In the coming weeks on the CIF blog, you might notice a bump in the quality of our photos. That’s due to the work of Amy Higg. Amy is a professional photographer from Queensland, Australia. She put her business on hold for two months this year, spending that time volunteering short term in Cambodia. You can check her out online over here.
Having Amy working for Children in Families was really beneficial for us as an organisation. Not only did she give us photos of our staff and some of our consenting clients, but also some more general photos of Cambodian life. She also raised a question for us: what is the difference between a useful experience with a short-term volunteer, and just having someone nice come and hang out for a while? Or, more succinctly…
Volunteering short term: How do you do it well?
There’s more to volunteering short term than good intentions. As a little reading will show, there’s evidence that poorly planned and executed short term volunteering isn’t beneficial to the people most in need of support. It can even be harmful.
So, if you want to make a positive difference somewhere overseas, how do you do it well? We thought we’d take a few pointers from Amy’s approach, and share them with you.
Do your research
Firstly, while every organisation and its work will be different, there are certain key things that are often common across a region. One of the issues that we’re passionate about addressing at Children in Families is that of voluntourism in orphanages. Well, those ‘orphanages’ are more accurately called “Residential Care Institutions”, because the majority of the kids growing up in them aren’t actually orphans. They’re just kids from poor families, whose parents are in the awful position of believing that the only way their kids can have food and education is to be raised in an institution. And orphanages have become a worldwide, multi-billion dollar industry. They’re funded by well meaning western donors, and volunteers who pay for the privilege of spending a fortnight or longer playing with kids and teaching them English. At CIF, we’ve covered this topic before, so we won’t go into too much detail here. And if you want to start reading, try this video, this article, or this excellent blog series.
Still the take-away lesson is clear: if you want to make a positive difference, do some research about the area you want to volunteer. You’ll avoid some of the more serious pitfalls that way. This is exactly what Amy did: having had some contact with issues around orphanages and institutionalisation of children before, she was looking for an organisation that was working in a different way with kids. That took her to our website. On the website there was a note saying that we were seeking a creative professional to assist with our online presence. Which brings us to our next point….
Bring your skills
Subconsciously, as a volunteer it’s easy to start to think that the beneficiaries of our time and good intentions should be grateful for any help they receive. They’re poor, right? Beggars can’t be choosers. This seems to be especially rife in the field of English teaching. Volunteers from English-speaking countries believe that because they can speak English, they can teach it – vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and its many quirks! – to people in the developing world. There certainly is a need for good quality English teaching for people Cambodia. However, the key words there are “good quality”.
How not to do that:
During my first year in Cambodia, I helped out a little with some English teaching in a little language school near my house. Quite honestly, I had little business being there: I have no teaching degree, or even a TESL Certificate; I didn’t have the capacity to commit full-time, and could only go one evening per week; and I didn’t end up staying in that area, so I couldn’t follow up with my students long-term. They didn’t gain much from my time. Worse, it cost every one of those people, who were poor in time as well as money, an hour every Wednesday to come and listen to me try (badly) to teach. And I wasn’t even the worst offender.
One night I arrived and, without me knowing, the language school had arranged for a visiting team of volunteers to take classes that week. My own class had been taught all week by a lovely, friendly woman from North America, and scrawled across the board were “Hello,” and “How are you,” and “I come from America.” The week before, my class had been translating the lyrics to popular songs. This well-meaning volunteer hadn’t been around long enough to know that. But worse, she didn’t have the skills to accurately assess the students’ ability.
Please note that I’m not saying this woman was a bad person, and should not have come to Cambodia. But she should not have been standing in front of that class, any more than I should have been.
Amy is a photographer in Australia, and she came as a photographer to Cambodia. That means that the quality of what she provided is high enough that we can make use of her work. She had a learning curve that she had to manage, of course. But she brought enough skills with her to make our investment of time worthwhile.
Work based on local needs
The other thing that Amy did really well was work based on the needs of CIF. When she arrived, she asked us, “What do you guys need me to do for you?” And we told her, and she provided us with what we requested. Even more than that, Amy was respectful of CIF’s processes, and of the needs of our clients. Kids in alternative family care are vulnerable – some have escaped from dangerous home lives. Some have escaped from human traffickers. None of them want to be identified as “that foster kid” for their entire lives. So we have a careful policy around photography of our clients.
We never feature a photo of a client where that endangers their safety or wellbeing. In every case, we explain to them what the photo will be for. We make sure they understand all the reasons we want to use their photo, and get their consent. We make sure that photos of our clients are respectful, showing their value as human-beings, and not playing on their struggles to drag more money out of donors. And we provide the photos to them as well, so that they have copies of their own images. Amy respected the needs of the kids and the families, and the needs of the organisation, and we would willingly work with her again!
One of the things that took both Amy and us off guard, was that after an initial flurry of work, we didn’t really have as much for her to do as we had thought. Turns out there’s a limit to how many staff photos an organisation needs! But Amy had given up two months of her time, two months of her business in Australia, and two months of income. That on top of the money she had spent to get to Cambodia. We needed to respect that, and to ensure that she had enough to do to use her time well. Tapping into a few of organisational and inter-personal contacts, we were able to arrange for Amy to provide photographic support to other projects around Cambodia.
Amy had come to Cambodia because of her awareness of the issues with orphanages in the country. That was the passion that had driven her work. But one day she photographed a screen printing-business, which trains young survivors of drug abuse in business and life skills. She took photos for a preschool in a poor area, which educates the children of garment factory workers. In Siem Reap she visited an egg farm that is showing how to do business honestly in a country rife with corruption, and that looks after its live-stock ethically. She even took personal photos for a family that has been working in Cambodia for many years, and just hadn’t had nice family photos for quite some time. It wasn’t what she came for, but it was what was needed, and Amy just stepped up.
This one might seem obvious, but it isn’t always. Volunteering your time doesn’t give you a pass to be short tempered and unkind. It doesn’t make you a better person than everyone else. It does make you tired in ways you won’t expect, which can lead to grumpiness that has to be managed. People understand that, and you don’t have to be perfect. But try to be kind.
Amy was a delight to have with us during her two months in Cambodia, and we were sad when the time came for her to go home. She was friendly and open, willing to listen and willing to learn. For her first month she attended language classes a few mornings a week; even though she knew she would be going home fairly soon, she made an effort to understand and be understood.
Find your spot
So those are a few pointers for good short-term volunteering. Find a place that fits you – a place that is beneficial to the people you want to serve. Seek guidance from those who have been there for a while. That’ll put you in a great place to really make a difference.
And speaking of that, with Amy gone, we’re looking for someone to help us out with our online content again. We’re hoping to find someone with a talent for written communication, to give our blog the same bump Amy gave our photos. If you think that could be you, drop us a line… We’ve always got time for a good volunteer!