Leading think tank DEMOS research – old news or new opportunity?

Leading think tank DEMOS research – old news or new opportunity?

Demos http://www.demos.co.uk/ has just published a report commissioned by International Citizen Service which, in the words of the prime minister, is designed to “give thousands of our young people, those who couldn’t otherwise afford it, the chance to see the world and serve others”.

Much of the research results will not be news to anyone involved in volunteer recruitment – demographics of the traditional “gap” volunteer – perceived benefits for the volunteer -and motivations of those volunteers.

But –  for me one of the most important points if not the most important is made in the conclusion

“Our review of the research suggests that there is still a significant gap in knowledge about the best way to involve young people without specific skills in broader development related outcomes.”

Spot on say I!

the report goes on to advise

“We recommend that DFID give greater consideration to project activities where there is an evidence base of what works for the target group (eg Platform2). This should be reflected in the range of organisations commissioned to participate in ICS”

At the risk of presumption I would like to enlarge on this excellent advice.

Please check :

  • that local employment is not replaced
  • that no volunteer is subsidised  by local people
  • that the communities and the volunteers are equally WELL prepared and informed

Well that’s stating the obvious I hear you cry – maybe so BUT the following three examples of the damage that can arise by not checking on the above involve leading volunteer recruitment organisations – the very organisations, I am prepared to wager, that ICS is considering working with. two organisations are for profit company and one a charity.

Example 1.

I received an email from a young “gap” volunteer  – she had found my email address and was desperate for advise – we did not know eachother.

She told me that she had arrived in a large village where she was to help teach English in the primary school. She had been there about 4 days and she was very upset by the open  hostility that a large proportion of the villagers were showing her. She had just discovered that a local teacher – a village member – had been sacked just before she arrived because the school could save on a salary whilst the volunteer was there to do the job.She had left the village and was unable to make contact with any of the support numbers she had been provided with. She gave me with a phone number and I tried to advise her as best I could, given that i was remote and had no contacts in the country where she found herself. She had traveled with a leading company.


A colleague who spends a great deal of time working with economically poor communities recounted this story to me.

He was the guest of a village elder and his community – on departure the village elder asked him if he knew of a well known charity – my colleague repliednot personally but he knew of it. The elder asked him to tell the charity on his  return that the village wanted no more volunteers – there were no more walls to paint and the children of the village had no eggs to eat because the volunteers had eaten all the chickens.


On a recent trip to a township school I saw a group of young local school children running around on a rudimentary playing field with some hockey sticks – with them were three “gappers” – one of whom was standing on the sidelines watching on with that very bored expression only teenagers can achieve. The other two were lying on the grass sunbathing – the girl in a very skimpy top appropriate for the beach. In the car park was a mini van emblazoned with the logo of a leading “gap” company.

I later learnt that all the sports equipment arrives  and leaves with the “volunteers”.

These are just a few examples of some of the stories we hear – and the volunteers themselves are beginning to post about their bad experiences on review sites and forums such as facebook. Though the validity of many of the reviews – mainly the positive ones must be questioned – read my blog re this here

Please ICS – if this initiative does not become the victim of budget cuts and goes ahead – please take this opportunity to set a gold standard for gap volunteering – young people do have skills – and WELL prepared and WELL managed they can make a positive difference. Some of the young volunteers we have placed have been amoungst the very best.

Thanks to Johnathan Birdwell for highlighting this opportunity in his report

You can read a full copy of the report here

5 thoughts on “Leading think tank DEMOS research – old news or new opportunity?

  1. Good points!

    The question remains how do we move the conversation from private email to pubic discourse. It’s not your job as the recipient of the email cited in Example #1 to call attention to the company in question. The student and the community need to be more involved in online discourse. Is there a way to call attention to forums such as http://www.irresponsibletourism.info/forum ? Could we have more face-to-face conversations about these issues at major tourism events in which the panels are usually all congratulating each other for work well done? These would be major steps forward.

  2. I’m with you all the way Ron.
    Randy Le Grant and I are writing guidelines for how to post and read reviews on sites like http://www.irresponsibletourism.info/forum/ and http://www.abroadreviews.com/.
    And I would be first in line to sit on a panel to discuss how we can do better -on the occassions i have been on panels I feel I am a lone voice when trying to be open about the challenges we face – a well run volunteer programme is not an exact science
    in the meantime I just keep plugging away drawing attention to good and bad practise whenever I can –

  3. Sallie…what a great post. We are just now recovering from Hurricane Irene and I leave tomorrow for WYSTC Conference in Barcelona for one week. And I will work on all the incredible info you sent to me. I am so, so sorry to be tardy. Just know I’m still with you.

    Sallie, this is a great post in that what struck me also is “ways to involve young people without specific skills in broader development related outcomes.”

    What bothers me, and is also shown in the research, is my colleagues and competitors recruit by pulling the heartstrings. Not the headstrings. “Look how awful the situation is, these people are in dire straits, you can help.” It ends there. Heartstrings pulled, voluntourists hit the streets and a) damage can be done as well as b) we all know the ULTIMATE outcome is a disappointed (and usually disillusioned) voluntourist. Many of my colleagues sell to voluntourists by convincing them they are volunteers. Those projects are suspect, at best.

    Nicely done, Sallie.

    Randy LeGrant

  4. Bon voyage Randy – and I do hope that you and the team are able to grab a little rest after what has been a very tough time for you – look forward to taking our plans forward when you return.

Leave a Reply