“I had a big fear about falling into the trap of voluntourism.”–Kate O’Connor
I feel unbelievably lucky to work for a company that offers 7 days of volunteering annually. Indeed this philosophy of philanthropy was one of the reasons I joined Salesforce in the first place. That being said, there are always one hundred reasons not to volunteer abroad. In addition to concerns about missing work, I had a big fear about falling into the trap of voluntourism. For all of these reasons I spent a lot of time choosing the right organisation to work with.
I came across Venture 2 Impact by a lucky chance, and after some…well actually a lot… of probing questions and discussion about community development and providing value with Fadi Al Qassar, one of the Co-Founders, I signed up.
Fast forward 3 months. After two plane rides and a couple of boat trips, we arrived at one of the remote Sugi islands in the Riau region of Indonesia. Our mission was to provide a framework for sustainable, positive development of the local communities for a geo-tourism resort called Telunas. We would do this through engaging with locals and using data from a comprehensive survey commissioned by Venture 2 Impact and Telunas before our arrival.
Telunas is a social enterprise based on one of the Sugi islands which has focused on giving back to the surrounding communities for over a decade. They have a quadruple bottom line of profit, people, planet, and prosperity and have built a huge currency of trust with the local leaders through running projects and giving back locally, as well as by hiring directly from the communities. What they did not have was a sustainable future strategy for that development. Our project was the first “Ideaforce” volunteer time off (VTO) run by Venture 2 Impact and aimed to take on the structure of a hackathon. A hackathon is skills based volunteering, taking in people from sales, marketing, entrepreneurial and technical backgrounds for diversity of thinking. We also had local community members and Telunas staff taking part to ensure a level of realism and relevancy.
The biggest issues in the area were not what I expected. Sure, there was rubbish everywhere, their homes were very basic, and there was a distinct lack of services due to their remoteness. But generally, the people had food and shelter. What they lacked, and what I learned only by digging deeper in conversation, was that their poverty was a poverty of self-esteem and opportunity. They lacked self-belief and role models and did not have much hope for their children beyond fishing, tree cutting, or rubber harvesting. We knew we had to address this in our plan and create some local success stories to ignite and nurture their aspirations.
Despite this, the people were a joy. They dressed in bright colours, the women were outspoken, and the children were inquisitive. One of my favorite moments was when we went to a nearby island and were making introductions to the local leaders and families who would be hosting us. We started by each giving our names and home country, but quickly the locals interrupted demanding hobbies. That tiny element opened us all up to a deep connection. It turns out that we shared many similar hobbies, with soccer, swimming and volleyball, in particular, drawing cheers from the locals.
I had expected this to be a giving experience, but I also gained so much. I quickly learned about the idea that Venture 2 Impact has of 360 degree development, which focuses on developing everybody involved – the local communities, volunteers, and Venture 2 Impact themselves. The meaningful discussions that I’d began with Fadi months back continued throughout the week with great conversations around our personal experiences, different types of poverty, the impact of storytelling, and the art of possibility.
It was an amazing and immensely enjoyable week, but this was not voluntourism. Sure, we were in a beautiful place living in huts on the sea, but we put in long days and all contributed to a finished product and final presentation of our minimum viable product and continued framework. I had the chance to develop many of the skills I use day to day at work, like presenting, negotiating, and storytelling, but also developed and discovered new skills and possibilities. I loved the brainstorming and group work and will certainly bring more of this back into my ‘real life’.
This was a once in a lifetime experience, though I am very hopeful that for me it won’t be just once. The only way I could come to terms with it ending after just one week was by blurting out to Ron and Fadi (the co-founders of Venture 2 Impact) as we were leaving that I was sure I would see them again – and I really meant it!
I couldn’t recommend this more for anybody who has the opportunity to do a volunteer trip like this. There are a million reasons to say no, but do it anyway! Work will still be there when you get back, and you might surprise yourself by returning with a whole new set of skills (and friends), and a new mindset of appreciation. Take the risk and see this as an opportunity for self-investment – it’s worth it!