The risks and opportunities of using volunteers instead of professional consultants in the aid sector | Experts’ Opinions

ByCatalina Russu

The risks and opportunities of using volunteers instead of professional consultants in the aid sector | Experts’ Opinions

Volunteers are often at the forefront of aid programs, being the first to help when a natural disaster strikes, an armed conflict unfolds, or a pandemic breaks out. Considered to be an enormous renewable resource, international organizations often incorporate volunteering in an organized manner for social, economic, and environmental activities. Often, donors even choose between volunteers and experienced consultants for their projects. Both options have their pros and cons. It’s a balancing act between the benefits of diverse input and the cost savings that volunteers bring against the reliability and expertise that seasoned consultants offer. Let’s explore the advantages and risks of engaging volunteers rather than experts in the international development sector.

Key Takeaways:

  • Over 1 billion people volunteer worldwide, with the majority, or 57%, being women.
  • Humanitarian aid and disaster relief, education and capacity building, healthcare and public health, environmental conservation and sustainability are the sectors with the largest number of volunteers in international development.
  • Experts tend to recommend a balance between young innovators and experienced individuals in development projects.

DevelopmentAid: In your opinion, what are the opportunities and risks of engaging volunteers rather than consultants/experts?

Monica Aguilar, Corporate Social Responsibility Expert
Monica Aguilar, Corporate Social Responsibility Expert

“Volunteering can be an excellent way of gaining skills and a good opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture of a country or a specific company. However, using volunteers instead of experienced consultants on a long-term project involves certain risks such as a lack of full engagement on the project, not achieving specific goals, or not committing wholly in any process of the work-flow. But, on the other hand, volunteers are goodwill ambassadors who bring passion to what they do, hence motivation is high and many non-experienced volunteers are acquainted with social media and other technologies. Having said this, training for volunteers is key. Organizations should view coaching volunteers as an investment as they come to our environment with new ideas, and they could be a helpful resource for our work. Dialogue is also fundamental. Project objectives, deliverables and the Scope of Work should be completely clear to volunteers as well as the stakeholders involved in the results delivered by the volunteers’ work.”

Quentin Wagner, education expert
Quentin Wagner, EOD expert

“Thinking that efficiency is linked with experience seems rational, but there isn’t a direct correlation. Efficiency is linked with personal capacities that are demonstrated through actions, not simply the accumulation of past achievements. Using experienced consultants is an easy way to work and an option to entrust responsibilities to someone who appears to be reliable. This is understandable. However, experienced individuals might be tempted to stick to what they know without making the effort to upgrade existing or create new tools or pathways for reflection. Young individuals in a challenging environment have the necessity of adaptation and an inclination toward innovation. Sometimes, they place stronger trust in their social mission than their experienced colleagues who understand the darker aspects of humanity and the limited tools to address these. Our body is always replacing old cells with new ones. The essence lies not in which cell is the newest, but in the relationship between the cells to achieve the overall objective. The question isn’t about replacing someone with another; both are necessary. By nature, a project can’t adequately address today’s issues without planning for tomorrow. Young and experienced individuals are not adversaries but rather two sides of the same coin.”

The DevelopmentAid job board has over 9,000 job opportunities in international development, perfect for volunteers too. With an Individual Professional Membership, you can check out all these jobs. Plus, you get access to tenders and grants just for individuals. But that’s not all – you’ll also connect with a massive network of 290,000 organizations in international development. It’s like opening a door to a huge community that you can become part of!