There is no clear path in which to take – I worked for several different charities in the UK and eventually back in 2012 I decided I wanted to get practical experience in a developing country so applied to volunteer through VSO, and after a fast 5 months was on my way to Zambia.
We get a lot of requests from people who want to volunteer at Tiny Tim & Friends, and I am always fearful that they wont get what they want, that they have the same idealistic views I had and for short term volunteers wont be able to achieve what they set out to.
- Be patient – patient when waiting for hours for a meeting to start; patient when things aren’t moving quickly on a project; patient when the internet doesn’t work; or the power goes off. Mostly be patient for the change you want to see – coming from a developed country where things happen instantly it can often be frustrating to see slow progress – be careful not to try and impose your own views or systems you think will work, work patiently with others to bring about positive change. This leads me nicely onto point two:
- Be sensitive – if you see problems, be sensitive about suggesting change. Just because something works somewhere else doesn’t mean it will work in new context in which you are in. But then be careful not to be overly sensitive - after being told when I first arrived that Zambians dont really know about personal space I allowed a strange drunk lady to straddle my back at a cultural festival - only to be told later that was not acceptable (It didn't feel acceptable but I didn't to offend anyone).
- Manage your expectations and be open to new things– after not having a shower for 2 years I was so excited when one got fitted only for the shower head to break off after one day. You may start off volunteering and working on a project, waiting for the change,and then it comes to the end and the project doesn’t even work or something goes wrong which you didn’t anticipate leading to bigger issues to resolve. Be carefully to not put all your hope on one outcome. However, occasionally the thing that goes wrong leads to a better outcome (in my case a better showerhead).
- Know when to let go – Recently we identified our first child to receive nutritional support. On going to her home we uncovered her Grandmother was bedridden with malnutrition and TB; that they lived in an unventilated one room shack; that they had no access to clean water; that there were 10 people living in one room; that there were problems of alcoholism in the family. By trying to resolve one issue we had suddenly uncovered many others and as a small NGO we cant offer a solution to it all. One of the positives working for a small NGO is that you are very close to the beneficiaries but then on the occasions you cant help them with everything that can be an incredibly emotional thing to deal with - when you are working with peoples lives and you see them all the time you have to be able to disconnect or let go so you dont emotionally burn out.
- Take up something relaxing – volunteering and working in development is an emotional roller coaster – the highs and successes can be so amazing but the lows and failures incredibly emotionally draining. So take up something relaxing outside of the work you are doing. For some this is running, yoga, TV, art – for me it is jigsaws, and sometimes Gin & Tonic. Be good to yourself, you are no good to anyone if you are emotional and burned out.