How to Do Volunteering Right: Lessons from makesense

An evaluation of my time with makesense americas, and an explanation of why I believe they represent the best that centrally organised LiA organisations have to offer.
How to Do Volunteering Right: Lessons from makesense
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My summer of 2023 was spent in Mexico City, volunteering on the Re_action for Impact scheme organised by makesense.[1] The scheme had three broad aims: to deliver an effective environmental or marginalised community-based project; to develop soft leadership skills including empathy, confidence, and communication; and to learn about, immerse in, and appreciate Mexico as a unique cultural experience. Twenty-one scholars participated from the UK, USA, Canada, and Hong Kong and between us we engaged around two hundred local volunteers, eight charities and hundreds (if not thousands) of locals.

I have had a long-term interest in charities and volunteering, and usually cast a sceptical eye over the effectiveness and motivations of a lot of large-scale, organised voluntary work. Sadly, inefficiency, self interest and ineffectiveness plagues volunteering work all the way from the well-intentioned individual gap-year volunteer to huge international charities like Oxfam. Many household names in the charity sector have received damning reviews from organisations like GiveWell when it comes to their effectiveness, transparency, and motivations.[2] My eyes were therefore open to how the Laidlaw Foundation can make sure the funded projects undertaken by scholars during their Leadership in Action (LiA) programmes can make a genuine difference and be valuable not only to the scholar themselves, but to the communities they work with.

My limited understanding of the topic leads me to propose three questions that I feel should be asked of any volunteering or Leadership in Action project:

  • Could a local have easily done this better? Are my skills, experience or background contributing something unique to solving the problem, irrespective of cost at this stage?
  • Does the value I am adding justify the cost of bringing me here in the first place? Are there alternative, more effective options available for plugging this skills gap?
  • Can I take anything away from this experience that will bring further benefits? How can the experience allow me to help others through my own personal development? How can the fact that I will have had this experience be beneficial?

As an exercise, I ask these three questions of the programme offered to scholars by make_sense. In answer to the first question: our experiences as scholars contributed something unique to the problems we faced. To use the example of my own project, one of my project partners Iris Liu contributed her tremendous abilities in team management, effective communication, and even in graphic design to communicate with partners and volunteers. She did this in a way that improved dramatically upon what our charity partner Grupo Promesa[3] had been able to achieve by themselves. I even contributed something unique – using my experience of logistics, planning, and environmental work. The project passes the first test.

The second question is the harder one to answer. To plug a gap in a charity’s ability to communicate with partners and volunteers; to create effective posters, flyers, and electronic communications; to organise effectively; and to collaborate with other charities would have taken a titanic effort, potentially more than the combined efforts of three Laidlaw Scholars. The cost of such a project is immense – this cannot be understated. The money spent on this experience could do plenty of good elsewhere – but when the third question is answered, it will be clear that Re_action for Impact passes this test also.

Finally, the question of what was gained to create long-term impact away from the project is the real strength of the Re_action for Impact programme. Every scholar came away from the experience with a long list of skills: improved confidence, public speaking, logistical skills, written communication, adaptability, time management – add to this dramatically improved confidence and vocabulary in speaking Spanish, and it quickly becomes clear that the lasting impact is enormous. I am a genuinely changed person for the experiences I have had in Mexico, and that will have a continuous impact throughout my future.

The value of the Re_action for Impact programme didn’t begin or end with the projects themselves. One of the most admirable aspects of the programme’s structure and format was the incredible cultural sensitivity with which entire thing was conducted. We were not there to wave a magic white-saviour wand and solve all of Mexico’s problems in the abstract, or to do groundwork which a local could have done better to pad out our CVs. We were here to collaborate as equals with local people, understand their problems, and contribute our unique perspectives to their challenges. Our projects didn’t even start until we had been thoroughly grounded in our new environment, spending the first two weeks researching, active listening, and exploring our challenges and Mexico as a country before we put anything into action. Many of the projects were led, coordinated, and directed by the communities that needed them, and it was made clear from the outset that we were not going to go straight to work without gaining some understanding of Mexico, its communities, its strengths, and its problems.

A perfect example of the programme’s respectful and considered nature was our visit to one of Mexico’s Mazahua communities in Morelos. Firstly, the visit and the scheme were organised, facilitated, and led by a member of the community. We were received as guests, on equal terms, and we ate, conversed, and participated in shared activities as equals. The day was structured around one key activity: listening. We listened to locals recounting the challenges that the Mazahua and other indigenous communities face in Mexico. We learned about the efforts being made to rescue the Mazahua language, to combat economic and social discrimination, and to bring about effective representation for these communities. I took away a deep admiration for the strength and resolve with which the community advocates for itself, and with a more nuanced, sensitive, and empathetic understanding of the community and its challenges.

One message shone through during the meeting: charity will not empower indigenous people. In the Mazahua community we visited, the people demanded respect, not sympathy. This was captured by the phrase “existimos porque resistimos,” (we exist because we resist) – a powerful and poetic summary of their experience. Many people reading this may interpret this mindset as pride, or stubbornness, or even resentment. Meeting with people there, it was clear that it is integral to the future success of the community that their representation and their empowerment is led from within. Only if it is led from within can it serve their needs, ambitions, and traditions. It was clear that our role as scholars or as anyone who knows about the plight of Mexico’s indigenous communities is not advocacy, leadership, or charity, but allyship. I took the time to reflect on what allyship means, and I come back from Mexico with no pity whatsoever for the Mazahua people: only a deeply held respect and a desire to use my privilege or platform for their empowerment – as I hope I am doing now. All of this illustrated to me further how efforts to help and empower communities can end up deepening and perpetuating problems if they are not led from the front by the communities themselves. On reflection, this lesson about allyship was one of the most valuable I learned during my summer in Mexico.

By the metrics used here, a bad volunteering scheme is one in which a problem a local could have solved with the right funding, support or education is instead solved quickly, inconsiderately and at astronomical cost by a volunteer from halfway across the world. The hard work of the makesense team and the considered way in which the programme was planned and delivered meant that this was avoided. We all know what this looks like – everyone has seen a LinkedIn or Instagram post of a western student on other volunteering programmes spending a summer being a general nuisance to a disadvantaged community and calling it charity. I can say on reflection, that nothing could be further from the makesense experience. Any scholars who are looking for a challenging, varied, sensitive, effective and supportive LiA should look no further than Re_action for Impact.

Acknowledgements

I want to thank the Laidlaw Foundation, the Laidlaw team at CEED at the University of St Andrews, and makesense for giving me the privilege to experience Re_action for Impact. I would particularly like to thank Brenda Sañudo, Regina Paredes, Triana Gil, and Davizz Pablos.

References

[1] Makesense Americas, https://americas.makesense.org/, (accessed: 14/09/2023).

[2] GiveWell: Charity Recommendations, https://www.givewell.org/charities/top-charities, (accessed 14/09/2023).

[3] Reciclando por un Techo – Grupo Promesa, https://grupopromesa.mx/impacto/, (accessed: 14/09/2023).

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