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How to Know if Your Service Abroad is Making a Difference

Today, service and mission trips seem to be a bit saturated. Every school, educational travel service, and religious organization offers some type of community service either domestic or abroad. But how do you know that your volunteer opportunity is truly making an impact in terms of aid to the community you’re supposedly serving?

Often times, service trips are self-serving. Either those participating in the volunteer work are not committed, the organization is wasting time and resources on an issue that might not be fixed with outside aid, or the motive for the trip from the organization or/and its participants is self-serving in nature. The fact of the matter is that volunteer tourism is a multimillion dollar industry. Every year, students, teachers, and tourists spend thousands of dollars so that they have the experience of helping those in need. In an eye-opening opinion piece, Instagramming Africa, Lauren Kascak breaks down the negative effects and motivations for volunteerism. The thousands of images posted every summer, of volunteers with women and children, seem to suggest that these countries cannot or will not take care of their own people. The justifications for volunteerism that these photos imply are the same justifications that motivated slavery, imperialism, and colonialism.

Does this mean global volunteering and community service should stop? In short, no. But it does mean that travelers and organizations alike should be more conscious in their selection of service opportunities, locations, and overall motivations. To ensure you’re volunteer opportunities are creating a lasting impact, ask yourself a few questions.

1. What type of relationship does the organization have with the community?

Bringing student volunteers to a school to help teach can be incredibly impactful, but only if they come back. Short-term service relationships often do more harm than good. If your trip is only a one-time occurrence, it might be worth looking into organizations that make a commitment to a growing a sustainable long-term relationship with the community they serve.

2. Are you providing a temporary fix to a permanent problem?

If you’re building a bridge in a rural community in a developing country that’s great. If you're painting the outside of a schoolhouse in a struggling community, good for you. But, are the larger problems that caused these smaller issues being solved or at the very least minimized because of the work you’re doing? If your trip/ organization is not working towards a solving a larger issue, maybe reconsider.

3. What is your motivation?

If you're hoping to build a better following on social media or show off to your friends, you probably should not be taking part in the service trip. Social media is a phenomenal tool that connects us to people across the globe, but it can also be used in an exploitive manner. Whenever you’re volunteering, think about the reason you are there and make sure it’s one you’re proud of.

4. Are you giving a handout or a hand up?

Are you and your organization doing work that could be done by the community you’re serving? Are you helping the community towards a position of self-sustainability? Is your work ensuring future success? In global volunteering, it is crucial that the volunteer work be a hand up, not a handout.

Recently, I had the opportunity to work on a community service trip in Costa Rica. I was amazed to learn that the trip had run for 14 years and has been volunteering in the same community the entire time. The school that runs the trip volunteers at 4 different schools and has made this event an annual occurrence. Even some of the volunteers return year after year. The second aspect of the trip is a home build. The recipients of the homes are picked by the school’s principals and they must own the land so that the homes can never be repossessed. I found this trip to serve as a powerful example of how good global volunteering can be for a community when it is done with good intentions and a conscious effort to offer a hand up, not a handout.

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