Page 1


Honorary Patron, Mary Robinson. © Comhlámh, 2013 Extracts from this publication may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes without permission, provided full acknowledgement is given to Comhlámh. This report was prepared by Gráinne O’Neill, Volunteer Engagement project worker (Comhlámh). Special thanks goes to Siobán O’Brien Green and Dervla King (Comhlámh), Kai Diederich (finep), Jadwiga Karlak (SWM) and the participants who took part in the interviews.

www.comhlamh.org Email info@comhlamh.org Phone 01 478 3490

This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Comhlámh and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union



‘Back to the Future’ was a European Union sponsored project (2011 – 2014) with a focus on continuous engagement and strengthening development education within volunteering. The project was a partnership between three organisations: finep (Germany), SWM (Poland) and Comhlámh (Ireland). In the Irish context, the project emerged from needs identified by volunteers and volunteer sending agencies (VSAs) through Coming Home Weekends, peer support meetings and Irish and international research. The outputs of the project included the development of resources, capacity building courses for returned volunteers and VSAs, networking and this research report. The report outlines some of the main findings from the project by sharing information gathered from key stakeholders: returned volunteers, VSAs, development education organisations and funders. For the report, six semi-structured interviews were conducted with two returned volunteers, a donor representative, a former Irish Aid desk officer a development organisation and a development education organisation, as well as findings from a mapping exercise of nineteen VSAs that was carried out in 2011 by Comhlámh. Similar to the reasons for going overseas, the reasons volunteers chose to engage on their return are multiple and complex, and often it is down to individual volunteers to make this call. However, there are conditions that can nurture and support engagement, including recognition, support from sending agencies, Comhlámh and other agencies, access to support services if needed (e.g. counselling, debriefing, coaching, etc.) encouragement, ongoing communication, and embedding development education and continuous engagement into wider volunteer programmes. Returned volunteers are a significant resource for change making from Ireland. However this requires efforts at different levels, supported by Comhlámh, VSAs and development education organisations, including further skills development, linking returnees into ongoing development education and local community development initiatives, and engaging returnees at a policy level. Networking among volunteers as well as between VSAs and development education and local organisations can strengthen information and signposting, collaboration, and engagement of returned volunteers in these sectors.

Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland


Within volunteering programmes, there is a wealth of existing good practice in relation to development education in volunteering. However, there is still further work that could be done to strengthen this element of volunteering programmes, including VSA membership to IDEA (Irish Development Education Association) and through further integrating development education within the Comhlámh Code of Good Practice for VSAs. Encouraging volunteers to stay engaged on their return from the outset of the volunteer programme can mean that continuous engagement is an intuitive next step following an overseas experience, rather than an ‘add on’ during the return phase. ‘What can I do?’ is a common question among returnees. Development education needs to be the host for this question, and sending agencies, Comhlámh, development education organisations and wider community based initiatives need to have a joined up approach to support the learning and further engagement of returned volunteers. This includes making links between what they were doing overseas and the structural causes of poverty and injustice, importantly how to participate in these underlying structural causes.


INTRODUCTION Background to the Report Comhlámh is the Irish Association of development workers and volunteers, set up in 1975 by returned development workers and volunteers seeking to use their overseas experiences to raise awareness of global justice issues and effect change from Ireland. Development education has always been key to the Association’s work with development workers and volunteers. Today Comhlámh continues to strive to strengthen the links between volunteering and development education in Ireland. In response to a European Commission Call for Proposals: “Raising public awareness of development issues and promoting development education in the European Union” a project entitled ‘Back to the Future’ was established in 2011. The project was a partnership between three organisations; Comhlámh


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

(Irish NGO), finep (German NGO) and SWM (Polish volunteer sending agency). The focus of the project was on the role of returned volunteers and their stimulation and support to act as multipliers in relation to development education once returned home. Although the project partners came from three very different contexts, common links and constructively working processes and modalities quickly emerged. The underlying understanding shared by the project partners was that returned volunteers are potential agents for change and therefore an asset to development education in their home country. In addition the project endeavoured to raise awareness to a wider European audience of global development issues with a key focus on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This report outlines some of the main findings from the project by sharing information gathered from stakeholders in international volunteering: returned volunteers; VSAs; funding donors; and development education NGOs, in addition to data collated during the project. In doing so, it aims to contribute to the provision of a coherent and useful landscape for returned volunteers remain engaged and active in their important role as global education multipliers. Methodology The report commenced with a review of relevant literature relating to volunteer continuous engagement, including the findings of a mapping exercise conducted in 2011 to provide baseline data for the project. Qualitative research data was collected through a focus group and semi-structured interviews with a total of fifteen research participants. Table 1: Qualitative data sources

