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Socially Responsible Volunteering:
Support, Don’t Replace

What should the role of a volunteer be?

This question stands at the start of the debate around what socially responsible volunteering should look like. Are all kinds of volunteering equally valuable and impactful? And what should a volunteer be doing? What distinguishes socially responsible volunteering from more traditional voluntourism activities?

Asking ourselves these questions was also the starting point of moving into the responsible volunteering world. The answers to them is what we believe is the essence of being a responsible volunteering organisation.

And part of the answer is hidden in the tagline “Support, don’t replace”.

The Ultimate Goal of Socially Responsible Volunteering

The ultimate goal of volunteering is making a positive impact. You have decided to dedicate your time and resources to a cause you are passionate about. And in the end you want to see that your commitment has made a difference.

But not every impact is created equal. The type of activities you do, and the way you work with a local partner organisation makes a massive difference when it comes to the outcomes of your work. That’s why we stress capability building over dependency creation. After the volunteer leaves, we want partner organisations to be able to use the skills and knowledge they gained from the experience. Only then is impact truly sustainable and long term.

When Volunteers Replace Staff

So what should volunteers be doing in order to create this truly sustainable and long term impact? One aspect is the type of role volunteers take on. Their roles and tasks should be created around an organisation’s need. But volunteers should not be replacing a local staff member. If this was the case, volunteers would not only take away jobs from local talent, but the impact would also not be sustainable. Because at the end of the placement, when the volunteer leaves, the organisation would be back at square one, where they are not able to fulfil the role the volunteer took over. In this scenario, the impact of volunteering is limited to the placement duration. That’s not what socially responsible volunteering looks like.

When Volunteers Support Staff

In order to create long term impact and build capabilities, volunteers should therefore be placed in supportive roles. By collaborating with local experts and by sharing skills and experience, volunteers are able to make a long lasting impact through learning. The local staff who volunteers support can continue tapping into the skills they have learned, and keep implementing the changes volunteers have proposed. For example, the child-led learning approaches that volunteers Olga and Katy have shared with local staff and parents of children with autism will stay with these parents and staff in the long term. As a result, they can provide better care for the children. That’s what socially responsible volunteering looks like!

The role of a volunteer is to support local change makers in achieving their goals. Become a skilled volunteer and support exciting NGOs and social enterprises in their mission to serve their communities.