How to Make a Real Impact While Volunteering Overseas

Nafessa Kassim

Nafessa Kassim is the Director of Global Engagements at MovingWorlds.org.

A 4 min read…
Ways-to-experteer

People interested in volunteering overseas often go through a period of doubt while planning their trip, wondering if they can truly engage in meaningful work and make an impact. We find this to be a healthy dose of skepticism as its breeds humility and leads to more thoughtful engagement. But to this, we like to add a bit of optimism: If you have language, technical, business, or creative skills, you can help create a sustainable impact.

Based on the length of time you are available, HOW you apply those skills makes all the difference. By facilitating skills-based volunteering engagements around the world, we find these 4 roles to be the most likely ways you can contribute your skills:

1. DOERS

We refer to people working on short-term projects as “Doers”. Organizations look to “Doers” to help with very specific projects or tasks that they don’t have the time, resources, or know-how to accomplish.

At MovingWorlds we have seen “Doers” work on designing websites, creating engineering schematics, designing structures, supporting translation efforts, implementing accounting systems, setting up CRM systems, analyzing data, creating financial models, developing marketing materials, launching fundraising campaigns, and more.

THINGS TO FOCUS ON THINGS TO LOOK OUT FOR
  1. Work only on projects initiated by your host organization.
  2. Success should be measured after you leave.
  3. Teach others how to do what you’ve done.
  1. Don’t work on projects that can be completed by local talent.
  2. Don’t work on projects if there is no one in the organization to continue the project after you leave.

 

2. CONSULTANTS

Often times, social impact organizations know that they need to improve a core business area, but are not sure how to proceed. As an example, one of our organizations, Paez, knew that it wanted to start selling its sustainable shoes online, but needed someone with experience to help develop a comprehensive strategy for doing so. We connected Paez to an Experteer from Amazon.com who provided guidance for everything from online ordering to fulfillment to customer service. Other popular consulting areas are in:

  • Finance and accounting
  • Engineering and architecture
  • Software engineering, networking, IT, and databases
  • Sales and marketing
  • Operations, human resources, and other key business functions
  • Photography, videography, and storytelling
  • Fundraising and grant writing
THINGS TO FOCUS ON THINGS TO LOOK OUT FOR
  1. Provide easy, tangible recommendations.
  2. Build on strengths and existing initiatives.
  3. Use a Human centered design approach to increase likelihood of success.
  1. Don’t recommend too many things as most organizations are resource-constrained.
  2. Watch out for ego – recommend what is truly best for the organization, not what is most exciting for you.

 

3. TRAINERS

International volunteers can provide training in a few main areas:

1. Culture and language training

Many organizations are looking to expand their reach and constituent base. Often times, this means translating documents to new audiences. If you are Experteering from an area the organization is interested in, you can provide valuable training on language intricacies and cultural differences to help that organization be more efficient as it expands. As an example, we supported a social enterprise in Brazil looking to start doing business in the USA. By connecting to a business development professional from the USA, it was able to refine its messaging and approach to be most relevant.

2. Sharing theories and best practices

Especially relevant in startup and social enterprise circles where team members where many hats, a volunteer can provide training on important theories, like marketing, business development, operations, community building, and more. As an example, we helped connect a marketing professional from the startup ecosystem in Seattle to one in Palestine to share best practices for supporting startups and economic growth.

3. Training on tools an resources

Many growing organizations are encountering new tools to help them conduct operations, better. It might be a simple spreadsheet tool or a more complicated accounting or data analysis system. Many of our Experteers take for granted their proficiency with Microsoft Office applications, Google Docs, or their industry-specific tools. Meanwhile, many smaller organizations that can benefit from using these tools are not sure how to get started. From Adobe to Zoho, and plenty of Excel and Salesforce in between, you can empower a lot of people and organizations by teaching and sharing tools.

THINGS TO FOCUS ON THINGS TO LOOK OUT FOR
  • Be as relevant as possible so it’s easier on organizations to apply what they learn.
  • Teach tools that improve existing operations and processes.
  • Work with an organization from the representative very closely to ensure you are being relevant.
  • When providing training, first understand cultural differences.
  • Don’t provide training on a tool there is no existing process to maintain.
  • Be aware that different cultures learn and teach differently.

 

4. TEAM MEMBERS

On occasion, organizations don’t have the ability to access or compensate a person that can lead a specific operational area. In these cases, they look for help from consultants, fellows, or skilled volunteers. From accountant to zoologist, we hear from small nonprofits, startups, school systems and community groups who are looking for longer-term support from people in specific skill areas.

THINGS TO FOCUS ON THINGS TO LOOK OUT FOR
  • Plan all the way to your departure so you focus on sustainable efforts.
  • In addition to doing, train a predecessor as much as possible.
  • Don’t work on your own passion project, as exciting as it might be. Make sure to work on projects initiated by the organization.
  • Don’t take the job of a local resident.

 


In Summary

One of the most essential components of an international volunteering experiences is ensuring that you’re applying your skills in the right type of role.

OPTIONS LENGTH SUMMARY
TRAINER 1 – 4 weeks Engage with an organization to help teach a specific skill or resource (like training Excel skills, accounting best practices, git methodology, HR best practices, or marketing analytics to name a few).
DOER 1 – 8 weeks Support a team with a specific task that has a clear deliverable, like designing a new website, setting up an accounting system, developing a marketing plan, creating an engineering schematic, or other skills-based project.
CONSULTANT 3 – 24 weeks Immerse yourself around a specific opportunity or challenge area. Give yourself enough time to learn community and cultural contexts, and then propose (and potentially implement) a plan to accelerate impact.
TEAM MEMBER 6+ Months Become a core team member for a specific length of time, like a contractor.

 

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