A diverse group of staff, interns, and volunteers pose in a brightly lit stairwell at the ACADES office in Malawi.
ACADES staff, interns, and WUSC Volunteers at the ACADES office. © Lusayo Mwakatika

5 Key Findings from the Mobilization of International and National Volunteers in Support of Global Development

The most effective approach to volunteering for development draws from skilled professionals from both within and outside of communities. We’ve learned this time and again during our decades of experience mobilizing diverse volunteers to support our partners in education, economic, and health programs. Together, our volunteers bridge cultural perspectives to deepen innovation and strengthen collaboration toward a better world for all young people.

Our international volunteers, such as Canadians who volunteer in Malawi or Ugandans who volunteer in Sri Lanka, support cross-cultural exchange and learning. Our national volunteers bring their deep understanding of the community’s needs and potential to co-create solutions that are most relevant and impactful. Not only do such diverse volunteers bring unique perspectives to our partners, but also to how they engage with each other.

Engaging Multiple Volunteer Perspectives to Strengthen Gender Outcomes

One of our partners in Malawi, ACADES, recently experienced this cross-cultural collaboration firsthand. ACADES is a social enterprise which invests in the most rural and disconnected communities of smallholder farmers, especially youth and women. Its mission is to create sustainable wealth for smallholder farming communities through the provision of tailor-made service packages consisting of agriculture financing, ethical market, and farmer capacity development. Over the past 5 years, ACADES has organized and reached over 22,000 farmers with essential products and services.

ACADES’ approach includes addressing foundational barriers, one of the major ones being gender inequalities which prevent all youth from participating in agriculture. To strengthen efforts in integrating gender equality in programs and processes, ACADES enlisted the support of WUSC volunteers to co-create a Gender Equality, Social Inclusion and Child Safeguarding Policy.

Gloria and Innocent, volunteers from Malawi, supported the project as a Monitoring & Evaluation Advisor and a Gender Equality and Social Inclusion Advisor, respectively. They worked alongside Guy, a volunteer Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation Advisor from Canada, and Ruvimbo, a volunteer Program Development Advisor from Zimbabwe.

Together, our volunteers worked with the ACADES Gender Focal Person, to conduct consultations with the ACADES team, help establish policy goals and objectives, and develop training materials to support adoption of the policy by ACADES and the communities they serve. They also jointly reviewed the final policy document before it was submitted for approval by the organization.

The impact of their collaboration was clear: “Having both national and international volunteers brought in so much diversity and co-existence, not just because of cultural and racial differences, but also from their professional skills and experiences. Our four volunteers worked together on a Gender and Safeguarding Policy, a very rich document, that takes into consideration both local, regional, and international trends of gender activism,” Madalitso Chipekwe Daka, Chief Operations Officer at ACADES, explained to us.

The adoption of the new policy is already leading to positive changes in how ACADES operates. The organization has since appointed a Gender Equality Focal among their team, has revised its monitoring and evaluation framework to include gender equality indicators, and is now reporting on gender equality outcomes.

National Volunteers Stepped In to Support Our Partners When They Needed It Most

Our IGNI+E initiative, which is part of the Government of Canada’s Volunteer Cooperation Program, is designed to improve economic opportunities for young people in eight countries around the world. We do this through the mobilization of skilled volunteers, including many Canadians. In this way, the program supports two important goals: providing expert support to partners who are leading positive change in their communities, and deepening Canadian’s understanding of and engagement with global development.

In late 2021, despite international travel restrictions having been lifted and many offices resuming in-person collaboration, Canadians weren’t yet volunteering internationally at pre-pandemic levels. We knew we couldn’t let this affect the important progress our partners were making, nor our commitment to them. So we adapted our national volunteering model, which has been effective in other programming in regions like Southern Africa and the Caribbean, to meet the needs of our IGNI+E partners and ensure our support would continue to be provided when it was needed most.

In total, through 110 national volunteer assignments, we supported 69 partners in 7 countries from April 2022 to March 2023, alongside 82 international volunteer assignments. Our national volunteers came from diverse backgrounds and each had their own unique reason for volunteering. Some were accomplished professionals who wanted to give back to their communities. While others were still in the middle of their career journeys and wanted to apply their transferable skills to gain new practical experience in the nonprofit and private sectors.

