersections 2 project, which works to help nonprofit/voluntary organizations effectively engage new Canadians in their organizations. Visit our new Intersections website for resources, activities and more!

Rosanne and I were thrilled that the timing worked out to attend this amazing event and to see what exciting things are happening in Lethbridge. Laurie and her team put on a fabulous event and we always feel very welcomed when we get to visit beautiful Lethbridge! Thanks to Volunteer Lethbridge again for being great hosts during our visit.

Lisa Michetti
Member Engagement Manager

St. Albert Appreciates Volunteers

National Volunteer Week was a huge success! There were many great volunteer appreciation events across the province and staff represented Volunteer Alberta at a number of events, including the Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon hosted by the St. Albert Community Information and Volunteer Centre (CIVC).

When Ellie (VA Program Coordinator) and I arrived at the St. Albert Alliance Church Hall, it immediately became clear this was going to be an outstanding event. There was a constant stream of vehicles pouring into this large parking lot. The venue was adorned with white and orange balloons and streamers; it took on the feel of a gala rather than a modest luncheon. The hall was filled with over 300 volunteers, public officials, small business owners and honored guests – the atmosphere was one of tremendous warmth.

Emcee Glennis Kennedy, from the St. Albert CIVC, welcomed everyone and introduced special guests St. Albert Mayor Nolan Crouse and Member of Parliament for Edmonton-St. Albert Brent Rathgeber, who both expressed their heartfelt thanks to the volunteers of St. Albert. Last year’s Volunteer Citizen of the Year, Anna Rodger, was then invited on stage to say grace. After Anna’s beautiful words, everyone filed into the buffet lines.

Waiting in line for lunch, it was fascinating to see all these outstanding members of the community treat each other with such admiration. These volunteers, who are used to serving others, now found themselves being catered to for their invaluable contribution to their community, and yet their incredible spirit of giving still shone through. As Ellie and I waited in the salad line we remarked at the diversity of the group, and how these volunteers made up what seemed to be a perfect cross section of the community. It was uplifting, seeing teenagers sharing a laugh with seniors, and individuals of every walk of life together celebrating the vital role of volunteerism.

After lunch, Glennis drew door prizes contributed by local businesses.  When all the prizes were gone, we were all treated to a performance by the musical comedy group, Il Duo. They put on a great show and there couldn’t have been a more perfect way of putting smiles on the faces of the volunteers of St. Albert. Their performances had people doubled over in their seats laughing. At the end of the event we were all encouraged to take individual cakes baked in mason jars with tangerine icing… by a volunteer, of course. They had thought of every detail – the event was organized largely by volunteers, after all.

Mayor Crouse said something during his remarks that stuck with me; he pointed out that without the efforts of volunteers there would be no extracurricular school activities, no amateur sport, no music festivals, or religious institutions. These are the things that make a community a community. The Mayor captured the true essence of volunteerism, and this event captured the true essence of community.

A big thank you to the St. Albert CIVC for their incredible hospitality. Congratulations on a successful event and Volunteer Alberta looks forward to attending next year!

Tim Henderson
Office & Communications Coordinator

What I learnt by listening

A few months ago I sat in on a presentation of The Art of Selling the Invisible – one of Volunteer Alberta’s newest workshops, helping organizations market their volunteer opportunities to recruit new volunteers, as well as retain their current volunteers. One of my key takeaways was the need to conduct satisfaction interviews with your current volunteers – see if they’re happy in their role, happy with the way the organization works, and ask if there are any areas they’d like to expand into within the organization.

One of my volunteer activities is managing a completely volunteer-run online magazine, Sound and Noise, so I decided to apply that learning to my own organization. It had never occurred to me to actually ask our volunteers whether they were happy with their experience, which is strange because the reason I began managing the magazine was that I was dissatisfied with my own experience.

While the prospect of sitting down with our volunteers and asking for feedback on how I was doing seemed daunting, I was surprised at how easy the process ended up being. The Editor and I sat down to decide what questions we wanted to start with. I was a little wary, as the four questions we came up with seemed so basic. I wasn’t sure if we would get the feedback we wanted (or needed!) from our questions, but I decided to give it a shot.