Research Method



Focus Group

Returned volunteers


Semi-structured interviews

Returned volunteers


Semi-structured interviews

Local development/ development education NGOs


Semi-structured interviews

Donor organisations


The report also draws on the learning from the project experience in Germany and Poland, to provide a broader European perspective by incorporating the findings from the research that was carried out in each country by the project partners respectively. It includes summaries of the situation of volunteers in development education from each country, which are integrated with the final conclusions and recommendations of this report. While the report cannot claim to be fully representative, it does represent an overview of issues emerging from the ‘Back to the Future’ project and outlines potential future areas where work and research may be appropriate. Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland


Development Education in Volunteering The DARE Forum1 definition of Development Education (2004) is as follows:  ‘Development education is an active learning process, founded on values of solidarity, equality, inclusion and co-operation. It enables people to move from basic awareness of international development priorities and sustainable human development, through understanding of the causes and effects of global issues to personal involvement and informed actions‘. While there is no strict definition for development education in the context of overseas volunteering, this report will apply development education values and principles to volunteer programmes, based on how development education has manifested within volunteering programmes and how returned volunteers themselves understand their role as development education multipliers. Development education as the process through which individuals travel overseas can support their journey to be that of a learning one: planting the seeds for a more critical and longer-term engagement in development. Development education in volunteering with a focus on the lifelong learning of individual volunteers can support them to make sense of the overseas experience in relation to their wider lived experience and translate this into informed action and awareness-raising on return. Returned volunteers have the potential to become ‘multipliers for development education’, critically engaging with the issues, raising interest and awareness of global justice issues and taking actions for change. Literature Review Profile of volunteering Although there is limited literature on returned volunteers in Ireland, it is important to note from the available literature the diversity of ways in which people volunteer overseas, and the changing nature of volunteering over time. McGinn (2011) makes a clear distinction between short and long term volunteering in the Irish context in relation to development education. Ireland has a high ratio of short term volunteers going overseas for a few weeks or months (McCloughlan, 2013), compared to many other countries, which see young volunteers spending up to a year abroad (VOSESA, 2011). The nature of volunteering has changed over the past few decades, according to research in Canada (Kelly and Case, cited in Allum, 2008) which found that volunteer engagement on return varies according to the era when the volunteers served, with those who served in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s more like to volunteer locally than those who had served in the 1990s or 2000s. In Ireland there has been a sharp rise in short term volunteering, particularly since the 1990s. Research commissioned by Dóchas2 into attitudes towards development cooperation in Ireland found that there was a high level of expressed concern about development issues, combined with low levels of knowledge 1: Development Awareness Raising and Education Forum (DARE) is one of the core-working group of CONCORD, the European Confederation of Development and Relief NGOs. 2: Dochas is the Irish Association of International NGOs www.dochas.ie


