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How to be an Amazing Volunteer: Q & A with Susan E. Gibson

By Jessica Lockhart

With decades of field experience in the international development sector, author Susan E. Gibson knows what it takes to be a great overseas volunteer.

Over the last 35 years, Susan E. Gibson has worked and volunteered with NGOs, UN agencies and governments in more than 70 countries. Now, she’s distilled her three decades of field experience into a how-to guide for aspiring international volunteers.

How to be an Amazing Volunteer Overseas: Rules of the Road, Stories from the Field is a playbook for first-time volunteers. Highly practical in nature, the book and its accompanying website cover everything from how to find and get the most of a placement, to suggested packing lists and health and hygiene tips.

We sat down with Gibson to discuss the changes she’s seen in the international development sector throughout her career—and what exactly it means to be an “amazing” volunteer abroad.

Verge: What inspired you to write How to be an Amazing Volunteer Overseas?

Gibson: The first time I volunteered overseas, I was 30. I was working at the United Way, I’d travelled a lot before that and I also loved volunteering locally in Toronto. So, I decided to go and do a serious roll-up-your-sleeves kind of trip to Haiti.

I really wanted to be useful in another world and culture, but although I knew about community development in Toronto, I didn’t have the lens to do it internationally. I wrote to 64 organizations and didn’t hear back from anybody, because I didn’t have a specific “thing” that I could do. I basically took whatever offer came my way.

I ended up in an evangelical mission, which I don’t really recommend unless that’s your bag. I did try to make myself useful, but I also realized I was woefully unprepared. So, that was my starting point—and my starting point was terrible. I wish I’d known about Verge Magazine 30 years ago. Since then, I’ve gone back to school for international development and program design, including training in micro-finance at Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.

For me, the book was about getting people to skip the first step, by doing their research ahead of time and picking an organization where values align. If you have a match at the beginning, you have a much greater chance of success.

The book includes a letter you wrote to your mom from Haiti in 1991. In it, you mention donors sending expired medical supplies without first consulting with the community, as well as your search for a sense of purpose. You write: “Foreign aid [isn’t] as productive as I had imagined. Well-intentioned people coming for short periods of time cannot hope to accomplish much.” Has anything changed in the last 30 years?

I never would have gone on that trip if I’d had the information upfront. Today, even tiny grassroots organizations have a website where you can get information. Now, I think a lot of NGOs are clear about what their vision and mission are, and how they’re tied into the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Because of this, it’s a lot easier to find [an opportunity within] the niche you’re interested in.

Your book is largely written for first-time volunteers, who are likely just graduating from high school or still in university. Do you think unskilled volunteers have a role to play when it comes to volunteering overseas during their summer holidays or on a gap year?

I have a friend who started a school in eastern Tanzania, which has placements for international travellers. But my friend doesn’t call them “volunteers.” She’s very clear that it’s a cultural exchange and they’ve gone specifically to learn. She finds great value in them—but the difference is that her organization’s got a staff person who can manage that.

A lot of people who are new to volunteering don’t understand that local NGOs don’t usually have the resources [to manage volunteers] and that [volunteers] represents time and energy that’s being taken away from the objectives of the NGO.

"I wish I’d known about Verge Magazine 30 years ago."

Sometimes these trips are not helpful and can be harmful. It isn’t just sort of a lark to pop by an orphanage. People have good intentions, but I still come across people who tell me they went off to teach for a week. I try not to roll my eyes; I’m sure it made you feel good, but I don’t think you were very helpful. If you’re not accredited to do something in your home country, then you’re not accredited to do it in some other country. If you’re an unskilled volunteer, it has to be clear that an organization has space for you, because nobody is stuffing envelopes anymore.

As an example, have you seen a kid who’s done masonry or carpentry? Those are local jobs and not something international volunteers should be doing. Some organizations, like Habitat for Humanity, do understand that you’re unskilled and you’re trying to get a taste of a different culture and work side-by-side with community members. But again, that’s about working with people—not for them—and it’s with supervision so your time amounts to something.

What advice would you offer to unskilled and young volunteers who are committed to making a difference?

If you’re just finishing high school or in your first or second year of university, it’s about finding a role where you’re going to learn something and there’s a way you can be helpful.

If you’re really interested in volunteering, get that experience locally first. See if you like it at home and try different things to see where you fit in. It’s good to understand what it’s like to volunteer and how you’re not the one who is going to solve all the problems. You’re working with local leaders who know what they’re doing, and you find a way to be a support to them.

If you have absolutely no skills and you’re young, then try to see if you can do a cultural exchange. You don’t have to focus on volunteering to get to know a country. There’s so much value in travelling; you get to learn and understand perspectives and look at the world in a new way. Finally, if you’re really serious about it, get another language under your belt. It gives you traction when you’re travelling and deepens your experience beyond measure.

What’s the message you want readers to take home from How to be an Amazing Volunteer Overseas?

I think if people change the framework to “I’m going to learn” rather than “I’m going to help,” you take away that post-colonial attitude. If you want to do this great—go out and learn. You’ll come back with a wealth of information. But if you go think you’re going to help them with all the answers, it’s arrogant.

There are NGOs who are trying to do amazing work and they get saddled with people who don’t really know what they’re doing. They deserve to get really good people who aren’t a drain on local staff resources. So, I’m not trying to convince people not to volunteer abroad—but I am trying to convince people to go with a lot more preparation and intention.

If you have the opportunity to learn from local grassroots leaders in another place, it’s the best experience you could ever have.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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