The Value Of Volunteers In International Capacity Building

The value of volunteers in international capacity building

Heritage Without Borders (HWB) is volunteer charitable organisation that works internationally to save heritage and build capacity in heritage skills.  We do this by running practical projects on archaeological sites and in museums.  These projects, through which practical work is carried out to benefit artefacts, collections, and people, give our UK volunteers an opportunity to share their skills with international colleagues in a hands-on way.  Our projects provide access to skills which are often too expensive or difficult to obtain in the regions in which we work.

 

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Photo: Matt Clayton ©UCL

What does HWB look for in volunteers?

We could not do our work without the volunteers who donate their time.  Our unique international projects require dynamic and highly skilled heritage professionals and master’s level students with a relevant specialism.   They undergo a competitive recruitment process, and successful volunteers tend to be individuals looking for new ways to share and utilise their skills.  Our volunteers are excited by the challenges presented by working internationally, and are excellent communicators who are self-motivated and demonstrate cultural sensitivity.

Our volunteers often find themselves in challenging situations, such as challenging working conditions or a news camera crew appearing from nowhere, and occasionally managing a difficult participant’s expectations.  We expect our volunteers to troubleshoot and work flexibly, managing dynamic situations whilst accomplishing the core project objectives to a high standard.

HWB volunteers are approachable and easy to talk to, and consistent feedback from project participants confirms this is a direct benefit.  Participants feel that they can ask anything, and that no question is out of bounds.  We fundamentally aim to build capacity, so the approachability and effectiveness of our volunteers is paramount.

 

How do we run our volunteer projects?

Although volunteers give their time freely, HWB has learned that administering a volunteer experience is costly in terms of time and resources.  However, we accept that it is critical to invest in our volunteers beyond paying for their travel, accommodation and subsistence whilst abroad to achieve maximum impact for our projects and volunteers.

We are considering different ways to provide support training for volunteers without micro-managing delivery on site.  We currently run pre-departure briefings, and we are looking to introduce a two-day ‘Train the Trainer’ course.  Project leaders are responsible for visit schedules and programmes.  We empower teams to source supplies and materials locally, therefore reducing the dependence on costly UK conservation and museum supplies.

HWB also ensures that volunteers have local contacts who can facilitate their project on the ground.  This direct contact removes a layer of communication through which wires can get crossed.

Giving our volunteers an active part in project planning and delivery ensures teams have the flexibility they need to make adjustments on projects as they happen, and ensure the project runs smoothly.  It also enhances their confidence and professional development.

 

Photo: Matt Clayton ©UCL

Photo: Matt Clayton ©UCL

How do volunteers and their organisations benefit from this mutual exchange?

Mutual exchange is embedded in our ethos.  Our approach allows HWB volunteers to learn as much as possible through open discussion with local project participants, and through active knowledge exchange.  One of the most important tasks for our volunteers is to build trust with international project participants and partners.  This trust allows collaborative work to save heritage, and means they are welcomed back in subsequent years, therefore having a long-term impact.

 

Photo: Matt Clayton ©UCL

Photo: Matt Clayton ©UCL

 

Through our projects, volunteers build their skills and experience, which in turn helps them in the competitive UK heritage sector.  Anecdotally, our volunteers tell us that their HWB experience impressed potential employers and helped them get a job.  Forward-thinking institutions who value such experiences see how their staff’s commitment and contribution will reflect positively, and provide lasting benefits to the individual and their organisation.

 

 

HWB volunteers return to the UK having undertaken heritage work in a context which often challenges their views of the preservation and use of heritage.  It changes them both personally and professionally, and provides them with the knowledge and experience to advocate for international work, and more fully appreciate the politics of heritage on a local and global scale.

 

Conclusion

HWB is a small charity but our volunteers provide us with a wealth of skills, experience and commitment.  We believe in the virtuous circle that allows our projects to benefit people and heritage, and in return enriches the personal and professional lives of volunteers through the experience.  Our volunteers grow, change, and see their place in the world differently as a result of exchanging ideas with international colleagues.

 

 

Dominica D’Arcangelo, Co-founder, Co-director and Trustee, Heritage Without Borders

ICOM UK