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

(Amarach, 2013). This confirmed previous polls which suggested support for the principle of overseas aid but also a great deal of uncertainty over whether overseas aid was actually working. This was echoed by a study carried out in the UK (Darnton and Kirk, 2011) about engaging the public in global poverty, which found ‘the public as a whole remain uninterested and ill-informed’. The ‘Live Aid Legacy’, the negative impact of the concert organised to raise awareness and funds of the famine in Ethiopia in 1985, has since then been the dominant frame of the UK public, which according to the study has not altered in 25 years. This suggests a pressing need for a more informed public on these issues, and public awareness about development which goes beyond the charitable frame. The ‘Back to the Future’ project sought to explore the role of returned volunteers in this more critical public awareness-raising and as multipliers of development education locally. The limited knowledge of development issues can also be reflected in volunteers’ experiences of learning about development during their overseas experiences. McGinn’s (2011) study, carried out with forty-eight returned development workers, found that the majority had little or no international development knowledge, with only 26% knowing ‘quite a lot’. Likewise the complexity and challenges of development awareness-raising were identified by VSO returnees (Bentall, C. Blum, N. Bourn, D, 2010), who stated they wanted to share with people locally the ‘full story’ beyond the realities of deprivation and poverty. However, the respondents also stated that they needed time after returning home to sort out their own feelings about development before engaging in development activities. This ‘critical’ approach to address the structural and underlying causes of poverty and inequality, rather than a focus on poverty, was also reflected in research with host communities in Tanzania and Mozambique (VOSESA, 2011) which sought to locate international volunteer service within a development discourse embedded within the historic unequal power relations between the Global North and Global South. It found that volunteers do not always make these connections. However, overseas volunteering has the potential to interrogate further the global inequalities that exist in our world and deepen an understanding among returned volunteers about the history and complexity of development. This ‘global learning’ aspect of volunteering is often overlooked when measuring volunteer effectiveness and contribution to development (Allum, 2008), with the focus often being on the work that is achieved overseas. Research has found that returned volunteers have a strong commitment to securing a more just and equitable world (Bentall et al, op cit.) and local or international volunteering can promote social change in the way that it contributes to the personal transformation of individuals, suggesting that volunteering and social activism have the potential to help foster the level and diversity of participation needed to confront the major tensions and development challenges of our time (CIVICUS, 2009). Personal motivation is one key aspect of why volunteers chose to go overseas in the first place, as well as one of their reasons to engage on return. McGinn (2011) outlines three main components of why returnees chose to engage: ‘personal mission’, that is, a commitment to global justice; logistical considerations such as time availability; and a motivational dimension. Other studies have identified further motivators for engagement that largely relate to the role of VSAs: organisational effectiveness, believing in the cause, building relationships, positive perception of the sending agency (MacRory, 2009), VSAs’ ongoing contact with returnees, and support for personal and career development (Comhlámh, 2009). These findings highlight, as well as the personal motivation of individual returnees, the important role that VSAs play in the continued engagement Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland


of volunteers. MacRory (2009) makes the following recommendations for volunteer sending agencies: following up with volunteers, acknowledging any support received from volunteers, ensuring volunteers feel valued, provide a range of engagement options, and providing support for resettlement. In particular, she highlights those returnees who are working full time (outside of the international development sector) and the need to consider options that would suit their lifestyles. The options that are available to returnees as offered by VSAs are often those that take place outside of their work (e.g. presentations, campaigning), but in the research by Bentall, Blum and Bourn (2010) the volunteers studied indicated an interest in using their experience for development awareness-raising within their work. To date, this area of development awareness-raising in nondevelopment work spaces is under-explored. The literature review highlighted some current knowledge about returned volunteers and their potential role in development education and awareness-raising, both from national as well as international perspectives. The key issues raised are further examined throughout the rest of the report. Overview of Current situation: Ireland This section of the report draws on research commissioned and undertaken by Comhlámh and current work by the Association. Recent Research The ‘New Evidence on Overseas Volunteering from Ireland’ 2013 research report commissioned by Comhlámh presents quantitative data from 78 questionnaires distributed to Irish based volunteer sending agencies in early 2013. The sending agencies who responded to the survey (n=46) sent 2,120 volunteers overseas in 2012, a substantial number from which to analyse and gather data. Key findings from this research are: • Half of the overseas volunteers from Ireland in 2012 were aged less than 30 years and almost half again were aged between 30 and 65 years. • From the survey sample, it was estimated that there were in the region of 4,500 overseas volunteers in total from Ireland working in various placements around the world in 2012. • 92% of volunteers went for 3 months or less with 70% of these spending up to one month overseas. • In terms of the work volunteers did while overseas, the most popular activities were building and construction, community development, and youth development. The trends of a younger cohort of volunteers (aged less than 30 years old) and shorter time periods for volunteering overseas (less than one month) both emerge in this research data. Continuous engagement of volunteers is an area which sending agencies themselves have identified a greater need for support. This has been identified on an ongoing basis in VSA peer support meetings convened by Comhlámh for signatories of its Code of Good Practice (see below). In


