#littleBIGthings: Backpacking with a Purpose with Operation Groundswell

When seeking out more purposeful work to do while traveling, it can be challenging to dig deep enough to find the best route to take and the organizations that are truly carrying out positive work. In this #littleBIGthings interview you’ll hear from Justine Abigail Yu, Communications and Marketing Director at Operation Groundswell, who will be sharing her insight into what questions to ask when volunteering abroad, where to begin, and how to know what sort of impact you will make.

Operation Groundswell is a non-profit organization that offers travel, community service, and educational experiences around the world. Their programs are intentionally designed to uncover the intricacies and on-the-ground realities of each region they go to. With ethical travel at the crux of their philosophy, they always work in partnership with local non-profits and charities on community-requested projects to ensure true sustainability.

Their aim is to build a community of “backpacktivists” that are socially, environmentally, and politically aware of their impact in the communities they travel to and live in.

Operation Groundswell - Backpacking with Purpose littleBIGthings

How can someone seeking a volunteer program abroad determine if they will actually be making a difference?

First and foremost, whatever volunteer project you work on abroad should be done in partnership with the local community. If you want to make even the slightest difference, be sure to find an organization that puts the needs of the local community first. Contributing to a project that your host community actually wants and needs is the first step towards responsible international volunteering.

But it’s also important to set realistic expectations of what exactly “making a difference” means. For many people, this requires a bit of a rethink. You’d be surprised (or maybe not) how many volunteers going abroad expect to “save Africa”, or Asia, or Latin America. And that’s just not the reality.

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The majority of volunteer programs are often short-term projects that range from one week to a few months. So when you’re seeking a volunteer program abroad, consider the time you’ll be spending abroad and align that with your expectations. Because real talk – if you’re only going to be spending one or two-weeks in any given country or community, you may not actually make that much of a difference.

You’ll accomplish some things, of course: you’ll likely gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of development and what it takes to actually achieve social change, you’ll make a strong connection with a handful of people who you will hopefully stay in touch with, and you’ll contribute in some small way to a project.

But honestly, you’ll likely leave with more questions than answers. And that’s ok. This is a process.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight or even in a couple of weeks or months. Often, the work that you do when you return home, as a result of what you learned abroad, will be where you make the most difference.”

Just remember to have humility when taking part in work like this!

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What advice would you give someone who wants to make a difference by volunteering abroad but doesn’t know where to start? 

Before jumping in and joining any international volunteering program, be sure to do your research and don’t be afraid to ask questions! Be an informed traveler and a responsible volunteer! Here are some questions we at Operation Groundswell always encourage potential volunteers to ask:

•    What does the organization say you’ll be doing? What projects will you be working on while you’re on the ground? There are some projects that you should immediately steer clear from because they are unethical, plain and simple. Orphanage volunteering or medical missions are just two examples, which you can learn more about here and here.

•    What’s the minimum time you can volunteer? Does the volunteer project make sense with the timeline or does it sound totally unfeasible?

•    Do they work with partners? If so, how is the relationship structured? At OG, for example, we always work in partnership with local non-profits on community-requested projects. This means exactly what it sounds like. All of the projects we work on have been requested by our host communities. And that means sometimes, we aren’t able to work on any hands-on projects because we simply aren’t needed (and that’s a good thing!) So instead, we spend time meeting with these partners to learn about the work that they do, the challenges they face, and the opportunities for change. And that learning experience is just as valuable, if not even more so!

•    Do they clearly state where the money goes? Transparency is key! Find out where your money is going. Are portions of the fee going to the communities you’re about to work with or does it go entirely to the volunteer travel organization or business?

•    Are you going to be learning before serving? This is another important one! Volunteer travel is so much more than just the hands-on volunteering, or at least it should be more than that. It should be an educational experience that aims to understand the context and history of local issues before attempting to find its solutions. It should be an educational experience that challenges you, as a traveler and volunteer, to confront your own assumptions and reflect on your role in the wider process of social change. So ask if you’ll be learning before volunteering and if you’ll be given resources to learn more about the region you’re going to. And even when you’re on the ground, will there be facilitated discussions to help you process your experience? Volunteering doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but should be a constant questioning, a constant dialogue!

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What makes Operation Groundswell different from other volunteer organizations?

Well, for starters, we consider ourselves primarily as an experiential education organization. Our programs are intentionally designed to address specific social justice issues and the key challenges unique to each region and community we work with. We do this by listening to diverse local perspectives—government officials, NGOs, businesses, artists, farmers, activists…you name it—to get a holistic perspective of the intricate realities on the ground.

Our volunteer work is a way for us to better connect with the communities we visit. We never propose or lead projects. Rather, we listen to our partners and follow their lead. We aren’t interested in perpetuating systems of power and dependency; we do our best to act in solidarity­­ with the communities we work with.

Backpacking with Purpose - Operation Groundswell

Finally, unlike many other volunteer organizations, our work isn’t done the minute our participants hop on their flight home. We recognize that the real work is just about to begin. With a wealth of experience and learning under their belts, we encourage our participants to apply those lessons back home and get involved in their home communities. Our alumni network is a space to collaborate with each other and continue to stand in solidarity with our partners across borders. After all, the real potential of volunteer travel lies not just in the work we do abroad, but in how we continue to live our lives back home.

Justine Abigail Yu - Operation GroundswellJustine Abigail Yu, Communications and Marketing Director, Operation Groundswell

Justine Abigail Yu is a communications and marketing strategist for the non-profit sector and has worked with organizations operating in North America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. She is currently the Communications and Marketing Director for Operation Groundswell, a non-profit organization that facilitates service learning programs all around the world.

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#littleBIGthings - Backpacking with a Purpose with Operation Groundswell


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