The Child-Centred Model of International Volunteering

Ben Lambert, is the Seaver Foundation’s 2016 programme coordinator and shares his thoughts and conclusions of his research, undertaken whilst a volunteer

seaver1“Along their journey, The Seaver Foundation found that listening to children’s voices in terms of what they need, want, and feel during their interactions with volunteers on different projects, helps to create a positive experience for all.”

So having recently graduated from my thoroughly enjoyable bachelors in International Relations, I noticed that my peers and I spent a large amount of our time dreaming about the world beyond British waters. Undoubtedly, this influenced our decisions to venture abroad for a spot of backpacking or, in my case, volunteering. Whether we wanted to go and volunteer with children, or help preserve the far-off lands, it was obvious that the desire to volunteer and travel has developed into a well-established cultural norm in the U.K.

With this in mind, it is fantastic that we have a country with so many kind-hearted, open people who would sacrifice time and money to help others in far-flung locations. Yet, serious problems lie at the centre of the industry as a result of the rapid growth in this ‘volunteer culture’. Naturally, international volunteering organisations (IVOs) reacted to the large number of aspiring volunteers, and thus we have a system where IVOs create and shape projects to suit the volunteer demand rather than stemming from a genuine need for hands-on support within the overseas charity. This becomes a particularly prominent issue when vulnerable people lie at the heart of the charity, and in particular children living outside the family home which are said to have been commodified in the interest of increasing charitable budgets.

It should be clarified that not all IVOs have followed this model, however in a recent study into IVO recruitment processes conducted by Eleanor Seaver, Director of The Seaver Foundation; it was uncovered that the majority of organisations have little focus on the needs of the projects. Instead IVOs cater for the wants of the volunteer; and therefore as can be seen in the below graph, the vetting processes for those working with children are sub-standard. This is highly problematic as without implementing a process to meet and protect vulnerable children’s needs at this stage, IVOs would be responsible for negative outcomes that occur when an unsuitable or underprepared volunteer arrives. Focussing on immediate gratification of a volunteers needs by overlooking a time and cost consuming recruitment process, has been proven to have negative impacts for all parties.

As is stressed in the conclusions of The Seaver Foundation study, there is a huge need to change the status quo in international volunteering processes in order to prioritise the need of child beneficiaries, and subsequently improve a volunteer’s experience. Fortunately, this change has begun, albeit small scale.

Optimistically, the similarities of IVOs are not limited to their challenges. There is over-whelming evidence of a shared climate for positive change across the sector. In particular this can be harnessed with a ‘bottom-up’ approach from motivated ‘on-the-ground’ employees. Across the board, employees have some of the best insight into the problems with current practice and desire to be part of a responsible, forward thinking organisation. Whilst this intention to change is showing signs of infiltrating organisational policy, this is yet to be converted into practice on a large scale. One IVO which has placed a large focus on creating an ethical model of recruitment and project actualisation based on evaluations and research, is The Seaver Foundation.

Seaver 1Having already heard in brief about some the research conducted by The Seaver Foundation, it seems best placed to discuss how this small-scale IVO is trying to change the industry for the better. Working in the UK and Mexico, The Seaver Foundation has strived to design a model of recruitment and project actualisation that benefits the needs of both the volunteer and the individual children that they work with. Along their journey, they found that listening to Seaver 2children’s voices in terms of what they need, want, and feel during their interactions with volunteers on different projects, helps to create a positive experience for all. This has placed the organisation in good stead to highlight the pitfalls in the international volunteering industry from the child beneficiary recipients’ perspective. This is something which has been repeatedly overlooked and lies at the heart of the problems discussed above. So what good practice can the industry learn for The Seaver Foundation?

Firstly, having worked alongside The Seaver Foundation for many years, their model albeit not focused specifically on the volunteer, actually provides a better volunteer experience than other IVOs. As the organisation has a strict vetting and suitability procedure which includes, interviews, training and group work, it allows the management to fit the volunteer to an identified need for their work overseas. As the need for volunteers help is determined through evaluations and listening to children’s voices, we know that the young people offering their time will be best placed to use their skills and passions to make a positive and required impact. This ultimately leads the volunteer to feeling useful, required and loved. This positive experience is clearly highlighted by the fact that most volunteers stay involved as employees or in the UK school programmes and over 60% of the volunteers from 2015 programme in Mexico will return in 2016. With a substantial investment of money and time for training, The Seaver Foundation are doing something right to retain this large percentage.

The Seaver Foundation understands especially that high costs may put some potential volunteers off. As a result, the organisation has implemented a finance structure which allows for bursaries for volunteers from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This not only takes the industry in a direction away from only targeting the privileged in the U.K., but ultimately promotes positive social mobility within the U.K. as well. The organisation has incorporated mandatory training into its child-centred model. This means the volunteers will have project-specific accredited training to ensure they can readily meet the needs of vulnerable the children with a focus on children’s rights and safeguarding. This ensures that all volunteers leave for the programme aware of a child’s legal rights and professional practice, ultimately reducing the risk of any negative outcomes for both involved parties.

Arguably the most notable feature that the international volunteer industry could take from The Seaver Foundation’s model, is listening to the child’s voice and basing projects around their respective needs. The child-centred model not only ensures that IVOs provide the safest experience for children at the heart of projects, but also helps the most vulnerable to develop by empowering them to have a voice, something which many have never had due to abuse and neglect. This positive empowerment is undeniably proven to develop a child’s psychological health (NT Wong, MA Zimmerman, 2010). Additionally, it allows individual children to realise they are important and that people value their opinion, which for many, may offer a platform to break the cycle of abuse which many of them originate from. Yet more simplistically, through listening, The Seaver Foundation is able to provide fun activities which make the children happy, something which all children are entitled to by written and by moral law.

It is clear that the industry and we as individuals working with volunteers, can learn a lot from The Seaver Foundation and their child-centred approach. They offer a new tried and tested model which IVOs could adopt to help fill-in the pitfalls present in the common volunteer-centred model. As a small and relatively new organisation, The Seaver Foundation acknowledges that it is still developing through its work with children in the U.K. and Mexico, however, having spent time to establish a niche which requires specific assistance, it has been able to change the lives of hundreds of children, adults and volunteers for the better. A change to industry is needed as the problems are evident, yet fortunately, this is one model that could revolutionise the industry for all involved parties.

To find out more about this work or read the study in full contact Eleanor: director@theseaverfoundation.org or 07462953713.

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