Effective donations - how to give money to volunteer projects

Many visitors to poverty-stricken countries - whether tourists on a holiday, volunteers supporting local non-profit organisations, or students partaking in an internship abroad - feel they want to do more than just being there and offering their temporary physical support.

Many visitors feel they want to use their privileged financial position as a foreigner to help the projects further, and arrange for volunteer donations. Some parents who visit their children while volunteering in a country like, for example, South Africa, prepare themselves by filling their suitcases with stationery, sports clothing or collecting financial donations they want to make. It is always heartwarming to see such initiatives - and I believe the effort always comes from a good place. 

While there is always a need for warm clothing, sports outfits and extra stationery, we often get requests from volunteers and family alike to allocate a monetary donation to a volunteer project in need. Some volunteers are very active and raise substantial amounts of money for specific projects. Some reach out with their personal experiences to family and friends to raise funds for a specific goal. Through some of these great initiatives, we at Khaya have been able to assist by: fixing the roof of a school, sending numerous children to school in new uniforms, painting creches and buying school benches - plus many more great occasions to provide support.

We encourage our volunteers and visitors to continue to donate, as they are in a fortunate position to be able to raise funds through their social media networks, family, work and education quite effectively. Plus, they can see personally how these donations are spent, and how they make an impact. In order to do this the best way possible, I strongly believe that there is a responsibility to look critically at how these donations can truly make a difference - sometimes, these well-meant initiatives can put enormous pressure on those that receive the donations, as they are not really given any choices in the matter. 

 Some of these donations can create more challenges than actual advantages. It's important for volunteers in Africa and other developing countries to educate themselves on how to avoid this. Here are some insights from my perspective - by way of example of a situation we frequently encounter at our volunteer projects in South Africa. Let's call our volunteer Amy. Amy is from the US and in her early 20s. She volunteered for 4 weeks at Izizwe Projects, where she came across a need she felt passionate about. Seeing the children playing outside of the rickety shack used for the daycare of 40+ children and the lack of any toys or equipment for them to play with, Amy started raising funds to build a new jungle gym for the children. In her last week of volunteering Amy discussed this with the creche and Khaya's volunteer coordinator to see how this would be possible. She raised a donation of 600 USD from her family and friends to support this project financially.

Although her intentions were great, and she was passionate about volunteering with children, and she wanted to bring joy to the children at that specific project, there are a couple of challenges that arise in such situations if you look at this from the perspective of the project or those coordinating the volunteers:

  • discussing this with the creche without a proper plan creates an expectation. Don't promise something if you are not really sure if you will be able to meet your promise. If you promise something, make sure you will be able to fund it fully and don't expect the organisation to pay part of it.
  • the creche struggles to feed its children and provide a daily nutritious meal. However great a jungle gym would be, it doesn't feed any children. Nobody at the creche however shares this information with Amy as they don't want to be ungrateful for her promised donation of a jungle gym. Ask those youwant to help what their views on their needs are, and take this into account before deciding how you want to help. It might surprise you that their needs are totally different from what you might think.
  • the amount Amy fundraised is surely sufficient for building the jungle gym but does not take into account that someone will have to do all the work to get it done - contacting construction companies, getting quotes, etc - all of which costs valuable time and resources that might not be available. If you donate anything that needs to be built or created, look at the bigger picture and make sure those you donate are capable of supporting your initiative properly. Your other alternative is to make all the arrangements yourself. 
  • -as Amy is leaving after 4 weeks of volunteering, she wants to see the end result and therefore wants things to get done quickly. This puts pressure on those involved to get it finished as soon as possible, so she can show the pictures to family and friends who made the donations. Take enough time for any project and allow sufficient time for preparation, fundraising and execution - and don't expect it to be finished by the last days of your stay. 

 However well-meant and given with a good heart when volunteering abroad, when the bigger picture of donations versus actual needs and how much time and effort it takes to finish any such project succesfully is not taken into account, it can become a situation creating pressure and stress for those in South Africa to finish this project on Amy's behalf.

So, what I'm getting at is the need to think about the bigger picture, and what the real costs of your support initiative (including the necessary efforts to get it started and bring it to a succesful end) are, if you are volunteering or joining an internship abroad. Does it require a financial outlay by the project, just accommodate your donation? Another example is a big shipment of sports clothing that was sent to Khaya's non-profit organisation, Izizwe Projects. They were awesome outfits intended to equip a full soccer team - but unfortunately a donation that we could only receive after paying a rather large amount of money to clear the shipment through customs. We didn't have the money in the first place as we have bigger priorities. So that leaves us with only 2 uncomfortable options: return the parcel and seem ungrateful, or accept it and spend money on something that wasn't urgent in the first place. 

To make a long story short - if you donate any money or goods towards a specific project or goal, we encourage you to look at the bigger picture, and to discuss this beforehand with those involved. Is your donation enough to allow for the time and costs involved to reach the goal? Who will pay for the petrol needed to show contractors around and make sure it is all done according to the quote? Is it reasonable to give this money for a good purpose when it puts more pressure and strain on an organisation that doesn't have the resources to sustain itself to begin with? Can you expect this to be done under pressure, if you are leaving that same week and want to see results immediately? These are all questions you will surely want to think about, if you understand the bigger picture and truly want to help. These are questions often overlooked in the eagerness to help - but it's vital that they're taken into account before you set out on your quest to raise funds for a specific purpose. 

I am all for supporting these initiatives and helping where we can to make things happen - but I've also learned over the last 12 years working with non-profits in Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa that some financial donations surpass the real purpose and become more about the expectations of those that give them than about the needs of those receiving them. Rather than viewing my point as a criticism of generous donors, I hope you can see it as a call to improve things in the future and create awareness of how donations and financial support can be done more effectively.

So if you want to support a project and start looking at how much money is needed, think about overhead costs, staff needed, materials needed, petrol needed and who will be putting in hours and effort to bring about a succesful result. Give your goal a reasonable timeframe, make sure this matches the local situation, and don't expect a project to be rushed to completion before you leave. 

To sum it up: if you donate paint, also think about the painters and the paintbrushes! 

See you in Africa.


Founder of Khaya Volunteer Projects


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