Short-term volunteer trips: maximizing value

By Lawrence Loh, MD MPH

Short-term volunteer trips have grown immensely in popularity among young professionals in the industralized world. Driven by an the interconnected nature of today’s world in both communications and transport technology, young professionals are more aware than ever of the disparities and issues facing indigent populations in the developing world. However, paradoxically, such young professionals are often saddled with debt, time constraints, and an inability to find opportunities easily at the start of their careers, limiting their ability to contribute despite their passion and interest.

Constrained by these demands, young professionals are unable to commit to volunteerism abroad for long periods of time, and instead look for short term opportunities abroad where they can use vacation time or academic leave to make a difference. This in turn has its own perils – how much of an impact are these experiences really having? Many global health and global volunteerism folks have dismissed short-term trips out of hand – what can one really accomplish in one to two weeks abroad? What more harms could be done by having communities grow dependent? And worse, what if all those well-meaning volunteers who visit prioritize things differently, do things differently, reverse or contradict each other’s efforts?

These are the difficult questions that the global volunteerism community has not yet answered. As short-term volunteer teams visit and provide everything from health care, educational opportunities, development assistance, and construction work, legions of well-meaning young professionals put deeply personal investments of time and money into these efforts. In that sense, uncoordinated short-term outreach trips are the placebo of global volunteerism: communities abroad feel good, participants feel good, but very little actually changes.

The 53rd Week’s goal is to change this and deliver value to all involved.

Unlike those in the global health and global volunteerism community that dismiss such short-term work out of hand, we are cognizant of the fact that more and more young professionals are seeking to make a difference abroad, and that short-term trips are the only means available to them. We know that millions of dollars and volunteer hours go into these short-term trips every year and that the outcomes are minimal, and with the pressures faced by young professionals, this phenomenon is only going to grow.

It’s time to stop ignoring the potential of short-term volunteer trips, and to find a better way to maximize them – for the participants, the organizations they serve, and most importantly, for the local communities abroad.

In our next blog, we’ll talk about just how we plan to do that.

Dr. Lawrence Loh is Chief Medical Officer of The 53rd Week, and a physician in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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