Back in 1997, the United Nations declared September 5th the International Day of Charity.#CharityDay is meant to educate and mobilize stakeholders around the world to help others through volunteer and philanthropic activities.

In the intervening decades since #CharityDay was first observed, our world has changed considerably, and it is now time for our collective concept of “charity” to evolve as well. According to the Oxford Dictionary, charity is “the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need.” But this narrow definition implies a problematic power dynamic wherein the people in a position of relative wealth and power are making the decisions about how much (and what kind of) help others deserve.

At the heart of the act of charity lies a desire to help others, and that is something we should continue to encourage. But we must be thoughtful in the way we act on that desire to ensure that our efforts don’t end up causing more harm than good. We must find a way to go beyond the charity mindset of “helping people” to supporting a truly transformational movement that achieves real change in our communities.

To honor the original intent of #CharityDay, use the tips below when searching for your next volunteer opportunity to ensure that you’re engaging in the most respectful, ethical, and sustainable way. 

volunteering to help local communities

Focus on skills-based volunteering and avoid Voluntourism

Voluntourism involves short-term ‘projects’ designed to benefit the volunteer, rather than the community being served. Think: playing with kids at an orphanage or teaching English in vulnerable communities. The practice of voluntourism can erode dignity, create dependencies, and reinforce paternalism – ultimately creating more harm than good.

Unlike voluntourism, skills-based volunteering seeks to transfer skills and know-how to local groups already developing their own solutions to real problems. Rather than centering the needs of the volunteer, this approach keeps the needs of the community being served at the heart of the work. 

Factors to consider when choosing a project

A quick Google search for “skills-based volunteering” will yield over 73 million results. That’s a lot of options to sort through! To help you narrow things down, here are 8 factors to consider when choosing a volunteer engagement, at home or abroad:

  1. Skills – Make sure there is a strong alignment of an organization’s needs with your skills. Remember to focus on your real skills – a good place to start is with the skills you already use in your day-to-day job. Remember: if you aren’t qualified to do something in your home country, you aren’t qualified to do it abroad just because the regulations may be different!  
  2. Timing – Find a start date, end date, and duration that is agreeable to all parties. Make sure you do an honest inventory of your commitments and availability so that you don’t overextend yourself. Don’t try and do too much in a short time, or you’ll risk leaving both you and your host dissatisfied. 
  3. Motivations – Be clear about what you are hoping to get out of the experience, and what the hosting organization is hoping to achieve. The more time you spend discussing this with your host upfront, the more you’ll get out of your time on the ground. 
  4. Sustainable Impact – Focus your work on projects that have long-term potential, and where you can build the skills of people to sustain the projects after you leave. For example, if you’re helping a grassroots organization develop a digital marketing strategy, ensure that you train someone on the local team in social media best practices so they can implement the plan after you’re gone.
  5. Communication – Ensure that you can clearly communicate with each other. If possible, get to know your local point of contact via Skype or email before you arrive on the ground. Doing the pre-work with your host to align around expectations, deliverables, and logistics will pave the way for a successful project. 
  6. Commitment – Both you and the host should invest time and resources in the engagement and agree to certain outcomes. Your host organization shouldn’t be charging you to volunteer, and ideally, they are able to provide some type of benefits in exchange for your skills (like housing while you’re on-site or meals while at the office.)
  7. Ethics – Make sure the project is locally-led, doesn’t erode jobs and is in the best interest of the community. This video from LearningService includes a helpful checklist you can use to ensure it’s a responsible volunteer placement.
  8. Partnership – Work hard to build a partnership that benefits both parties. Before you commit to a project, make sure to begin a dialogue with your host organization to more fully scope and plan your project. A successful engagement is a two-way street! 
how to ensure your volunteering is time well spent

For additional guidance and more details about the factors above, check out the MovingWorlds Complete Guide to Volunteering.   

Done right, volunteering can have a transformative impact on both the volunteer and the community she’s serving. Taking the time to read this article is a testament to your willingness to help, and with the guidance you’ll be empowered to do so ethically and sustainably this #CharityDay! For more tips and resources about volunteering sustainably, check out the MovingWorlds #MakeVolunteeringMatter series.

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Alexandra Nemeth

Alexandra manages content marketing at MovingWorlds. She holds a B.S. in Business and a B.A. in International Relations from USC, and is passionate about using her skills to create positive social impact and helping others do the same.