10 ways to choose an effective volunteer coordinator

Volunteering abroad is quite a big decision to make – and has a number of issues to consider. You have to choose your volunteer organizer or placement provider just as carefully as you choose your destination, and the type of volunteer project you want to work at.

Check out our FAQs on various destinations around Africa to help you figure out where you want to go!

So what is a volunteer coordinator, and what do they do? Basically, they coordinate your stay in your host country and organize your involvement in the volunteer programs you’ve selected. Check out some of the important things to consider when choosing your volunteer coordinator or organizer.

1. Who is coordinating your volunteering trip overseas?

Something that people tend to overlook when wanting to volunteer overseas, or even find a budget working holiday incorporating volunteering, is who actually controls your work activities. Whether you’re volunteering in Africa by yourself, with a friend or family member, as part of a service learning program with fellow students, or for an internship - the importance of who coordinates your placement and its logistics sometimes isn’t sufficiently acknowledged. Many providers have different ways of looking at this vital function – often, if you join their program; they will focus mostly on providing the “fun” factor, a great location, weekend activities, and ways they can join in

2. What are the goals of your volunteer coordinator?

The fun factor is an important aspect of your stay - but it seems that the importance of what you will be doing, why you will be doing it, and what the bigger picture and goals are for your volunteer involvement are sometimes ignored, or implemented in ways that don’t do justice to the real goals. For example, working with vulnerable youth, in impoverished communities, requires not only goodwill and eagerness to help but (very importantly!) also requires proper guidance and coordination. If care and professionalism isn’t properly exercised, volunteering with children can have some very negative outcomes for all involved.

3. Where are the volunteer coordinators / placement organizers from?

One of the things I’ve personally pondered is why international organizations mostly choose their coordinators from overseas. I’ve been in the situation myself as a foreign organizer, and have also employed foreigners for such jobs. I’ve met many volunteer project organizers who had never been to Africa before, taking on a 1- or 2-year job coordinating several projects for organizations in countries like Uganda, Malawi or South Africa. They get paid pretty decent European salaries with accommodation included – and cost as much as 4 or more local staff members. Locals who would be better equipped to coordinate the tasks and activities of the volunteers in their own communities are often overlooked.

4. What are the advantages of European volunteer project organizers?

The main advantage of foreign volunteer placement programs is that they are closer to the pool of paying customers – namely, volunteers. Obviously one of the big reasons some organizations employ foreigners (as Khaya did in the past) to take on the responsibilities of coordinating volunteer work;  is to provide a good service to the prospective and actual volunteers or gap year service learners. The volunteers are the focus of the organization – “as long as they are happy, it’s all good” seems to be the reasoning. But is it really such a good decision to bring in foreigners for such a huge responsibility?

Khaya has employed several international coordinators in the past from different European countries. This has helped immensely with issues such as language barriers, and letting European travellers to Africa feel comfortable talking to individuals similar to themselves about their expectations and questions. However, in the long run, it didn’t serve the real purpose of providing the best solutions to the challenges faced.

5. What are the advantages of employing local volunteer coordinators?

We’ve since learned that the best way to coordinate our programs and volunteer involvement is by employing and empowering the local people. This isn’t just because of the huge need for paid work in the countries we work in, or because locals are more affordable to employ as they don’t expect European standards of living – it’s mainly because they understand the local situation, know the language, grasp the fundamentals and dynamics in these communities, and are generally much better equipped than most foreigners to do this job to the satisfaction of all involved. 

6. What’s really involved in volunteer coordinating?

Volunteer coordinating is a full-time job. It doesn’t just involve overseas travellers being picked up upon arrival, having a clean and well-looked-after home to reside in during their stay, or enough food on the table. It’s also about preparing for who is actually coming, what skills or talents and expectations the volunteers have, what the project needs most at that moment, and how the organization can manage all those fantastic ambitions, talents and resources in a way that brings true progress in a sustainable way.

