Volunteering Tailored to a Community

My six month placement may be almost over, but I believe that my family/colleagues at Cameroun Écologie (Cam-Eco) will easily be able to take the training and resources that I have provided them and run with them because all my colleagues are so eager to learn and advance the mission of their organisation. It’s come to the point in my placement now where I feel I need to make it clear exactly what work I’ve done for Cam-Eco while I’ve been here, how it has helped the community…and why your dollar would go far if you decided to donate to the charitable cause. Hear me out. Cuso asks each of their volunteers to raise $2,000 because they are a governmentally funded organization, and the deal is that they will be prioritized in the budget as long as volunteers are committed to raising that small percentage of the total cost of the placement. I have only come to support the work that Cuso does more and more throughout my placement; they have helped me with everything from booking my flight to helping me integrate into the culture. I always have someone around to answer a question if I have one. Even if you don’t plan on donating, I urge you to read to the end of this article to learn a little more about the landscape of volunteering and where your dollar goes generally when you make a charitable donation.

In my opinion, donating to a Cuso volunteer is one of the most effective ways to spend your charitable dollars because you know exactly where they are going and what they are going to support. You can also be confident that they are actually helping the community because Cuso’s structure is set up to be a tailored approach to volunteering. I hope that those of you who have been emotionally supportive to me can also contribute in this way, it would mean a lot to me. Even if you just visit the link and donate $5 – $10 each, it makes a huge difference. Okay, promotion over. The rest of this post just talks about how I feel I have helped the community, done the job I was sent here to do, and how the structure of Cuso is setting an honorable example for other charitable organizations.

Here, have a preview:

The problem with some charities is that they continue to use the methods of “armchair anthropology” by sending volunteers abroad without recognizing that, in order to help a community, it’s necessary to first understand it.

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Myself and my counterpart in Communications and older sister here in Cameroon, Blondine

I feel that the money donated to a Cuso volunteer goes further than it would with many other charities because you can see exactly what the money is going into by reading a volunteer’s blog, or even just by trusting that the volunteer would want to accomplish something significant for the community while they have set the time aside to do so. The minimum placement for a Cuso volunteer is 6 months and each placement is individualized. This period of time is set because Cuso believes that nothing helps a community more than a tailorized approach, which only comes with time, patience, and focus. For this to happen, it’s necessary that each volunteer has time to learn about the community in which they are working, learn what the community’s needs are, how they can help, and then implement it for them.

I’d like to mention two problems with other charities that Cuso’s methods resolve; the first is that many charities (not mentioning any names) will send volunteers in groups to help implement a predetermined project. The volunteers in these cases assume they are making a difference and that the research has been done by the charity in advance to ensure this. The fact is that one cannot understand a community until they have individually experienced it, and often these charities are basing their assumptions of what the needs of a community are on media and books rather than on real-life experiences. We learned in social anthropology that “armchair anthropologists” were those that read about a culture, theorized about it, and then came up with theories that applied social anthropologists (such as Bronislaw Malinowski) would later go on to refute. In the field of social anthropology, it has become widely acknowledged that armchair anthropology simply doesn’t work. The problem is that certain charities continue to use its methods by sending volunteers abroad without recognizing that in order to help a community, it’s necessary to first understand it. If you don’t understand a community before trying to implement a system, then the time, money and effort could all be wasted. For example, we read about an instance in class where a group of volunteers went into a community to implement a new “high tech” cooking tool, but the cooking tool didn’t meet the community’s standards. If the group that implemented this project had spent some time with the community before trying to introduce this tool, then they might have realized that its function wasn’t as universal as originally thought. This extra time spent in the beginning would have prevented the efforts of the volunteers and charity from going to waste, and they might have been able to produce a project that wouldn’t have just sat in the corner to gather dust.

The second problem with some charities is that they will often recruit volunteers who have not been interviewed or trained to do the job that they were sent for. I’ve noticed that it is often assumed that anyone can become a volunteer if they are willing to help out. In this case you might get a Rory Gilmore with a pink hammer situation. I am referencing Gilmore Girls here, but the point stands. Rory went to volunteer with a construction company with zero construction experience and a hammer that her mom had decorated with pink feathers, just because it would look good on her Harvard application. Moving back to reality, if someone is going to be sent somewhere and people are paying for that person to go, then that person should know how to do their job as well as know that the organization sending them has done enough research for them to know that they will actually be making a positive impact on the community. Cuso differentiates itself by ensuring that their volunteers are qualified for the position that they are sent to do. For example, I applied for the position of a Communications Counsellor because I have a degree in New Media with previous experience working within my university community and with professional clients. At the partner organization, I arrived with no predetermined task except the framework that my goal was to implement a project that would help improve the efficiency and outcomes of the communication team. It was through discussions with my counterpart in communications and another volunteer who had already been at the NGO for six months, that I was able to devise a project that was unanimously agreed upon by myself, my colleagues and Cuso. After I understood the needs of the organization, it was clear to me that Cam-Eco needed a website that they would be easily able to update once I was gone. I also listened to my colleagues and provided workshops based on their requests. In fact, just yesterday I held a workshop on the general use of social media, and how to use it specifically to optimize the reach of their work. I don’t think I could have accomplished these things if I was not given enough time to get to know the inner workings of the organization, and talked to my colleagues about what they wanted to get out of my placement here.

If I have provided anything from this short post, I hope I have given you a glimpse into the world of international volunteering, and how I feel my work really makes a difference to Cam-Eco and my community here in Edéa. I also hope you have a more clear idea of where your money would be going if you did decide to donate to my work here. All you need to do is read my blogs to know that it would go to the good cause of advancing an environmental non-profit’s projects in the direction of their own choosing. I feel like I will truly be leaving something behind that will help Cam-Eco once I leave, and I really appreciate your support.

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