Skill Sharing ensures benefits that outlive the volunteering experience

Being a Programme Manager for various volunteer organisations, I’ve been involved in the volunteering sector for a while now. “I want to make a difference” is the most common answer that volunteers give when asked about their motivation to donate their time.

Making an impact is one of the main reasons people volunteer abroad. Knowing that their time and efforts make even the slightest impact on a person’s life or the environment is what motivates most volunteers to go abroad and support development efforts. But not every volunteer programme makes a sustained, long term impact.

My experience started locally, in one of the many charity shops Edinburgh has to offer. I managed the floor – sorting clothes, pricing clothes, making sales, tidying the store. I enjoyed my volunteering position at the charity shop so much that I became their best customer. After university my passion for social enterprise took me abroad and I managed volunteer programmes in India. I am back now after completing my masters in Development Studies, again supporting volunteer projects. Witnessing the impact of volunteering myself, as well as speaking to the local partners and the international volunteers taught me one thing: skill based volunteering is the most effective way to make a difference.

Long term Impact on the volunteer

The volunteers grow personally and professionally. Personally, volunteers find themselves in an environment that is unknown. They have to learn new cultural norms, figure out the logistics of a new environment, and overcome personal challenges of living in a different country. Professionally, the volunteers apply their skill in a completely different environment, developing their problems solving and creative skills. Working cross culturally with an Indian team provides an opportunity develop cross cultural working skills and gain cultural competency. Understanding their profession from a different perspective also offers insights the volunteer can apply in their professional career. Skills sharing is a two way exchange – whilst sharing skills, volunteers are learning new ones.

One of my favourite journeys is the career change of one of the volunteers of my first cohort in India. Feeling stuck in the corporate world, the volunteer was tired of working countless hours in an office that showed little appreciation for her dedication. She also felt the need to make a positive impact on the world rather than working solely to fulfil profit-led objectives. By volunteering abroad and gaining first-hand experience in Human Centered Design practices, she not only uncovered her passion and interest, but was able to score a job in the field after returning back home.

Long term Impact on the local partner organisation

The local partner organisation is gaining a temporary new member – one that brings expertise, skills and a new perspective. Merging local understanding and knowledge with new insights can lead to astonishing results. I remember a partner organisation working with a gypsy community in a rural community in Southern India, helping them to start a trade to ensure a stable livelihood for their income. The gypsies sold simple jewelry made of beads and string. The design was always the same.

A UX and costume designer were brought onto the project, and they achieved the (almost) unthinkable. In a short 5 weeks, they created, tested, iterated and sold different prototypes of what was to become an entire jewellery collection. They invested time into understanding the way the gypsy women would produce the necklaces – the techniques they knew, the materials they had access to, and the time they could dedicate to the crafting process. This, along with the insights the volunteers brought with them – made for a truly unique end product. The volunteers were then able to negotiate a deal with local stores that would sell the necklaces for a profit. Developing a product that met the needs and resources of the gypsy community and at the same time appealed to customers was the first step towards establishing a craft that could bring sustainable livelihoods for the women.

The long-term impacts of skill based volunteering become apparent in the change and growth of the volunteer and the local initiative. A career change here, a product development there. These developments are remaining long after the volunteer placement finishes.

Contact us to find out how your skills can make a difference when volunteering in India.