One question I’ve been asked a few times recently is: how do I get overseas volunteers for my NGO?

I would argue that question should be answered with another: are you ready for volunteers?

 A volunteer program can have many benefits for non-profit organisations of all sizes. They can expand the resources, skills and knowledge available to your NGO with very little investment. Some of the best examples of volunteer programs can bring in specialist expertise your non-profit lacks, filling a niche which could be essential to you meeting your goals.

However, it is not as simple as getting some volunteers on board and reaping the benefits. A volunteer program is certainly not an “all gain, no pain” endeavour. Setting up a volunteer program has to be done at the right time and in the right way to get the most out of it for your not for profit.

Recruiting volunteers at the wrong time and without proper preparation, or hiring the wrong volunteers, can turn out to use up your NGO’s precious time and resources without delivering equivalent benefits. You many end up putting more time into managing volunteers than if you just did the work yourself. Worse, it could open your organisation up to a variety of risks, and may result in negative experiences for the volunteers.

Before starting a volunteer program for your organisation or accepting the help of any volunteers, take the time to ask yourself these questions.

1) Do you have the resources to manage volunteers?

As I’ve already implied, having volunteers in your organisation involves work. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and often the work you put in is repaid by far by the results they produce. You can limit the amount of work involved in managing volunteers by choosing the right kind volunteers and having systems in place to management them efficiently, and I will discuss how to do both of these things later in this article.

However, the fact of the matter is that no matter how well you approach this, and no matter how excellent your volunteers are, you will need to put in some degree of time, energy and, in some cases, money into your volunteers before you will get the benefits back from them The first step, therefore, is to make sure you have the necessary resources to spare to be able to manage your volunteers.

For example, if you have an excellent potential volunteer who can help you to achieve a low priority goal, but managing them will take resources away from your organisation which mean you will not be able to achieve your top priority goal, now is not the right time for you to accept their help. In another case, you may have the opportunity to recruit volunteers to assist with your top priority goals, however your non-profit is so strapped for resources that you simply will not be able to adequately explain to them what they need to do and supervise their work. In this situation your volunteers are unlikely to be able to deliver anything of value to your NGO, and will likely find the experience frustrating and unfulfilling.

2) What can volunteers usefully to help you?

This question speaks to finding the right kind of volunteers. Whether or not a volunteer will be useful to your organisation depends a lot on the particular needs your organisation has, and whether there are willing volunteers with the specialist skills to meet these needs.

A mistake which some not for profit organisations and charities make is gratefully accepting help and then trying to come up with things for those volunteers to do. Although it is understandable for a struggling or overloaded organisation to want to accept any and all assistance offered, as we’ve already seen, accepting the wrong volunteers at the wrong time can actually be counterproductive, as well as leading to bad experiences for the volunteers, which apart from anything else is bad PR.

Start by asking what specific tasks or roles volunteers could fill in your organisation and then finding people with the skills and knowledge to do those things for you. Having these things clear in your mind will also help you to manage your volunteer’s expectations and set up the systems you need to be successful, both of which I’ll cover in the points below.

3) How will you meet their needs?

It is important to remember that when accepting volunteers into your organisation, it is not just about what they can give you, but also what you can give them. Most, if not all, volunteers are driven by a genuine desire to help and give back to the community. Many are also looking to gain something: whether something concrete such as professional experience or skills development, or less tangible gains such as cultural exchange or simply that warm fuzzy feeling of doing good.

There of course is nothing wrong with this – far from it. This is essentially how the volunteer industry works: volunteers give their time and energy in exchange for the experience they get in return, while also contributing to a cause they believe in. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved, as long as it is managed well.

As an organisation that accepts volunteers, it is important that you hold up your end of this underlying premise by supporting them to achieve their goals. If they are looking to gain professional experience and/or develop skills, you need to make sure you give them relevant tasks which will allow them to develop these skills, as well as adequate training and supervision. If they are looking to connect with the community and develop relationships with a certain group of people, you need to support them in these interactions. Apart from this, it is part of the organisation’s duty of care to meet basic needs of anyone working for you whether paid or unpaid, by providing safe and healthy work environment.

If you do not have the resources to do either of these things, maybe you’re not ready to host volunteers. Otherwise, make sure you clearly discuss these matters right from the beginning when you take on a new volunteer. Ask them what they are looking to get out of the experience, so you can make sure this is something you’ll be able to offer, and so that you can make sure you support them in this objective throughout their time working with you.

4) How will the program be structured? What supports will you need to set up?

In order to make sure you are both meeting the needs of your volunteers and getting the maximum benefits from their time and energy for your organisation, it is essential to have a structure for your volunteer program. This would mean some kind of formal document which  clearly lays out what the volunteers will be doing, their working hours and conditions, their responsibilities, and what your responsibilities are to them (for example, are you responsible for their housing? Their meals? Will you helping them organise logistics and make sure they are safe in-country? Having all of this clearly defined in advance will also make it easier for you to communicate with potential volunteers and encourage them to come and work with you. Critically, it will manage everyone’s expectations to help limit issues, disappointment or failures down the track. It will also help you as an organisation make sure you are executing your duty of care to all of your team members, whether paid or unpaid.

When it comes to international volunteer programs, cultural differences can be one of the biggest challenges for both sides. Although many volunteers are driven by the desire for an immersive cultural experience, the reality of this can be a shock. Organisations can help their volunteers to manage this by letting them know in advance what they can expect in terms of cultural differences: a great way to do this is to expand your volunteer program document to include an induction pack which you can send to volunteers ahead of their arrival.

Organisations can also ease this transition by being aware of these cultural differences in terms of how they work with their volunteers. Although international volunteers need to adapt to the culture of the country they are working in, organisations which wish to accept foreign volunteers also have a duty to meet them half way. For example, in Western countries punctuality and schedules are viewed much more strictly compared to many developing cultures. Organisations can help their Western volunteers to feel a lot more comfortable by making sure things are running more or less on schedule!

Setting up formal structures may seem like a lot of effort for a small organisation which is already limited in time and resources. After all, these constraints are probably why you want to host volunteers in the first place. However, this will make sure you get the most out of your volunteers and maximise the time they are giving you to benefit your organisation, as well as providing a safe and fulfilling work environment for them.

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