Sustainable Volunteering



The terms 'sustainable' and 'volunteering' mean many things to many people, they are terms thrown around by travellers in modern culture with an air of superiority and confidence. 

But what does high impact sustainable volunteering look like? What should it epitomise? And why does it matter anyway? 

High Impact

What is essential is that we ensure that any experience we partake in truly makes a difference both to the community being supported and to the volunteer.

The best way to really understand what Sustainable Volunteering should be is to look at the UN's take on matters. Their belief should be the benchmark for success for anyone interested in the sector.

"Many of the Sustainable Development Goals call for long-term attitude and behaviour changes. Volunteers facilitate changes in mind-sets by raising awareness or championing those changes and inspiring others. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development explicitly recognises volunteer groups as stakeholders to achieve the 17 SDGs. This has strongly emerged from an extensive consultation process led by the United Nations, which has involved over eight million people, and was summarised as follows by the UN Secretary-General in his Synthesis Report on the post-2015 Agenda, The Road to Dignity by 2030".

What is clear from this is that sustainable Volunteering should be rooted in aiming to achieve the SDGs. If that is the case then it is far more likely to achieve the sustainable impact that will make a real and lasting difference to the communities who need it the most. It recognises the value of volunteers and we ignore the expertise of organisations such as the UN at our own peril. Anyone considering volunteering, or working in the field of sustainable development should hold the ethos of the UN close to their hearts at all times.

They make the most valuable and perceptive point in this following section, there is no better way to summarise the importance of high impact, skilled volunteerism.

"As we seek to build capacities and to help the new agenda to take root, volunteerism can be another powerful and cross-cutting means of implementation. Volunteerism can help to expand and mobilize constituencies, and to engage people in national planning and implementation for the Sustainable Development Goals. And volunteer groups can help to localize the new agenda by providing new spaces of interaction between governments and people for concrete and scalable actions.By its very nature, volunteerism is an important vehicle for sustainable development. Volunteerism lets people and communities participate in their own growth".

What is equally important however is to focus not just on the impact on the communities being supported but to the volunteers themselves. The history of volunteering is littered with examples of short term, transient 'events' and whist there is still, without question, merit in those unskilled experiences there is so much more that is possible.

"Through volunteering, citizens build their resilience, enhance their knowledge base and gain a sense of responsibility for their own community. Social cohesion and trust is strengthened through individual and collective volunteer action, leading to sustainable outcomes for people, by people. Volunteerism strengthens civic engagement, safeguards social inclusion, deepens solidarity and solidifies ownership of development results".


What is required is longevity, connections and networks that multiply and develop over time are key to this. One way that a real difference can be made is if businesses begin to really understand their part in sustainable volunteering through their CPD programs. If corporate business in the developed world get on board they can become part of a multiplier effect that inspires and creates transformative change. Relationships can be established that continue for years. Again the UN make this clear in their summation of the importance of volunteering…

"Importantly, volunteering has a ripple effect. It inspires others and advances the transformations required for the SDGs to take root in communities. Volunteers can provide technical support and enhance capacity in all thematic goal areas. They deliver basic services, help transfer skills and foster exchanges of good practices, and add valuable international and local expertise. Corporate volunteers can play a particular role in this regard, by making their expertise available to public institutions as well as to fragile communities".

Of course it is not all about corporate business. Individuals who seek volunteering experiences also have a huge part to play. What is vital though is that we need to use the skilled professionals, who are leaders, and whom through technology, innovation and experience can share those skills as they volunteer. However, the challenges for individual volunteers must not be underestimated. The internet is a minefield of 'sales' and often costly experiences both on budgets and time. There is a need for more high quality, innovative businesses, led by experts in the field to support 'sustainable volunteering globally.

The writer and experienced volunteer Shannon O'Donnell sums up the issues and gives great advice in her article for the website 'Nomadic Matt'. You can find further information on suggestions for high quality ethical volunteering in her blog 'A little Adrift'. 

'One of the hardest things for new, eager volunteers to understand is that not all organisations (even non-profits) are doing good, necessary work that ethically develops the communities and ecosystems where we volunteer our time. For that reason, take a step back from the planning and instead learn more about core problems facing development projects when they bring in Western volunteers and ideas. Too many volunteer projects can actually foster dependency on international aid and compromise the dignity of the people they are trying to help. Before you volunteer, your job is to understand the macro-industry around volunteering. Vetting the volunteer projects you researched is the next step and allows you to narrow your list. Diligently follow through with this stage of the process because there are heart breaking consequences to supporting projects that are not sensitive to the needs of the people and places they serve'.

What is clear from this simple analysis is that high quality, sustainable volunteering must be locally rooted, but globally skilled. Professional volunteers who are carefully matched to work with organisations run by local community leaders will always create the highest impact results with longevity.The opportunities are endless but there is a real need for the leaders in international development to drive forward this sustainable approach for the good of the worlds most impoverished and vulnerable communities. The technology and innovation is there, the knowledge exists, and the passion is abundant, what is needed now is impetus to drive forward a large scale shift in mind set for the benefit of humanity.

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Wednesday, 27 October 2021

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