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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

Putting the “Good” in Social Good: The Ultimate Checklist for Any Volunteer

Glancing at your news feed, it seems like more and more people are traveling to volunteer abroad or launching a crowdfunding campaign for a cause they care about. Companies like TOMS Shoes and Biolite have social good built into their business plans, and many startups are launching their own projects in the field.

It’s no longer just travelers wanting to do something positive in the places they visit, it’s as if development work and volunteering has become a rite of passage in one’s career. And this is great news—it means that a lot of people want to give back or offer their skills to improve the world.

But, as these social good projects seem to be growing exponentially, I’ve seen a lot of this work meant to do good turn into problems on the ground; everything from forgotten, half-built playgrounds (with rusty nails sticking out) to education programs shutting down in the middle of the year because the organization ran out of money. As Pippa Biddle describes in a recent Medium article of her volunteering experience in Tanzania:

Turns out that we...were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure... It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work.

In fact, some communities have begun to refuse help or have banned volunteer projects altogether because they’ve been left with so many messes to clean up.

In short, there are a lot of challenges to doing good work in the field that we need to consider before we get out there. Whether you are headed to the field to teach, start a new program, or volunteer, there are important questions to ask yourself about the scope and impact of your project.

I've written before about making sure your volunteer work is as effective as possible, but consider the following your definitive checklist to help you get your project up and running and monitor and evaluate your work on the ground.

Before You Leave

  • What, exactly, do you want to accomplish?
  • Does the community you are working with have a specific request or need?
  • If not, are your specific skills and services needed (and wanted) in the community or organization you’re working with?
  • Are you starting a new organization or working with an established one? How will this impact your project?
  • Are you creating competition and challenges for other organizations’ fundraising and initiatives? Can this be avoided?
  • Is this a short-term or long-term project? Are you being honest and clear about your timeline?
  • What will the full project entail in terms of time and resources? Can you follow through with your commitment to the community or project?
  • Is your project sustainable, or is it likely to shut down within two years because of project maintenance or funding challenges ahead?
  • How much money do you need to raise to fund the project? Do you have funds secured, do you need to raise more funds, or are you bringing in funds piecemeal? Can you meet the goal by a set deadline?
  • Have all the right people been informed of your project?
  • Do you or does your organization have the relationships and reputation you need to make contacts in the community?

On the Ground

  • Do you have basics such as housing and daily life set up in advance? Will the day-to-day needs or your presence cause a burden to anyone you will be working with?
  • Is there a way to have on-the-ground focus groups before you start (ideally led by someone who is local) to make sure that your plan will be effective and well-received?
  • Are you prepared to change your plan based on this feedback?
  • Are there aspects of your project that can benefit other communities or organizations? Have you sought local partnerships for daily needs (like homestays, a local caterer, or local consultants?)
  • Who will you be working with on the ground to help you navigate culture, expectations, and community needs?
  • How can your project foster exchanges between the outside team and the local community?
  • How will you communicate with the community representatives on how the project is going?
  • Will the community be working with you on the project or just watching you? Is there a way you can bring them into daily activities?
  • Can you build flexibility into your project based on what you learn through consultations and your time on the ground?
  • How will you communicate with stakeholders back home (such as funders or partners)?
  • Is the project being depicted clearly and honestly in your marketing and public relations materials?
  • How will you chart your results? What evidence, data, and testimonials will you need to gather to gauge the impact of your project?

Post Project and Back Home

  • Do you have a transition plan for when you leave (making sure the project isn’t just a “hit and run” initiative)?
  • Are you aware of any security issues or challenges that may occur upon your departure?
  • What are your goals for the project in a year, or five years? Do you have a strategic plan in place?
  • Do you have a follow-up plan? How will you keep in touch with the community and those who your project affected on the ground?
  • How will you share the results, metrics, and impact of the project?
  • Can you evaluate your own personal growth over the course of the project?
  • How will you get feedback from the community and stakeholders on what worked, what didn’t, and what you should do differently next time?

This checklist only scratches the surface of the process necessary to implement projects in the field, but it is a step toward understanding our impact and ensuring we can deliver on our promises of doing good on the ground. I challenge you not to talk about the “good work” you are doing, but to understand and share how the project is sustainable, fulfills a need, or fosters important growth, benefits, or exchanges. By using this checklist, you’ll be able to bring your skills to the field, avoid the common mistakes that cause charity projects to fail, and make an impact on the ground in a thoughtful and effective way.

Photo of hands courtesy of Shutterstock.

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