We are already in September, month of going back to school, and going back to getting into the routine of early mornings and traffic jams, and counting the days left for the next holidays; without having much time for ourselves. So, before putting my hands back in the cookie jar, I would like to reflect on an issue that, as a social worker immersed in the world of cooperation, worries me, a lot.
I am one of those who think that, quoting the lecturer and writer Jorge Font, “maybe we cannot prolong life, but we can always broaden it”. Precisely, trying to broaden this only life we have, and that in my opinion has no meaning if it is not shared and offered to others, I devoted many summers of my student life to national and international volunteering. Later, when I found myself too absorbed by the routine previously described, I left everything behind to voluntarily go to Africa for an indefinite period of time, and thus broaden, at least, my outlook.
After almost four years of working with KUBUKA in Kenya, in what has been a long-distance race while sharing the track with many other NGOs, I feel the need to defend the work that we carry out professionally, which is often overshadowed by scandals published in the media, as the case of the alleged Yes We Help scam that has been talked about so much this summer. From my experience I would like to, on the one hand, give hope to people who, for different reasons, are disappointed with the NGOs. On the other hand, I would like to address those who this summer have volunteered and have been left with a state of emotional hangover, and those who have not yet had the opportunity to do so but see pictures of friends and family with envious eyes, to give them my humble advice.
Before collaborating with an NGO in any of its modalities, either financially or by volunteering for the activities carried out in our own countries or in the field, it is essential to gather as much information as possible about the entity, since this knowledge will prevent us from future frustrations.
The first clue to know what kind of activities the entity is carrying out, and what is its ultimate purpose, is in its legal form. An NGO should in no case be constituted as a Limited Liability Company or a Public Limited Company. This information may not be easy to find, but it is public and therefore should be accessible for those who wish to know it. The legal figures for registering a Non-Profit Organization in Spain are Association and Foundation, the first one being more common. The number of entities registered in the National Registry of Associations in 2017 was already well over 50,000, so in this sea of possibilities we need other criteria to be able to identify those in which we can place our trust.
An organizations’ website is its showcase to the public, so it should give us a wide range of information we want to know. The fact that an NGO does not visibly show its mission and vision and information about the projects in the homepage, and reserves this privileged position to make advertisement claims, tells us a lot about what its priorities are. In addition, a call to volunteer should not share a slogan with a travel agency: “Come as a volunteer to Kenya, it will change your life!”. In many cases, the offer of volunteers who want to participate in a project, especially in an international scope, far exceeds the demand or the real need for this workforce in field. Knowing this, if our intention is to generate a real and positive impact wherever we go, we can rule out those entities that organize solidarity trips for large groups lasting between 15 days and a month.
Personally, regarding volunteering, I find it striking that some organizations accept minors and establish an age limit. Al least initially, the more training and professional experience the volunteer has, the more he/she can contribute in the activities carried out, provided that he/she has enough maturity to be able to adapt to the context. The cost of the experience and the detailed breakdown of it is also a relevant fact. As a guide, it seems reasonable that the volunteer pays a maximum of 100€ a week in the concept of maintenance for a short stay. For long-term professional volunteers, this expense should be borne by the entity. Keep in mind that in most cases, the volunteer must also pay for the travel expenses, visas, medical insurance, vaccinations and pocket money for free time. The purchasing power should not be in any case a guideline by which to accept or reject a volunteer.
It is important to gather information about the history and the path of the entity. A career is not, in all cases, synonymous to quality, but the fact that the NGO has spent some time managing volunteers gives us certain guarantees. From a professional point of view, knowing the work volume involved in giving the volunteers a good training, guidance prior and during the stay, monitoring their logistical procedures, etc. added to the preparation of the program in the host country with the local people so that the experience is really productive and constructive, I can affirm that learning is progressive and that it is unfeasible for an entity that has just been created, to professionally manage a large volume of people.
Any NGOs’ website should have, in a very visible way, a transparency section in which technical and economic information of the whole entity and its projects, as well as evidence of its legality (statutes, audit reports, etc.) is collected. It is important to know the entity’s sources of finance to choose those with a greater diversity and strength. Finally, a key and very easy identifiable aspect is the communication tone the organization uses.
There are some NGOs that, although they take care of the technical part in terms of quality of the images, design, etc., they neglect the content and promote the topic of “white savior” or overexpose the local people of the countries they work in. An NGOs’ communication, in my opinion, should always have a more positive tone than a dramatic one and respect everyone’s dignity and intimacy.
Fortunately, not all entities are the same and it is not fair to generalize about the trust they deserve. Some, in addition to complying with the legal requirements of Non-Profit Organizations, make an immense effort to self-regulate and meet the requirements to be registered in the AECID (Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation) or other groups in the sector, another fact that will give more security when choosing the entity.
Finally, when it comes to choosing the organization to volunteer with, it is very important to be self-demanding and value positively that they ask us to meet certain training requirements, previous collaboration with the entity during the year, etc. Although everyone is worthy to volunteer, we are not always prepared for it and not in all cases volunteering is the best we can do to support a project in which we believe in. Let’s be critical when evaluating the NGO we want to collaborate with and report irregularities, but let’s collaborate as long as we can because there are thousands of ways to do so and we have to widen life because it its too short.