Short-term volunteer trips: coordination, collaboration, cooperation

By Lawrence Loh, MD MPH

In our previous entry, we talked a bit about how the short-term volunteer trips are generally felt to be low impact, especially by the global health community. After all, how can anyone accomplish anything in just one week abroad? How can one learn about the local community, overcome cultural and logistical barriers, quickly assess the situation and develop a remedy in just 14 short days? It is this mindset and thinking that has left current short-term efforts ignored by bigger organizations, and tackled by smaller organizations that barely have the resources to actually make things work.

From week to week, at a local level, teams from all over the world visit communities abroad. Uncoordinated efforts result in duplication and wastage. Some teams do things one way; others have other ideas, naturally. Reversals occur and status quo is maintained by well-meaning people. Young professionals are constrained by time and finances to going on these trips, but leave feeling good about what they did – and just remembering a wonderful vacation without being able to follow-up or keep up to date with where their project is going.

Now imagine a properly coordinated locale with a functioning web platform specifically designed to coordinate a string of consecutive weeks. Take every week at a local level, fill it with its own autonomous, hard-working, passionate team – and give the wider volunteer community a common database. A list of protocols, inventory, and a schedule that would let them plan exactly when they’re heading down and read up before they even get there. An online library with a general primer and information that gets updated in real-time.

For the teams, it all starts with the schedule, connecting them with the contact information for the team preceding their visit, who can share with them what is already on the ground there, and what projects are on the go. They get this information ahead of time: needed meds and supplies, progress of shared projects, and ideas for follow-up before they even land on the ground. While they’re there, they link with the other teams abroad to rely on their shared knowledge, and they put in the work towards a long-lasting, effective, sustainable project instead of handing out pills and mismatched charity goods. Then they return home, passing on the cycle by posting their own findings, ideas and thoughts on their trip. They remain connected when they come back and add to the instantly available expertise that teams on the ground rely on. And they work with the local leadership to figure out what projects and plans will work for the local community – and how to get everyone to agree on those common goals.

For the local community, it means improvement and development and a voice. They lead the discussions on the web platform. They engage. They tell what the community needs, and the teams work on meeting that. And the website drives recruitment and programming: engineering projects are able to source engineers for teams heading down by advertising widely and finding someone with a schedule match. Instead of just acute care medicine, teams work to develop health promotion programs or implement basic public health measures that prevent disease instead of providing care that does little to change the underlying factors that made the local citizen sick in the first place.

Ultimately, young professionals also benefit. No more floundering around with a free week and wondering how to make a difference. The web platform allows them to easily access potential opportunities. They can figure out which projects have teams that are heading down to a locale of interest during their one or two weeks of vacation. And because of the bigger goals targeted by these projects, they can get involved in something that is having impact, and still remain as remote participants after their two weeks are done. Any amount of time they can spare is cherished and put towards good, rather than demanding large financial and time sacrifices that they simply cannot afford at the start of their career. You got a free week? Here’s a project – and it’s more than just handing out pills. It’s working to build something bigger than each individual volunteer, each individual team.

That’s the idea of The 53rd week. Individually, a week abroad can only do so much. 52 weeks abroad uncoordinated are just that, 52 weeks. But put them altogether, and something extra, bigger, larger than the individual can collectively occur. Everyone wins – the teams that invest their efforts and money; the young professional looking for valuable, pertinent experience; and most importantly, the local community abroad which benefits from realistic, sustainable, long-term goals over acute, short-term efforts.

Short-term efforts can make a difference. They just have to be part of a bigger picture. And what is that bigger picture? Where does this lead us? What are we looking at?

Our next post will consider the wider phenomenon of who are these people that are going on short term trips, and why they do it.

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

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One thought on “Short-term volunteer trips: coordination, collaboration, cooperation

  1. Yes, short-term volunteer trips are very helpful to learn something different & helpful in your vacation..Nice post

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