Beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to volunteers

ACDI/VOCA volunteers James Thibeault and Patti Carpenter visit a Farmer-to-Farmer program in Bangladesh. Photo by: ACDI/VOCA

Volunteer service for development seemed like a rather logical and simple concept 40 years ago when it was pioneered: American professionals can provide needed technical support to people in less developed parts of the world.

Since that time, however, volunteer program managers have learned that we have to look beyond our borders and the traditional north-south lens to provide more appropriate targeted technical support to projects. We have to source volunteers from a variety of places and mobilize them in a variety of ways. We need to challenge ourselves to think beyond the one-size-fits-all approach.

Traditionally, ACDI/VOCA has been known for its work on USAID’s Farmer-to-Farmer program, which provides mid- and senior-level professionals in America two- to four-week opportunities to share their skills with development projects around the globe. The program has been successful, with some amazing stories reflecting technical achievements and warm personal connections.

But technical knowledge gaps have grown in the last decade — around tropical crops like banana and annatto in Bolivia, for example — that American professionals couldn’t fill. In response, we instituted south-south recruitment to recruit professionals from other countries in Latin America.

More recently, we’ve used regionally sourced volunteers in our East and West Africa programs. Ghanaian professional David Darkoh helped pineapple farmers with their production methods, for example, and Ugandan volunteer Nixon Omviti worked on the regulatory framework for the national association of Liberia Credit Unions. This new approach to sourcing volunteers regionally improves technical support to projects, and it often provides volunteers who also speak the local language or dialect and understand the culture and business environment.

A recent economic trend has caused us to reevaluate our volunteer program approach: As noted by the World Bank, private investment in developing countries now surpasses development assistance by a margin of four to one.

With the private sector a bigger player than ever, volunteer programs must keep up with a much more evolved commercial environment. Developing country economies need tailored volunteer support to help businesses better respond to market opportunities, and this commercial shift has driven the growing demand for sector-specific corporate volunteer programs. We’ve found that to multiply the impact of our cocoa support programs, for example, a Mars volunteer program can bring business and cocoa industry experts where they’re most needed — to the growers and processors of raw cocoa in tropical countries.

Read: VSO launches new global facility for corporate volunteering

The much-reported demographic bulge in sub-Saharan Africa presents another potential recruiting opportunity for volunteers. In agriculture in particular, there is a worldwide need to equip and encourage youth to continue building the agricultural sectors in their countries. And as we know, youth respond best to youth. Volunteer programs must identify opportunities for youth from across the agricultural sector to engage with one another and share knowledge.

Young farmers from Kenya, for example, can teach their peers in other African countries about using mobile technology to identify buyers for their maize. Or an agribusiness graduate student from Iowa can train young farmers in Ethiopia on improved farming techniques that respond to the effects of climate change.

ACDI/VOCA is venturing into this new arena with a volunteer program that targets qualified U.S.-based graduate students in agriculture, international studies and international business who want to serve overseas. These young volunteers apply their skills through technical assistance to local finance institutions, cooperative organizations and grain producers, but we’re also actively pursuing additional ways to link them with youth in the countries where they’re volunteering.

As the #DoingMore campaign and its partners have highlighted, volunteering benefits both the volunteer and the recipient. Programs must continue to be creative and willing to recruit new kinds of volunteers from a range of backgrounds. New perspectives can bring effective support and assistance to developing countries in ways that we can only imagine.

Tell us your own volunteer story on Facebook or tweet us using #DoingMore, and check out all Doing More content here.

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.

About the author

  • Diana Roach

    Diana Roach, senior director of volunteer programs, has over 12 years of experience recruiting an annual average of 200 volunteer assignments. Her previous experience includes being director of marketing for an agriculture commodity group in Ohio. For the past eight years, Diana has managed ACDI/VOCA’s volunteer programs and pursued new business opportunities for volunteer activities from both USAID and nongovernmental funding sources. She manages ACDI/VOCA's implementation of the Mars Ambassador Program and heads the effort to increase the VOCA Fund for the support of additional volunteer-related initiatives around the world.