Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Reworking Meaningful Volunteer

Eating and talking can lead to great
ideas.  Like this rather cool/oddly
named sandwich
My arduous flight to Nepal was not without its benefits.  It gave me a chance to thrash out ideas with Heather Evans about where Meaningful Volunteer is going.  Below are some of our broad brush-stroke ideas that we came up with.  With a lot of hard work and dedication, these ideas will become a reality.

Credit also goes to Megin Alvarez, Anne Eichmeyer and Nicholas Brenswick for thrashing out similar ideas over a Saturday night dinner.

Meaningful Learning
When I volunteer in the Philippines, Ghana, and Uganda, the benefits to the local communities were minimal (with the notable exception of Grassroots Uganda), the learning experience to myself personally was immense.  I learnt so much about development, what works, what doesn't, and what can’t work.

I am sure the vast majority of volunteers will report similar tales.

So why is Meaningful Volunteer focusing on meaningful impacts on communities by short term volunteers (which is sooo hard to do) and having the learning experience as a desirable side effect?

Might it be better to first focus on the learning experience as this is the one positive thing that every volunteer will walk away with?

Once we change this mindset, it opens up a whole raft of ideas.

  • Meaningful Learning Groups
    Groups of volunteers with a designated leader could head over to the villages we are based in with the express purpose of learning.  I can imagine parents (the eternal funder of such trips) loving the idea.  A trip to Paris might be fun, but a trip to Buyaya will both be fun and educational!

    We would challenge them to come up with solutions to the problems facing the community and then challenge them again when we point out the potential downfalls of their ideas.

    We could also visit other NGOs to see what they are doing.
  • First Nation’s Youth and Cultural Exchange
    My wife and I are very involved in First Nations communities here in Canada with the group home that we run.  These types of trips could be wonderful for First Nations youth to compare their own plight with that of those in developing communities.  The potential for culture exchange is immense.

    We could run workshops for the youth before they go so that they are not entering completely blind.

    Heck, we could even target First Nations youth who have made some bad decisions and are trying to break free of the prison systems.
  • Benefits to Meaningful Volunteer
    We would encourage all these groups to be as hyper critical to Meaningful Volunteer as they can be.  I’m sure they’ll come up with wonderful ideas that we’ll end up implementing.

Meaningful Education
More and more people are studying development in our schools and universities.  Students are often required to submit a thesis that includes some aspect of field work.

Meaningful Volunteer could be the organization that helps facilitate the field work by coming up with key relationships with universities.

Meaningful Tourism
Way back when, I visited a village near the Ghana Togo border.  The village was set up to be a tourist destination.  I was greeted as I entered the villager, was shown to my room, and given a brochure about what the village had to offer.  I got to wander around the village and observe local people doing local crafts, dancing, cooking, and just getting through their normal day.  No child begged me for money.

It was a very positive experience and did not make me feel at all like a Poverty Porn voyeur.

In addition to the list of requirements I listed over here, I would also add in a requirement that the village be accessible to tourists.  Not just any old tourists of course, but meaningful tourists who would to engage the locals and see how their lives work.

We could advertise the village as being:

  • Sex Tourism Free
    Through various training programs in the village, we would ensure that the village remains sex tourism free.  In rural Nepal (and elsewhere) sex tourism and human trafficking run rampant.
  • Environmental Friendly
    You wanna bring those plastic bottles to our village?  You better make damn sure you take ‘em out again and leave us some iodine pills to sterilize our water while you are at it
  • A place for learning
    The villagers could run classes about how they run their lives.  There would be cooking classes, farming classes, weaving classes, and so on.
  • A village in development
    Tourists could visit our solar schools and see how they work out first hand.

These are all first draft ideas that are likely to change over time.  As always, feedback is appreciated and welcomed.


  1. These are great ideas, and they are indubitably the brain children of you and Heather.

    While I'm sure this is something you've already considered, would it be possible to use Meaningful Volunteers as an organization that oriented volunteer efforts around connecting westerners with communities in an effort to aid and supplement pre-existing, locally organized and executed initiatives? That is to say, what if you turned volunteers into additional resources to ongoing community projects, rather than charging them with bringing some particular development project to a community, implementing it, and disbanding afterwards. What I'm envisioning is something along the lines of local community members submitting formal requests to Meaning Volunteers for the services of skilled laborers/volunteers for specific tasks. This would require communities to create (relatively) detailed plans for the projects they want to institute in advance and submitting those plans to Meaningful Volunteers, who would then serve as an intermediary between the community and volunteer community. These plans could include logistical outlines, budgets, practical schedules, required resource, etc., along with requests for people with certain skill sets. This could serve to both provide would-be volunteers with opportunities to do meaningful hands-on work, while simultaneously encouraging locals to develop more advanced or refined coordinating and logistical skills aimed at project design, development, and implantation. It would also give Meaningful Volunteers an opportunity to spread out their resources by facilitating development projects without necessarily spearheading them directly. Of course, this could only occur once an established relationship has been forged with a local communities and trustworthy, competent leaders have been discovered therein. Plus, there would need to be some means for ensuring quality control and making sure that tasks were indeed being carried out as planned. I'm picturing something like Kiva, but for hands-on volunteer work rather than micro loans (although, I know money is usually at the crux of the problem). Maybe the cost to volunteer could be factored into the proposals as the means of subsidizing the project. (I'm already seeing how complications could arise here: if communities receive a fixed amount of financing per person that they get to volunteer with them, they may try to get a lot of people to go simply to get more money, even if there wasn't actually anything for them to do.)

    Just a random Idea.

  2. Great ideas here, Malc. Definitely something that you can market to the IB organization, and I can help with that. There are companies doing a very similar idea to support "Week Without Walls" required in many schools, and so there are some models that you can peek at to see what is working and what you could improve upon. I will look through my files to see if I can find the names of the organizations. I can also give you a list of conferences that would be perfect places for pitching the concept to target school communities who would be keen on something like this. Many (most?) schools now have some component of service learning required, so this could definitely meet that need. Let's talk.

  3. (this is from Heather. She can't post it form her computer for some reason. I underline everything she says)

    Hey Tim! Thanks for the suggestions. You're absolutely spot-on in suggesting that communities be able to direct the course of development. That already occurs to a large extent with MV's projects. In Buyaya, Esther (the regional manager) is basically in charge of developing off of the basic infrastructure that MV put in with the school, the preschool program, etc. She tells Malcolm what they need, and the organization does its best to accommodate. The same happened in the Philippines, where Malcolm went in and basically got feedback from the community about what they needed. However, after reading your comments, we both agreed that the idea of creating a formalized process for requesting projects was a fantastic idea.

    In terms of volunteers being brought over for specific projects, it's a bit tricky. First, aside from skills exchange (bringing in skills such as tech/computer skills, craft skills, English language, etc.), most of what needs to be done in the projects can be done by the local community. And, of course, there are possible issues with (as you alluded to) financial corruption. We are thinking of moving things into a direction where the volunteerism really isn't a central part of it. One possibility is to establish a charitable organization through which funds for building schools could be funnelled.

    Anywho, some possibilities out there. Really, really nice to read your thoughtful insights and suggestions!! Keep 'em coming.

  4. That's awesome Erin! Thanks so much.

    Errr.. what are IB Schools?

    Is skyping an option? We have quite good bandwidth here in Nepal. Heather, Megin and I could have a online talk about this.