Although we are now seeing many Canadians eager to engage in international volunteer opportunities once again, we have heard from our IGNI+E partners that bringing together volunteers who can represent both national and international perspectives not only helped sustain momentum, but—as was the case at ACADES—also strengthened their results. So we undertook a study with our partners to learn more about their experiences during this unanticipated adaptation of our volunteer mobilization approach. Here are five key findings:

Five Key Findings from the Mobilization of International and National Volunteers in our IGNI+E Initiative

1. National volunteers have a high level of understanding of the culture and working context which contributes to more relevant, impactful, and sustainable programs and services.

Our partners told us that the primary added value of national volunteers was their deeper familiarity of the culture, language, and working context. National volunteers also brought with them existing relationships within the community that could be leveraged toward meeting our partners’ goals. This helped our national volunteers to generate more awareness for our partners’ programs and services among their target populations, while also building trust among the community leading to  greater impact and sustainability.

The greater mobilization of national volunteers also supports the localization and decolonization of global development, as was pointed out by 90% of the partners surveyed. In addition to supporting contextual relevance, such volunteer approaches showcase national experts within the community and promote indigenous knowledge and sovereignty, while fostering a greater sense of ownership over development initiatives. Our government partners in the countries where we worked also expressed their appreciation for this approach and its focus on fostering community-led solutions.

2. International volunteers bring different skills, abilities, and perspectives that strengthen results.

International volunteers continue to add value through the different skills and abilities they bring, particularly when it comes to experiences with new technologies and with international standards. They may also bring skills that are more rare within the community, given their exposure to different learning and professional development opportunities where they are from.

International volunteers also often bring knowledge of what has worked in their own professional contexts to resolve challenges that may be similar to the ones our partners face. Our partners and national volunteers are then able to assess and adapt these solutions to the unique contexts of their own communities. The unique perspectives that international volunteers bring can also often shed new light on persistent problems which may illuminate new potential approaches that challenge the status quo.

3. Engaging volunteers from diverse backgrounds amplifies each others’ strengths while addressing potential weaknesses.

Interestingly, the same areas for improvement reported by partners for international volunteers were highlighted as strengths of national volunteers, and vice versa. This reinforces the potential added value of a blended approach. IGNI+E is a particularly complex initiative, working with 85 partner organizations across 8 countries to reach 1.2 million youth experiencing poverty and marginalization. By mobilizing national and international volunteers, we are able to tap into all the necessary skills and experiences to accelerate positive change for young people globally.

4. Volunteers gain more from their experience when they engage with peers from different backgrounds.

Our volunteers contribute a lot to our partners’ goals and objectives throughout their mandate. But they always tell us how much they gained from the experience, too. Our partners witnessed time and again how deepening the engagement between national and international volunteers fostered even greater cross-cultural exchange and understanding. This has led to volunteers developing increased empathy and a broader appreciation for diversity that they bring with them when they return home.

5. Everyone has the skills needed to become an effective volunteer.

Collaboration, communication, and good work ethic are all essential to finding success as a volunteer. Our partners told us that both our international and national volunteers demonstrate these skills in abundance. Such skills are particularly essential to fostering cross-cultural understanding which further contributes to the success of our blended volunteer mobilization approach. Think you have what it takes? View our current volunteer opportunities here.

A Blended Approach to Volunteer Mobilization Improves Outcomes for Everyone

Our partners continue to deeply value the unique skills, experiences, and contributions of our international volunteers. By mobilizing more national volunteers into our programs, we can deepen our impact even further without adding the same costs—both financial and environmental—that are associated with international travel.

We greatly appreciate our global network of partners and volunteers, and are amazed by what they can achieve when they work together! Join us!

WUSC works to create a better world for all young people. To learn more, start here or subscribe to get highlights straight to your inbox. Interested in volunteering internationally? View our current opportunities. Looking for a new career opportunity? Check out our current job openings. Or show your support for our cause by making a donation.


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