We decided to ask:

  • General check in – what do you want to do more of? What do you want to do less of? Are there any particular skills you’d like to improve by being involved with Sound and Noise?
  • If you weren’t a writer, would you read Sound and Noise? Why or why not? What would make you a regular reader?
  • Do you find our writing workshops helpful? How do you feel about the quality of writing on the magazine?
  • How is the writing and editing process? How can we improve it?

I was blown away by the responses I got.

Once I bought our volunteers a coffee and sat down to chat with them, they completely opened up about everything that is right – and wrong – with the magazine. But more than that, they were more than willing to give me concrete suggestions for things I should keep the same and ways I could improve their experience. I went into my meetings expecting to hear general comments such as, “I like the atmosphere” or, “I want to improve my articles,” but I ended up hearing things like:

  • You should highlight the events you think we should review.
  • The workshops are great, but can we do more workshops about concept pieces?
  • I’m interested in helping out with the editorial process.

On top of all the great suggestions I got directly from the people who see “the other side” of the work I do, I got the sense that the volunteers were happy they were able to contribute in a different way to the magazine. In turn, asking for feedback makes it more likely that they’ll continue on as volunteers, and maybe take on greater roles within the magazine.

What about you? Have you ever conducted a satisfaction interview with your volunteers? What types of questions did you ask and what feedback did you get?

For more information on The Art of Selling the Invisible please contact Annand at aollivierre@volunteeralberta.ab.ca or (780) 482-3300 ext 231.

Jenna Marynowski
Marketing and Communications Manager

UN Report Paints New Picture of Volunteerism

“It is essential to understand and appreciate volunteerism in terms of the focus which it places on people centred approaches, on partnerships, on motivations beyond money, and on openness to the exchange of ideas and information.  Above all, volunteerism is about the relationships it can create and sustain among citizens of a country. It generates a sense of social cohesion and helps to create resilience [which] are often the mainstay of a decent life for which all people strive. Volunteerism is an act of human solidarity, of empowerment and of active citizenship.”

This is one of the closing remarks of the 2011 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report, an informative and enthusiastic testament to the value of volunteering in all corners of the world. The report is the United Nation’s first on volunteering and marks the 10th anniversary of the International Year of Volunteers.

While the focus of the report is on how volunteerism contributes to peace and development globally, the insights it shares are certainly applicable right here in Alberta. The report defines ‘development’ as much more than economic growth, instead it sees development as “expanding the choices available to people so that they may lead lives that they value”. This definition challenges us to think about volunteering differently, to see it as even more powerful than many of us in the voluntary sector believe.

The Volunteerism Report dismisses the idea that volunteerism is a one-way street where the volunteer gives and someone else benefits. Instead advocating an understanding of volunteering as a reciprocal relationship where volunteering works to benefit the volunteer and their community simultaneously.

With this in mind, the report provides a wide range of examples of how those engaging volunteers around the world are changing their techniques to achieve their goals.  Rather than only sending volunteers from developed countries to developing countries, international volunteering programs are involving people from developing countries as volunteers themselves. Volunteers living in poverty remind us that while a lack of income may restrict their opportunities, they also have knowledge, skills, labour, and networks. Through volunteering, they are able to improve their own lives while sharing these assets with their communities. These are lessons that we can apply here in our own province.

A quick glance at the 2010 Canadian Survey of Giving, Volunteering, and Participating (CSGVP) statistics, released last month, shows the pronounced effect volunteering has on our communities. For volunteers, the benefits of getting involved are numerous; volunteering offers people an opportunity to change the society they live in, for example, through political lobbying and activism. Volunteering provides individuals with skills and values they can bring with them into the workforce, or to continue to use a lifetime of knowledge. There is a correlation between volunteering and improved mood, life satisfaction, self-respect, and increased physical health. Alberta is great because of our volunteers, but volunteers may just be the biggest winners of all.

Join us in celebrating volunteerism in Canada and all the good that it represents during National Volunteer Week, April 15th–21st.

If you’d like to find out more about world-wide volunteerism, you can read the 2011 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report here.

Sam Kriviak
Program Coordinator

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