“Community service” is an interesting term. Technically, it is simply another phrase synonymous with volunteering. The word’s connotation, however, implies a style of volunteering with a much more tangible and direct impact, often on underserved populations and projects within a community.
Let us therefore look at community-driven volunteering and how it plays out in your home communities, as well as during international travel. In a discussion on voluntourism, it may seem out-of-place to start with an angle of volunteering at home, but often it’s through this lens on volunteering that international travelers are able to find and support community-based projects matching their values and the types of skills they can best offer.
Few Standardized Terms
Currently, the terms “local’ and “community-based” are thrown around the volunteering space with little consensus on what it takes to fulfill both of these objectives. And while Western volunteer organizations have regulatory restrictions on how they spend funds, that alone is no guarantee of an effective model for working within communities , not to mention in partnership with their ideas and cultures, especially those of underserved populations.
As you move into developing regions of the world, regulatory oversight is less stringent (and non-existent in some places) and the need for an open and clear dialogue with organizations becomes increasingly important. These types of ambiguity are a potential pitfall for volunteers unaware of the absence of standardized terms about volunteering. Many people don’t realize that companies can describe their volunteer projects as they see fit.
Look at Home First
Looking at voluntourism through this community-service prism shifts the way volunteers research and choose community-based projects. The media paints a very specific picture of poverty and aid work, but the reality of what is needed on the ground in underserved communities often looks much like what you have right in your home community. Organizations targeting traditionally underserved populations like youth, women, disabled, the elderly etc. are present in cities all over the world, as well as in your own hometown.
Think about that for a moment – the same causes you support and issues you find important at home and may be the ideal starting point for your volunteer travels.
So take stock of what you’re passionate about by looking at the organizations you may already use in your life, many of which have foundations and nonprofit arms with which you can volunteer as a way to give back and further support their work. Are you part of the green movement and interested in sustainable agriculture? Do you support your local animal shelter? Are you a regular donor to your local food bank?
Finding organizations that match your current interests is a powerful way to begin integrating community service into your life. Then, as you look toward addressing those same community-centered issues overseas, you already have an informed understanding of them. Even better, as you look overseas toward international volunteering, your foundational knowledge in your chosen causes or issues gives you invaluable skills and knowledge advantages.
Ask the Right Questions
The key questions and discussion points about community service overseas center on the relationship between the organizations, nonprofits, and NGOs. Think about any organization’s funding model and long-term plans. For example, as a way to motivate dialogue, many organizations require community co-investment when building projects. This helps ensure the creation only of projects of enough value to a community that there’s a willingness to support them with funds and time, and a readiness for long-term ownership.
When talking to an organization, it’s good to ask questions like “How does your organization choose communities for this type of project?” and “What is the relationship with the communities?” and “How were you involved in building this volunteer program?” And then “What is your timeline?” or “How long do you plan to work within the community?”
Projects that include a lot of “we” language are often looking for a range of voices on the best course of action and are building long-term solutions. These types of projects are the heart of community service because they are directly working in tandem with local populations and listening to their needs.
Community service at any level can have its pitfalls, but volunteers keen to delve into community-driven volunteering at home and abroad have a unique advantage in the depth of knowledge, experience and passion they bring to their projects and the potential impacts. When making the transition from volunteering in your home town to volunteering abroad, the key is to allow yourself the time to thoroughly research projects and organizations.
I wrote this piece for Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good, a free guide to impactful adventures. The guide draws on the combined expertise of two dozen leading voices advocating for travel that makes a difference, it is a guide for compassionate people seeking the ultimate adventure—one guided as much by the good you give as the good you get.