Shannette Budhai, Volunteering Quality Project Officer at Comhlámh reflects on yesterday’s meeting with several start-up volunteer sending agencies (VSAs).
There was no need for introductions. The group—small but eager—organically formed and began talking amongst themselves, even before I set foot inside the room. As I made coffee and tea in our kitchenette, my attention was drawn towards the excited chatter in the room. There were so many questions to be asked and so much to learn; why waste any time with formalities? This was the sense I got from the five individuals rapidly firing questions and recommendations to each other as we gathered around the large table in the Marius Schoon Room this Wednesday evening. David, Brian, Evelyn, Anne and Gráinne were all there to begin exploring the possibility of sending volunteers overseas.
I was acquainted with nearly everyone in the room and had asked them to draft the agenda for the evening. Although the attendees had very different interests and intended on working in countries all across the world, there were still several key concerns they shared. This open space and committed time was set aside for them to work with one another to figure out the best way of moving forward for their organisation whilst attempting to get it right from the start.
I spent the next two hours facilitating a conversation that was broad and covered many topics. The concerns expressed by the group included: What is the best way to recruit, manage and support volunteers? What is the duty of care of an agency to volunteers with regards to health and safety? What do we as a sending agency want to achieve and do we have the resources to do so? How do you go about finding local partners and how do you strike the right balance in a relationship with the partner? What is the impact of the volunteer programme on the local community, and does it help or hinder the current social and familial structures in place? Should agencies challenge sensitive issues with local partners? How do they go about doing so without alienating the partner? How does an agency with limited capacity work to make long lasting change?
As the Volunteering Quality Project Officer at Comhlámh, I was able to provide some direction to the group by providing copies of the Code of Good Practice and highlighting areas that were relevant to their particular concerns. I spoke about trainings that were underway—such as child protection training or training relating to working with LGBT volunteers. Other resources were shared such as Comhlámh’s Guidelines for the use of Social Media in Volunteering. I also used my experience of working closely with the Code of Good Practice signatories to offer guidance to the new start-up volunteer sending agencies.
I advised the agencies of the importance of establishing the right relationship with the local partner. The stronger the relationship, the better. Both parties will be able to navigate arising problems or issues if they have a mutually respectful and beneficial relationship. However, if it is a tense relationship, if communication lines are poor, if MoUs are not in place, and if programmes are not frequently monitored and evaluated, the structure will fall apart and volunteers will be negatively impacted.
Additionally, I stressed the need to draft well-defined roles for the volunteer which should be agreed with the local partner. Some of the participants were returned volunteers themselves and noted how they felt “thrown in at the deep end” when on placement with other agencies. Most notably, they spoke about the lack of structure, the lack of directives and the lack of clearly outlined goals while they were overseas. This is something they want to avoid as they put structures in place within their own organisations.
Before the meeting ended the inevitable question about funding arose: how does an agency access funding in such a competitive environment and with resources constantly being cut back? Of course there was no easy, clear-cut answer to this question but many of the suggestions hinged on the importance of networking and being creative. Participants encouraged each other to stay in touch with agencies such as Dóchas, The Wheel, Comhlámh, IDEA and Kimmage Development Studies Centre for information on the sector, for courses, and for opportunities to engage. Additionally, a conversation followed about the potential for agencies to tap into existing immigrant communities as a source of revenue and support. It was noted that the monies sent by immigrants in remittances outweighs aid by 3:1. Therefore, it makes sense to start turning to immigrant communities to see what kinds of synergies can be made. Two participants (who are also immigrants) expressed their belief that if a diaspora community organises to send funds back “home”, there may be a preference to entrust the funds with an Irish volunteer sending agency—particularly one that follow good practice and can demonstrate sound accounting practices—over sending it directly to a local government that might be corrupt. Certainly there is potential to explore this avenue in greater depth in the development sector in Ireland!
The two hours flew by very quickly but I was happy to see that the meeting was fruitful and the participants have agreed to meet each other again! I’m really looking forward to seeing what they’ve got planned for the next agenda!