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

2011, a group of sending agencies particularly interested to work on this issue came together to form the ‘Volunteering and Development Education committee’. The group meets three times a year to promote development education within the wider volunteering sector. An internal baseline study commissioned by Comhlámh in 2012 found that VSAs would like further support for development education in volunteer programmes, including skills training for volunteers and VSA staff members, in particular awareness raising, lobbying and campaigning. Comhlámh Code of Good Practice Comhlámh has developed a Code of Good Practice for volunteer sending agencies, to support and encourage good practice in volunteering. The Code is a set of standards aimed at ensuring that overseas volunteering has a positive impact for the volunteer, the sending agency and the hosting project and community. Currently there are thirty-four sending agencies in Ireland who are signatories to the Code, with forty signatories anticipated in 2014. There are eleven principles that incorporate all aspects of volunteer programmes. Development education is currently implicit within the Code throughout all Principles, and explicit in Principle 11. The Code has been in existence since 2007 and is updated annually. Additional observations At the time of this report, twelve Irish sending agencies are current members of IDEA (Irish Development Education Association). Membership of IDEA is open to anyone who is committed to providing, promoting or advancing development education in Ireland. Membership by sending agencies represents an active commitment to promoting development education within their volunteering programmes.

Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland



DEVELOPMENT EDUCATION IN VOLUNTEERING PROGRAMMES The findings in this section are taken from the information from the Mapping Exercise, carried out with nineteen VSAs in 2011.

A Mapping Exercise (‘Development Education and Volunteering Overseas’, Comhlámh, 2011) was carried out with VSAs to map the role of development education within their organisations. The nineteen responses were wide and varied, highlighting the diversity of ways organisations understand and engage with development education and the possibilities there are for sending organisations to share good practice and enhance existing development education practice and approaches within their organisations. However, this also points to a lack of synergy among VSAs of understandings of development education in volunteering programmes. According to the Mapping Exercise, the level of engagement in development education by organisations varies, depending on a number of factors: funding, resources, time and capacity issues, the priority given to development education within the organisation, the experience of the respective organisation and the supports and signposting available. The role of development education within organisations based on the Mapping Exercise responses can be grouped within the following themes: • development education as part of the core underlying principles and organisational approach; • development education as the way in which to deliver the training of volunteers (including content, approach and methodologies); • development education as the overseas experience; • development education as awareness-raising of global justice issues from Ireland; • development education activities to engage in on return; • Some organisations mentioned that there was little or no focus on development education within their organisations.


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

The findings from the Mapping Exercise highlighted how development education is central to the work of some of the responding organisations. Others referred to limited resources available for development education within their organisation and the impact this has on volunteer programmes. ‘Acknowledging that increased funding will likely be identified as a factor which would strengthen a dev ed aspect to volunteering overseas programmes, we must reference the significant cuts currently being experience by those in the Development Education sector.’ The main groups of people with whom organisations engage in development education are: • Overseas volunteers; • Formal education (primary, secondary and third level education); • Informal education (youth, community and adult education); • General public. The target group differs depending on whether development education is delivered with volunteers during the volunteer training programme, or with people in Ireland (non volunteers) through awareness-raising and campaigning on return. This may be with groups who do not have the chance to go overseas themselves. The content of development education differs depending on the context, target group and the nature of the organisation. However, exploring and addressing the ‘root causes’ of poverty, injustice and oppression was a common theme throughout the responses. The underlying issues are complex; therefore development education can be the process through which a deeper understanding is developed and ways to take action to address these: ‘We encourage participants to understand and educate others about the circumstances and root causes that make people vulnerable, the work the local projects are doing to help bring about real change in people’s lives. We also encourage them to challenge stereotypes and prejudice and help other people to understand how their actions at an individual, community, national and international level can positively affect the life of people in the Majority World.’ ‘(Development education) is used to raise awareness among the public and encourage them to act against poverty by addressing the related issues and effects.’ The value of development education in volunteering programmes Learning from the Global South While overseas, engaging with perspectives and voices from the people with whom they were working in the Global South can provide new insights and perspectives to enhance volunteers’ understanding of global poverty and injustice. Open Spaces for Dialogue and Enquiry methodology supports the creation of open safe spaces for exploring Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland


global issues, thereby supporting a process through which people can engage critically with their own and different perspectives and make informed and responsible decisions about how they want to think. Development education as the process to unpack the assumptions and perspectives of volunteers and enrich these perspectives through voices from host communities is an opportunity to generate new and more complex narratives of development: ‘Volunteers going overseas need to understand the complex issues around poverty and human rights prior to departure, while overseas we would have local people provide this information and upon return it is about advocacy’; ‘Through an overseas experience, participants are asked to be the voice of the people with whom they have lived and worked and to highlight their experiences of poverty and inequality. We encourage participants to understand and educate others about the circumstances and root causes’. Understanding Interdependence In additional to raising awareness of the issues affecting the Global South, respondents highlighted the importance of interdependence and the connecting issues affecting communities in Ireland and the rest of the world: ‘The aim of the programmes is to create a link between the International development sector, local community groups and those who participate in the development education course. We aspire to enhance peoples understanding of the links between their own lives as Irish citizens and the social, political, and environmental practices that influence our world.’ ‘Making links between the situation in Ireland and in the South’. Participative Learning Methodologies There was an emphasis on the learning approach and methodologies used within volunteering programmes: ‘(…programmes are…) based on principles of experiential learning… which aims to enrich lives and to inspire global citizenship’. ‘The programme also has a strong emphasis on learner-centred and action based methodologies’. ‘We promote two-way learning between people in developed and developing countries through first hand volunteering experience in sub-Saharan Africa, and through postal correspondence between schools in Ireland and Africa.’


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

Ongoing Volunteer Action As well as development education as part of volunteer training, the Mapping Exercise highlighted the importance of development education as part of ongoing volunteer action on return: ‘Volunteer experience overseas should be followed by actions in order to effect positive change here in Ireland’; ‘The Global Perspectives theme aims to support volunteers with an action orientation to contextualise, learn from and build on their experiences of working at grassroots level with our partners’; ‘We also encourage them to challenge stereotypes and prejudice and help other people to understand how their actions at an individual, community, national and international level can positively affect the life of people in the Majority World.’ Summing up: development education in volunteering programmes The variety of roles which development education has within organisations shows the wealth of diverse practices and multiple interpretations of development education. The results of the Mapping Exercise illustrate the richness and depth that development education can add to an overseas volunteering experience. However, the diversity of how development education manifests itself in volunteering programmes can be a challenge. The lack of a strict definition of development education in volunteering can leave it open to interpretation, potentially resulting in poor quality development education programmes. A need exists for a more commonly shared understanding of a critical development education approach to be embedded into volunteering programmes, to enable active and critical returned volunteers acting for global justice on their return. During the ‘Back to the Future’ project, a set of ‘Guidelines for Development Education in Volunteering’ were developed, and can be found on the Comhlámh website (http://goo.gl/1UWism). The Guidelines outline what is meant by development education in volunteering, the value of development education in volunteering and outline suggestions for sending agencies. The Guidelines, as well as membership of IDEA and ongoing training and debates are all routes to promote good practice in development education in volunteering.

Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland



FINDINGS FROM THE RESEARCH: RETURNED VOLUNTEERS AS MULTIPLIERS FOR GLOBAL LEARNING The Section four will document the responses from the semi-structured interviews and focus group discussion that were carried out as part of the research for this report, in response to the research question: what is the role of returned volunteers as multipliers of global learning? The overwhelming response from the interviews and the focus group was the recognition of the huge potential of returned volunteers as multipliers for global learning and their power to become agents for change making from Ireland. ‘It [volunteering] affects everyone differently and it can make returned volunteers either think of the local or the global. Both are good if it even just changes your attitude, I mean, it’s not changing the world but it definitely can make an input – with so many people going overseas, a lot of people, and their attitudes when they come back, conversations with their friends and family. At the same time there is potential for more as well and it can make people want to get more involved.’ (Returned volunteer 1, interview) ‘There is huge potential for people coming back… they come back with passion, they have experienced so much, seen so