It’s not about showing your face once a week, acting like the Boss and ordering a round of drinks to keep your group of young volunteers entertained - it requires huge responsibility and focus to juggle different interests, expectations and cultural differences in such a way that creates solutions, addresses mutual respect, explains cultural differences, and introduces the various aspects of the volunteer program in depth.

7. So what should volunteer coordinators be doing?

I’ve been part of several initiatives over the last years on a national level through Volunteering South Africa (part of SAYTC), as well as being part of the workgroup for guidelines for Ethical and Responsible Volunteering for the World Youth Student Confederation (WYSTC) in 2015. I’ve learned quite a bit about the importance of volunteer coordinating - and still feel that it’s largely overlooked by most volunteer service providers and organizers. It’s not just introducing yourself to incoming volunteers, showing them the host city and its nightlife, and checking in on a weekly basis to see if everything is running smoothly. It’s impossible to coordinate what volunteers are doing in this way.

Volunteer organizations and coordinators who claim that this is the responsibility of the actual project volunteers will be working at, are grievously avoiding the fact that companies who advertise their services and bring in foreign people should also make sure they are looked after in the best way possible - including coordinating their daily tasks and activities, evaluating, monitoring and providing support where needed.

You can get more perspective by checking out our article on the responsibilities of a volunteer organization or placement provider.

8. Why do some backpacker hostels and tourist pubs offer “volunteering” options?

There are an unfortunately large number of businesses and establishments, such as backpacker hostels and pubs aimed at travellers, who think “this volunteering thing” is something to advertise to attract more paying customers. Their core business is running a touristic establishment. In essence they want to fill up beds – not a problem in itself, of course, but to offer “volunteer coordination for overseas travellers” as a sideline business, without proper management, can only create more problems than benefits for the host communities – and I’ve seen it happen.

If you’re serious about why you want to travel to a volunteer program in Africa as a volunteer or intern, and you’re paying for your stay and investing your time and resources to assist projects that need your support – then it’s more than reasonable to expect that the volunteer organization arranging your stay should take you seriously. If the organization is truly serious about what they provide and want to achieve, they have an allocated supervisor or coordinator who knows their stuff and has the knowledge, experience and skills to carry such responsibilities. This person is preferably someone local, someone with knowledge of the community or project you’ll be working with, someone who understands both sides of the equation, and someone who blends your needs and expectations together with the needs and expectations of those we are trying to help.

9. How will I communicate with local volunteer coordinators?

Another important issue - if you want to travel overseas to experience something new and exciting such as volunteering in Africa, don't expect anyone to speak French, German or Dutch in that country. Choosing an organization because they have a coordinator that speaks your language sounds oh-so-convenient - but is this the best option? If language and familiarity is your main consideration when choosing a volunteer organization - then perhaps you should re-think your volunteering plans. Perhaps you should extend your travel plans and go for a crash course in conversational English.

Another way of looking at the European-vs-local-coordinator debate is by comparing it to more conventional ways of travelling: do you want to be part of a tour group with a guide in front with a flag and microphone speaking to you in your own language - or a smaller group chatting to a friendly local who can explain things and answer your questions in a much more direct and insightful way? Khaya strongly supports the latter; and stands behind our decision to invest in local team members, and empower those that need it most right here at home! 

10. What questions should I be asking before my volunteer trip in Africa?

If you’re still unsure where to go on your travels or how to choose your provider for a volunteer experience or internship abroad, ask yourself the following questions: how do they approach volunteer coordinating? Who are they – foreign or local? How important is it to them to monitor and support volunteer daily activities? How well do they know the projects they are sending volunteers to? Making sure you choose the right organization is the first step towards tapping into the true essence of making a difference, where all will benefit from your involvement. 

You can check out Khaya’s history - I’m a foreigner living in South Africa, but I don't coordinate our volunteer involvement – I’ve learned from experience to employ local people who are much better equipped to give our volunteers the attention they deserve, while keeping focus on the needs of our projects at the same time. And that works so much better for everyone in so many ways!

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