The right match: 8 factors to consider when choosing your volunteer experience

By Mark Horoszowski 11 November 2014

A volunteer in the USAID-supported ASEAN Youth Volunteer Program in Malaysia. What makes for a successful volunteer experience? Photo by: Bryan Quek Wei Hong / USAID Asia / CC BY-NC

The foundation of a successful international engagement, whether as a contractor, skills-based volunteer or employee, starts with the quality of the match.  

We often see that the allure of an international experience is so strong that people are willing to sacrifice any number of factors just to make it overseas. In the best case, your once-in-a-lifetime experience won’t meet expectations; in a worse case, you’ll hinder or even hurt, the very organization you were hoping to help.

However, we have found that with the proper amount of diligence in sourcing and preparing for the right opportunity, the engagement is more impactful for all parties. At MovingWorlds, we use a matching site and support team to help people find the best place to volunteer their skills overseas for any length of time. Think of it as a short-term Peace Corps for skilled professionals. Beyond nonprofits, we also match “experteers” with startups, schools, social enterprises, innovation hubs and other change-makers who provide unique local benefits — like free housing and immersive cultural experiences — in exchange for skills.

In facilitating matches for individuals, corporations and universities around the world, we have found these eight factors to be essential for a good match:

1. Skills: The right body, not just a warm body

When considering where you can use your skills overseas, make sure that the organization is legitimate, exists for social impact and has a well-articulated need. At MovingWorlds, we work with a partnership network to source opportunities — typically identifying organizations that have recently received impact investment, donation or grant monies — as that is a clear indicator of growth and the need for new and specific skills. Other indicators include:

1.     Actively pursuing growth capital (for-profit or nonprofit)

2.     Published growth strategy

3.     Membership in socially aligned co-working spaces, like Impact Hub

4.     Participation in accelerator programs, like Village Capital and Unreasonable Institute

5.     Affiliation with international organizations like Ashoka, Kiva, Endeavor, Mercy Corps, etc.

Once you find a legitimate organization, take time to ensure that it has a project that aligns with your skills. While it’s rare for an organization to have a project that is 100 percent scoped to your profile, you can find an organization with a specific need that aligns with your skills. For example: “Finance help” is a little too vague when compared to “Setting up a new accounting system to qualify for grants to help our social enterprise access capital to hire for our care delivery team.”

Once there is an alignment of skills-to-needs, then it’s time to start working in partnership with the organization to clearly scope the project.

2. Timing: Plan for long after you’re gone

Based on how much time you are able to commit, and how much time an organization is willing to host, you might encounter a roadblock or need to change the project scope. At MovingWorlds, we often see that different time frames are best for different types of projects.

Be willing to adapt the project scope or your own role depending on your availability.

Don’t try and do too much in a short time or too little in a long time. Either can run the risk of leaving you or your host dissatisfied. When budgeting for time, make sure to plan for enough to complete your work as well as any necessary training and onboarding to ensure that the project can live on after you are gone.

3.  Motivations: There is no progress without purpose

Especially when it comes to volunteering your skills, there is a big difference between a person’s motivations for volunteering and an organization’s motivations for hosting. Possible motivations include:

Being honest about your motivations helps build the foundation for a successful partnership.

At MovingWorlds, we help all our matches discuss these and other key details during a facilitated planning process, which truly becomes the foundation of every successful engagement.

4.  Sustainable Impact: Purpose is a key driver of engagement and work performance

As you look for opportunities, consider that an organization in an exciting location with a clear need for your skills might not be enough. In order to stay engaged with the team and the work, it is important to align on mission and to support a locally driven initiative that will further the mission of the organization, not your own “passion project.” It’s also important to listen to and engage the community you are working for; ultimately they know best what their needs are.

Be on the lookout for organizations that are impressed by your skills and ideas. Even more so, look for a project that creates a sustainable impact in the long-term. At MovingWorlds, we ask our experteers and host organizations to define a success metric that can be measured one year after the engagement ends, as it is our belief that true success happens after you leave.

5. Communication: Hearing what isn't said

In a previous article on the MovingWorlds blog, we wrote about the importance of communication, and how best to do it while volunteering overseas, starting with using the 4C’s needed to build relationships, and the 3R’s to work through any challenges.

One of the reasons it’s so challenging to ensure that both parties in a match can communicate effectively is that they are unable to meet in person before an engagement starts. Thus, it’s important that you spend a reasonable amount of time on Skype getting to learn more about each other, the work and each party’s goals. At MovingWorlds, we use an “Experteering Planning Guide” and planning process to help our matches through this process to ensure all necessary topics, including cultural differences, are discussed openly and honestly.

6.  Commitment: Working together throughout the planning, working and completion phases

“Co-investment” is a common best practice in global engagement. While it is easy to identify in an international work contract, it can be harder to identify for international volunteering engagements. We typically discourage people from paying to volunteer, as it usually means that the organization is more interested in your finances than your skills. Instead, at MovingWorlds, we only connect experteers with organizations that co-invest to help the experteer offset costs, for instance by giving them free places to stay, travel stipends, cooking lessons, language practice and other unique benefits.

7. Partnership: An agreement to work together, as equals

Engaging in a true partnership is essential to having an effective international experience.

Before purchasing a plane ticket, make sure to begin a dialogue with your host organization to more fully scope and plan your project. At MovingWorlds, we believe so strongly in our planning process we open-sourced our experteering planning materials so that any organization or professional who volunteers their skills can utilize them to increase the quality of their engagement. However, the tracking and collaboration tools that help to simplify the process are available only to members of MovingWorlds.

8. Ethical: A focus on empowering local initiatives and helping them become sustainable

Last, and certainly not least, matches should be ethical. LearningService published a great checklist on this topic: “Finding a Responsible Volunteer Placement.”

● Ensure that you, the volunteer, aren’t taking a local job
● Assess the longevity of the impact you will make with your work
● Ensure that goals are locally driven
● Consider the sustainability of the work
● Question child care organizations that accept unvetted volunteers
● Research the organization’s management and transparency
● Consider the implications of foreign volunteers
● Question organizations that unqualified volunteers
● Consider the burden on the host organization

Conclusion

By investing only a few extra hours in your search for an international opportunity, you’ll increase your chance of finding a high impact engagement that makes the world a better place and transforms you in the process.

And while we understand that this might take more work than originally anticipated, rest assured that you don’t have to do it alone. We started MovingWorlds to provide both matching and planning support to help more people engage in international experiences that accelerate impact. Our other #DoingMore partners also follow best practices to help you use your skills to make the world a better place, no matter how much or how little time you have.

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

Mark socap headshot 1 ed
Mark Horoszowski

Mark Horoszowski is the co-founder and CEO of MovingWorlds.org, a platform that helps people volunteer their skills around the world, on their own or through corporate-sponsored programs. Its newly launched MovingWorlds Institute, accepting applications through November 30th, combines experteering, curriculum, mentorship, and networking to help people transition to social good careers.


Join the Discussion