5 principles to govern the design of international volunteer programs

Is it time to change the conversation on international volunteering? Photo by: Mareike Guensche

When we talk about international volunteering, the discussion is usually framed around an individual volunteer’s contribution and experience. We talk about the benefits of volunteer programs in terms of civic engagement or people-to-people links. We even evaluate these programs with such measures as volunteer numbers and satisfaction, risk management or alignment with aid program thematic areas.

Isn’t it time to change the conversation?

For meaningful change to occur, success needs to be defined by the achievements of our partner organizations and ultimately the communities they serve. For the Australian Red Cross, volunteering is the means through which we support our partners’ right to lead their own development. This approach guides the way we deliver the Australian Volunteers for International Development program, the way we engage with overseas partner organizations and the way we measure value and progress towards development priorities.

A contemporary approach to sustainable development recognizes that market mechanisms and policy will never be enough on their own to achieve development goals. These goals can only be achieved when people and communities are empowered to drive their own solutions — when they can access support and resources in times of vulnerability and build resilience to future crises.

How do we shape an international volunteer program so that it leads to sustainable development and local self-empowerment rather than imported, predetermined solutions?

Our design for the AVID program is characterized by five key principles.

1. Working with multiple partners to achieve shared goals.

Working intensively and sustainably with a few strategic partners yields stronger results than scattering volunteers across a vast range of host organisations.

The Red Cross partners with local organizations that have a wide reach and impact within their communities. We take this approach further by engaging with a cluster of organizations working across one or two thematic areas. Preventing violence against women, for example, is a thematic area. Our partners offer counseling and employment services to survivors, peer education for men and boys and legal aid to see cases through the formal justice system. Engaging with each of these partners and supporting them to engage with each other increases their collective impact to achieve social and systemic change.

2. Assignments building upon each other.

We support partner organizations over a long period, through cumulative volunteer assignments that build upon one another, often working across different parts of the organization. Over time, these inputs lead to stronger organizations that are better positioned to meet the needs of their communities.

3. Partners leading their own development.

Partner organizations must always be in the driver’s seat. They make the decision about who works with them and in what capacity. They are the key actors in our relationship, and not passive “beneficiaries.” Their strengths and priorities must be recognized; our engagement should be based on an intimate understanding of their long-term goals. This is fundamental to the way the Red Cross operates, and provides a valuable measure for the AVID program — how well it can support local partners to be well-functioning organizations in their own right.

4. Selecting volunteers for the way they work.

Careful selection and preparation of volunteers is essential. Our volunteers are highly skilled, but they must be more than that. They must be able to facilitate other people’s achievements over their own. Adaptable enough to work outside a defined role profile where necessary; resilient enough to cope with setbacks and work respectfully with colleagues at their own pace; and collaborative enough to identify opportunities for partnership.

5. Evidence informing strategy.

This approach requires a strong and robust evidence base. Both research and the collection of meaningful data is needed to chart direction and inform policy and process.

The Red Cross delivered strong results for partner organizations through the AVID program in the past year, from improvements in disaster management in the Philippines, to private and public sector partnerships to reduce vulnerability in Vanuatu, to the use of first aid to save lives and contribute to more sustainable humanitarian organizations in Mongolia and East Timor.

Volunteering is a vast resource for social, economic and environmental transformation. A structured, thoughtful and long-term design for the AVID program can make the most of this resource to achieve sustainable development goals.

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Doing More is an ongoing conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Australian Red Cross, Cuso International, IFRC, MovingWorlds, Peace Corps, Scope Global (formerly Austraining International), United Nations Volunteers, Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance and VSO.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Aarathi Krishnan

    Aarathi Krishnan is a volunteerism for development technical specialist and has worked in the sector for the last 10 years. She is currently a program manager with Australian Red Cross responsible for the Australian Volunteers for International Development program. Aarathi has worked in over 9 countries — Kenya, Rwanda, Philippines, India, Solomon Islands, Fiji, Cambodia, Mongolia and has most recently returned from setting up an education and health program in Bhutan.