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A Must See TED Talk for any Volunteer

Every day I see 10 to 20 new volunteers sign up to Volunteer Alliance.

My hope is that most of these new volunteers are signing up because they want to volunteer at one of our community based organizations. I spent the better part of 2012 traveling through Southern Africa with Brian Somers to meet with community based organizations and help them to create and manage profiles on Volunteer Alliance.

At each organization, we also met their volunteers.

I have a lot of respect for all of the volunteers that we met. It is an awesome thing meeting people who have given their time and money to support a local community based organization, often on the other side of the world. However, despite good intentions, a lot of these volunteers are not effective. And this TED talk sums it up perfectly. You need to shut up and listen!

A perfect example of this is one of the schools that I met with. This organization had a steady stream of international volunteers who came through a volunteer placement organization. What I saw was that every volunteer arrived wanting to 'make their mark' on the organization. They would come in and change the syllabus, then update the teaching methods and so on.... Of course each volunteer had some good ideas, but because they didn't first take the time to understand the needs of the organization, the changes they made were not appropriate. And there is a big difference between a good idea (general), and an appropriate idea (practical).

A good idea might be to move teaching material online. But when the access to computers is limited and the internet speed is slow, this is not a practical idea. This might seem very obvious, but sadly it is also very common.

The effective volunteers arrived and spent the first week talking to the schools manager and the teachers. They were not trying to tell the school how to do things, but trying to understand why the school did things that way. Because they had taken the time to listen, when they finally started working at the school, they could make practical suggestions to help the school. And the more effective you are as a volunteer, the more you will enjoy it!

The moral of the story:

Shut up and listen.

Cameron West