Two years ago, I researched nonprofits and NGO work for my senior capstone project. I interviewed people who had founded their own nonprofits as well as people who worked for some. I was interested in working for a nonprofit myself and thought it’d be a good way to see if it was right for me.
What I learned was this:
1. Locals know best
I interviewed Stephane Akoki, who is from the Ivory Coast and whose nonprofit seeks to aid people from the Ivory Coast to get out of poverty. Given that he was from the Ivory Coast and knew the culture and the people, he was more than qualified to help them. He understood what was going on and had already tested his methods with a few people before starting the nonprofit, which is a very effective way to get started.
It’s the same for nonprofits in the US – you’re more likely to get things done if you start a nonprofit that stems from your own life experiences that helps people in your own town or life circumstance. It doesn’t mean that wanting to go abroad isn’t useful, it’s just less effective, unfortunately.
2. Often donations are one of the best ways to help
I don’t love this answer and it will ultimately never be satisfying for me. I’ve read enough articles disparaging the negative effects of voluntourism, and while valid, they also present a bit of a false dichotomy in that voluntourism is the worst thing ever and that you should only volunteer locally or use cash donations.
Of course you should volunteer locally and donate cash – I’ve done it myself on a few different occasions and I always find myself itching to go back. But to completely write off voluntourism is also unhelpful to both people from the Western hemisphere as well as the communities we could potentially interact with.
That being said, another thing I learned is…
3. Education is the best route
There are many opportunities to help both locally as well as internationally. I’ve used Charity Watch to research what charities I donate to and where my money is spent. As a result, I’ve donated to some excellent nonprofits that I trust to use my money well.
As far as voluntourism goes, well, that one’s different. I’ve never built an orphanage or schoolhouse, and I’ve read enough articles to recognize the disturbing nature of for-profit orphanages alongside TOMS not helping local economies. But I have yet to find a volunteer opportunity abroad that will utilize my time as effectively as the people I serve.
It seems in this case, that education is the best route to go. Voluntourism comes in many different forms, from TEFL to aiding refugees, but you rarely go wrong with education, especially with empowerment and self-reliance. Teaching someone to stand on their own two feet financially and emotionally can be huge – it’s the giving a man a fish vs. teaching a man to fish principle.
I don’t go into volunteer work expecting to save the world, but I do hope to make a difference both locally and internationally.