Dr. Erin Barnhart is no stranger to international volunteerism. As a former staff member at Idealist.org, a board member of the Building Bridges Coalition and the current Graduate Program Director of IPSL, a study abroad and service learning program based out of Concordia University Portland, she's well acquainted with the field.
Research conducted as part of her PhD. thesis examines the impact of international volunteers overseas—but rather than speaking with volunteer-sending organizations based in North America or Europe, she surveyed nearly 250 organizations in over 50 countries – organizations on the receiving end of international volunteerism.
We spoke with Barnhart to learn more about the impact of international volunteers from the perspective of local host organizations.
Verge: What inspired your research?
Erin Barnhart: When I was first working on my dissertation, I was working for Idealist and we would get lots of questions from people saying, "Hey, I want to volunteer abroad. I'm looking for ways to be effective and to have a meaningful experience."
I was curious about what sort of research existed. It's a pretty young field and a few years ago we still had a pretty limited understanding of the benefits and challenges of international service. What I could find was primarily about the volunteer experience and, to some extent, community impact. But I couldn't find anything on the organizational perspective—what do organizations that are hosting international volunteers seek to gain from that experience? What strategies are they using? How are they learning from past experiences and are they able to share those outcomes with others? I felt like that was the missing piece of the puzzle in terms of how we can be most effective at serving across borders.
Do you think the responses you received from organizations overseas could have been influenced by cultural differences in communication or value systems?
That's where you run into the limitations of doing this type of research—I'm unable to tell how much is a cultural bias. One of the ways I tried to work around that is by framing this less as, "this is reporting a fact" and much more "this is a reporting of perceptions." Having said that, there were some things that emerged that seemed to make little difference where they the organizations were located. Global research is so complex that you have to take it with a grain of salt and hope that you're at least getting some insights.
For you, what was the most surprising finding?
From a volunteer's perspective, the thought is "organizations need people because there's so much work to be done." And certainly that emerged at the top of the list from organizations—yes, they did need hands and even more importantly, they needed specific skills and skill transfer: "We want the volunteers here so we can learn, so that we can do the work ourselves rather than requiring international volunteers at all times."
However, I didn't expect the focus to be on, "We want international volunteers to help us diversify our communities, to offer different role models for different ways of life and to help challenge the stereotypes that might exist. We want international networks—not necessarily for fundraising, but ones that can help us find more volunteers, be our advocates and be our voice."
So many organizations said, "Yes, what matters is the time volunteers spend with us." But oftentimes, those benefits are collective. It isn't just that one volunteer—it's the impact of many volunteers. It's building those networks and having people over time helping to change minds, build capacity and expand their reach.
In recent years, there's been a lot of criticism towards international volunteers joining overseas projects. So for example, the idea that short-term volunteering doesn't have any sort of long-term impact, that it would just be better to send money directly to organizations, or that volunteers take jobs away from the community. Did your research shed any light on these sentiments or challenge that sort of thinking at all?
I can understand the criticism. In fact, I think it's wise to be critiquing and asking the hard questions because the road to altruism is paved with good intentions.
The organizations that replied to my survey rejected the idea pretty handily that volunteers were replacing jobs. If it's done well, in a way where the organization is determining what the volunteers are doing, and they have a steady stream of volunteers, there can be a real collective impact.
The vast majority of organizations were having people come to them for short periods of time. Yet overwhelmingly, they said it was worth it because they were able to learn those skills and have hands that were needed—but also because of that idea of changing perceptions in their community and building that global network that can continue to support them.
There's been an incredible growth in the number of volunteer-sending organizations over the last 10 years. Given your research, what do you think are the most important roles and responsibilities of volunteer-sending organizations? What are they being successful at? Where do they need to make changes?
Some of the biggest challenges reported by these organizations are that volunteers are arriving unprepared in terms of not having the most realistic expectations of where they are going, what they're going to be doing and what their impact is going to be. I think a lot of that comes back to a culture of people feeling altruistic and feeling like, "I'm going to change the world."
Volunteer-sending organizations should invest time into preparing volunteers for the realities of their time on the ground helping them establish realistic expectations for learning and growing, and for how they can contribute as determined by the community
Many international volunteers are paying a significant amount of money to arrange a placement with the organizations that you were surveying overseas. In light of your research—and recognizing that the volunteer sending organizations do have in-house costs that they have to bear—how do you think those funds ought to be allocated to best serve the needs of the host organization and the volunteers?
There's a lot of surprise expressed on the part of the volunteer when they find out that they're going to have to pay to volunteer. There are real costs associated with this type of work. Certainly there are easy line items— things like your housing and transportation. Those are the sorts of things that people seem much more ready to accept. The things that are harder to line item are things like the time it takes staff on the ground to train new volunteers.
Bringing in a new volunteer—particularly where there is a language and cultural barrier being crossed—is a huge investment of time and energy. When we're talking about NGOs that may not have enough staff to be doing their work and their mission is not focused on hosting international volunteers, that's a big ask.
Based on what I was hearing my research, it would be an ideal if some funds go into developing the capacity of organizations to effectively engage international volunteers. We have significant data on domestic volunteers in the US, Canada and the UK that says that where you have an infrastructure in place to support volunteers, they see significant gains in the ability of volunteers to contribute. Applying that same methodology to international volunteers, I feel like there's evidence to say that will improve the capacity of volunteers to be even more effective.
What would be your advice to somebody who is considering an international volunteer placement—both independently or if they're looking for a placement with the help of a volunteer-sending organization?
Take some time for yourself to really think your desire to be involved. What is that you want to do, learn and accomplish? The more clear you are on your own goals and expectations, the easier it's going to be to work with a volunteer-sending group—or if you go on your own, to identify where there's going to be a good fit.
Again use that lens, "If I'm only going to be there a month, realistically what can I accomplish? What can I realistically expect to do?" Try to be aware of the fact that when we volunteer internationally, we are guests and students of these communities. In almost all cases, unless you're staying for years, you may not see the impact of your efforts. You may not be the leader of those efforts. And when you really stop and think about it, that's as should be, because those efforts should be owned by and driven by those who live there. Ultimately, look for organizations that seem to understand those concepts and who are taking an ethical approach to seeking real partnerships.
Prepare yourself by reading and learning as much as you can, but also arriving with open a mind as flexible spirit as you can. Patience and flexibility are fantastic things to pack in your luggage and to carry around with you at all times, really—not only because they will make it a richer experience while you are there and to alleviate some of the otherwise frustrating experiences you might have, but also because they will help you throughout your life.Learn More