Measuring Our Impact: Successful Short Term Volunteering with SOS

How can volunteers make a meaningful impact in two weeks?

The benefits of volunteering abroad have been a focal point for academic research and cultural debates for over a decade. A key question within the debate is if short term volunteering generates lasting change within the communities they work in. Many volunteers interested in SOS Outreach trips hesitate and ask themselves; ‘how do I make a meaningful impact in two weeks?’

It is so important to be critical and ask questions. But it is equally as important to ask the right questions and do some research. Short term volunteering is criticized most often because it is just that; short term. Without looking into the project details, community location, or volunteer demographics, skeptics immediately say that short term volunteering does not make a meaningful impact.

Holding onto this notion too tightly tremendously impacts well intentioned volunteers into thinking that their contribution means less because they are unable, or unwilling, to invest more of their time to a specific cause.
The issue is not trying to determine if short term volunteering is better than long term volunteering, or vice versa, because, don’t get us wrong, some causes absolutely need long term contributions from volunteers. The issue is that volunteers with the best intentions are asked “how can you make a difference in 2 weeks?” by those who do not look into the specifics of the volunteer project at hand. The issue is that the prevalent opinion is that short term volunteering does not make a long term, positive impact.

At SOS we are determined to provide Outreach Trips that see the completion of educational infrastructure projects that are needed in the community. We are committed to ensuring that our Outreach Trips make a positive contribution in the communities we partner with and our volunteers. Below is a detailed list of the ways in which we ensure that.

SOS volunteers only work on educational infrastructure projects, that is, only projects where participants are contributing manual labour. Volunteer tasks include digging trenches, moving materials, cutting and tying rebar, laying bricks, mixing cement, and more. They are labour intense projects and not a lot of training is required to know how to work safely and effectively. Participants are trained on site for the appropriate tasks and set right to work. Therefore during the two week trip time is spent most effectively on working.

SOS and our partnering organizations know that many projects cannot be completed by one group of students during a 2 week Outreach Trip. To ensure the project is completed SOS arranges, when necessary, for more than one group of volunteers to go to the community and work on the project. In the past projects have had one to six different groups work on the project at different times. SOS and partnering organizations plan well in advance how many groups will be going to the community, in February, May, or August, to ensure the project is complete, which allows our partners to plan accordingly.

In the event that other groups cannot travel to the communities to complete the projects SOS provides funds for our partnering organizations to hire experienced workers in the community to finish the project.

SOS works with local organizations in Central and South America, only, for multiple reasons. Building strong relationships with our partnering organizations enables great change in communities because SOS volunteers have built more than one project in the same community. It also allows us to ensure the highest degree of safety and a fabulous trip experience for our volunteers, while keeping flight costs low. Finally, by focusing on certain geographic areas SOS can develop their knowledge as to the political, structural, and economic challenges communities are facing in order to better ensure the sustainability and necessity of our projects.

Ensuring you ‘make an impact’ on your two week Outreach trip relies heavily on how you measure that impact. Our construction projects are very important, but, it is important not to equate how ‘successful’ the trip is solely with how much was built. Equally as important is the cross cultural dialogue you engaged in, your increased social awareness, and the relationships you’ve built. By participating on an Outreach Trip you demonstrate your solidarity with and concern for local communities and give our partnering organization an opportunity to spread their message.

SOS Outreach Trips enable our partnering communities to receive educational infrastructure that is desperately needed. Through local collaboration with organizations on the ground SOS ensures that volunteers find and complete work within their means and that projects are completed. SOS places importance on the physical changes within the community AND on the changed perspectives that are the outcome for everyone involved in an Outreach Trip.

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