Giving back is important to a lot of us. When it comes to combining travel and volunteering, there are a lot of complexities involved.
When the USAID Farmer-to-Farmer program managed by Partners of the Americas reached out to recruit me to volunteer via LinkedIn, below are some of the thoughts and considerations I thought about – and my reflections from the experience itself!
They were looking for a marketing strategy consultant to help an association of cacao farmers & chocolate makers with their marketing strategy in rural Colombia. I’m an award-winning branding & marketing strategist, bilingual, studied Poltical Science & Latin American Studies, and started my career in international development in Peace Corps Peru. My day job as Founder of Duraca Strategic is helping social impact entrepreneurs build their dream business.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself before accepting a volunteering opportunity abroad:
- Is it possible that my taking this opportunity will cause (even unintentional) harm? Sometimes the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
- Am I qualified for this opportunity? Do I have the expertise required? Would I be qualified to do this in my home country?
- Is the local community part of the decision-making process in asking for this support?
- By taking this volunteering opportunity, am I taking a job opportunity away from a local person – who is perhaps more qualified (knowing the local context, speaking the local language)? Am I perpetuating aid dependency over sustainable job creation?
If these questions are new to you or making you think, I strongly recommend checking out No White Saviors.
When I was considering whether to volunteer with the Farmer-to-Farmer program, I didn’t think two weeks was sufficient time to make a meaningful difference. I thought: “surely, there are plenty of Colombian marketing specialists who would be better suited for the assignment; and cheaper to get to Otanche.” On the other side, I knew I was qualified for the role, and that the cacao association had requested my support. It was an opportunity for them, and the Farmer-to-Farmer program currently only brings US volunteers abroad – though folks are trying to petition them to also get local volunteers (and I hope they make that change!). Ultimately, I decided not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s easy to criticize a program; and much harder to design something that works perfectly in our imperfect world. Sometimes something is better than nothing.
While things got off to a bit of a rocky start logistically, it was a great experience. As soon as I met the farmers, heard their stories, and saw their dedication and hard work, I was so honored to play a small role in helping them move forward. I loved helping them develop their marketing strategy and get more comfortable telling their story – and they’ve already sent me some of their latest efforts! Personal connections, relationships, and cultural and knowledge exchange can be a powerful force for good.
You can read more about my experience here & see the five marketing lessons any social impact entrepreneur can learn from my work with the cacao association.
Interested in volunteering with the Farmer-to-Farmer program? You can fill out the volunteer interest form here.
- You don’t have to be a farmer! They recruit for all kinds of skills: beekeeping, graphic design, GIS, plant pathology, strategic planning, videography, hydroponics, pest management, livestock production, website development, ecotourism. You do need five years of experience in your field.
- You have to be a U.S. citizen with a valid passport that won’t expire for at least 6 months.
- They’ll share your resume with the host organization. The host organization will decide if the volunteer is the right fit. Then they’ll set up a meeting to discuss the assignment in more detail.
Here are a few things to keep in mind from my experience:
- The program mostly only cover flights to and from the USA. They’ll book your flights, cover your lodging, and reimburse you a per diem for daily food costs. I had to follow up a LOT just to get reimbursed, so if you can’t float food expenses for a while, don’t do it. For an organization whose job it is to plan travel, there is room for improvement. Do NOT be afraid to advocate for yourself. I asked for a Fly America Act Waiver to get a shorter flight.
- I’d recommend only doing this program if you’re comfortable traveling in a developing country and being flexible and adaptable. Things don’t go according to plan, power goes out, road blocks happen, you might only have cold water, not a lot of privacy or control of your time, and not a lot of access to variety of food.
- I recommend taking off work during this time/not doing anything time-sensitive or meeting dependent.