Can short-term volunteering really have an impact?
Does the length of a volunteer program affect its outcomes? Short-term volunteering overseas is viewed negatively by some, but with the right planning, a brief stint can be as effective as a longer stay.
Some good things take time – others can happen quickly. Volunteering for a longer period might allow you more time to see tangible progress toward sustainable development goals, become increasingly fluent in the local language, and feel more settled. However, if you only have a week or two at your disposal, you can still make your mark during short-term volunteer opportunities.
If you’re motivated to make a difference and committed to choosing a sustainable volunteer program, you can direct your efforts into short-term projects that will really make an impact.
Even in a short time, volunteers can be inspired to become more active and engaged global citizens, gain a better understanding of international development, and broaden their understanding of different cultures.
Why you should volunteer
There are many reasons to volunteer, whether it is for one week or six months.
Choosing to participate in a volunteer program can help you develop both personally and professionally, challenge stereotypes around foreign cultures, and contribute toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs).
Volunteering is important for developing nations as volunteers can provide valuable funding, and additional capacity, for existing projects. Volunteers can also bring expertise with them that may not be available locally, such as English language skills. Plus, volunteers act as ambassadors in their home countries by sharing valuable lessons and impressions with friends and family.
All of these factors can be achieved on short-term volunteer stays, as long as a project is set up responsibly and local partnerships are in place. The challenge with short-term volunteer projects is not necessarily the length of time, but the structure and objectives of a project.
The pros and cons of short-term volunteering
Short-term volunteering can make an impact, but it has its limitations too. Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of shorter stays.
- Accessibility: People who may not have the time or financial freedom to volunteer long-term can still access the benefits of volunteering abroad. Even a brief volunteer project will allow a traveler to get a closer look and deeper insights into a country, compared to visiting as a tourist.
- Short visits can still promote broader perspectives: Volunteering doesn’t necessarily set out to solve development challenges, but when done right it does empower people to tackle global issues. As long as volunteers have a deeper understanding of what a project is setting out to achieve, they can take away lessons on international relations and development challenges.
- Limited immersion: One of the most valuable reasons for volunteering is in cultural immersion. A short-term stay makes this more difficult. By the time you adjust to your surroundings and feel more confident exploring, your time might already be up.
- Less consistency: People constantly coming and going can make it difficult to effect long-term change or build toward long-term goals. For this reason, volunteer organizations need to have plans to accommodate short-term stays and have structured goals that volunteers can contribute to.
- The potential to be more disruptive for local communities: For volunteering to be effective, there needs to be equal benefit to the individuals and the host communities. With short-term stays, the benefits to individual volunteers can outweigh what they contribute.
For example, a volunteer working with children might have a poignant experience and learn more about education in a developing country. However, the children might not have enough time to establish rapport with the volunteer and might find it difficult to have educators changing frequently.
Any program that allows volunteers to engage with children during a short-term visit should raise a red flag for you. For this reason, GVI’s short-term volunteers do not teach directly. Instead, volunteers will assist an existing teacher.
How to make the most impact as a short-term volunteer
Whether or not you make an impact during your short-term volunteer project depends on your approach. To optimize your impact, keep these things in mind:
Sustainable volunteering: The debate around whether short-term volunteering can have an impact largely arises from the difference in quality of volunteer programs. The most important factor to consider is how sustainable your chosen volunteer program is.
Ethical volunteering organizations are committed to working toward sustainable development and will have clear goals. You can always ask what the short-, mid- and long-term objectives of a volunteer program are, as a way of vetting a program and also to understand your own involvement.
It’s up to you to investigate ethical volunteering programs before you commit. Check to see if the program works with local partners and is well run. Sustainable volunteer programs will account for shorter stays and make sure that short-term volunteers can work in with longer-term goals.
Volunteer reviews and first-hand experiences are a great way to get a feel for whether an organization checks these boxes.
Choosing your project strategically: For the greatest volunteer impact, you should look for volunteer programs that fit with your specific skills or study program. This will allow you to bring maximum skills to the project, in addition to the skills you pick up during training.
You might also find project-oriented volunteer programs more rewarding if you can only commit for a week or two. Helping to refurbish schools, daycare centers, or other community buildings can give you more of an opportunity to see the tangible results of your work. On the other hand, in sectors such as education you would need to devote much more time before you start to see how your efforts are making a difference.
Preparation: In order to have more of an impact during a short stay, do your preparation ahead of time. Research the local culture, customs, and language so you have a good idea of what to expect and can hit the ground running. The faster you adapt, the more you will be able to immerse yourself in your project and dedicate yourself to doing as much as you can in the time you have.
Be proactive: You’ll want to dive right in and grab every opportunity to get involved. It can be intimidating at first, but instead of staying safely on the sidelines at your project, make it clear to whoever is in charge that you are keen to get stuck in. Every day will count, both on and off site.
Outside of your volunteer hours you can spend some time practicing the local language with staff, strike up conversations with locals to learn more about life in your host country, and get out and about as much as you can.
GVI’s short-term volunteer projects
GVI offers a range of volunteer programs, including short-term options. To ensure that our short-stay volunteers benefit the communities where they work, we are committed to locally-focused, collaborative projects with clear objectives and impact reporting to track what our volunteers are achieving in the short-, mid- and long-term.
We can help match you to projects that suit your passions, skills, and availability all at the same time. Browse our award-winning volunteer programs today.
- Cape Town
- Chiang Mai
- Community Development
- Fiji Islands
- Gap Year
- GVI Live
- In The Field
- Luang Prabang
- Mahe and Curieuse
- Marine Conservation
- Personal Development
- Phang Nga
- Responsible Travel
- Service Learning
- Siem Reap
- Study Abroad
- Under 18
- Wildlife Conservation
- Women's Empowerment