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

much, and they can use that knowledge for advocacy, for change making in Ireland.’ (Development organisation respondent, interview) The diversity of responses from volunteers and the focus on how volunteering affects everyone differently highlights the unique experience each volunteer has overseas, and this is manifested on return in terms of the unique path each returned volunteer will want to pursue. There was general agreement of the value of hearing first-hand from returned volunteers in terms of the unique contribution that an overseas volunteering experience can bring regarding global learning: ‘There is that kind of credibility of having worked with people overseas brings, the longer obviously the better. One of the benefits brought back is that you have a credible voice, you know what you are talking about – hopefully.’ (Donor interview) However, the experience in itself is not necessarily enough and there is further support needed locally to engage the voices of returned volunteers: ‘Definitely they can see what is happening on the ground over there and how our policies in the west are affecting people in the south. Would they have the skills to articulate it to the people in power? So it is back to the training – public speaking training, media training… people do have the passion but don’t know how to speak in front of people.’ (Returned volunteer 2, Interview) The conversation in the focus group centred around the importance of ‘starting where people are at’ (returned volunteer, Focus Group) and the tensions of this when balancing it with the need to educate about particular issues. This view was also supported by other interview respondents: ‘If you want people to be involved, you need to let them lead it, whatever they are interested in’ (Former Irish Aid desk officer, interview); ‘Maybe it’s about encounters on different levels. So there might be one posse of people who are saying, “I want to put this to good use here”… and look at how do they bring the angle of global element with them on their journey’. (Development Education respondent, interview) There are a range of ways in which returned volunteers can be involved in global learning from Ireland. Two survey respondents referred to the complexity of what involvement on return actually means: ‘Getting involved in what? It’s very general…. there are many ways to get involved… It’s a difficult one to pin down because to get involved can mean so many things.’ (Returned volunteer 2, interview) ‘There are spectrums of activism. Doesn’t mean only being Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland


on the streets, although it does for some people, other prefer to write a book about their experience, others prefer to go to meet the Foreign Affairs committee in the Dail and lobby them. That’s all different spectrums of activism.’ (Development agency representative, interview) A range of options for how returnees can get involved were noted, including options through the sending agency, development education organisations and those that returned volunteers pursue in their individual capacity. The table below outlines all the options identified through this research, both in the semi structured interviews, the focus group and the Mapping Exercise. Workshops in schools*

Giving talks & presentations

Further education (e.g. Masters)

Development education courses


Debates Adjudicators (e.g. Concern or Comhlámh Debates)

Pursuing a career in development

Integrating a global perspective into wider life/ career area


Volunteering locally

Join a board of a charitable organisation

Influence development policy including govt. led consultations*

Set up a project/ organisation locally

Linking to local injustice issues/ groups*

Develop an Action Project

Networking events for returned volunteers*

Develop a network of returnees across Ireland

Facilitating pre departure and coming home training courses on behalf of VSA

Individual lifestyle changes, e.g. ethical consumerism, recycling


Writing articles for publications/ newsletters

Engaging through social media

Meeting/ recruiting potential volunteers

Volunteer options with the sending agency*

Working with local migrant/ minority groups

Returnees as a resource to support dev ed organisations

Engaging within the local community*

Not getting involved*

*These activities are further explained through the direct quotes gathered from research respondents below. Workshops in schools Schools were identified as having huge potential for returned volunteers to have an impact as development education multipliers. The responses indicated that returned volunteers could add value to existing development education activity in schools, including school linking programmes, by sharing their overseas experiences. However this should be hosted in a critical development education approach to ensure added value, and support for returned volunteers could support this. ‘Locally, schools work could be an option. You could have a school linked with a school in South Africa, but they might not know someone who worked there. This could add value.’ (Former Irish Aid desk officer, interview)


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

‘In theory, yes, if you’re talking about the formal development education sector and teachers in primary or secondary school who are teaching various development education modules, I imagine they would welcome people to come in... I think that probably would be something they would want’. (Development organisation representative, interview) Fundraising For many volunteers fundraising is the only option offered to them by the sending agency. Fundraising can often be unsustainable and reinforces the needs of the VSA rather than the skills of the returned volunteer, and is in danger of reducing the overseas experience to one of charity. Nonetheless fundraising as one of many options can mean that those who chose to do it will do so willingly and bring their skills to this, but that those who are not interested to fundraise should have other options available to them as well. ‘Sometimes with fundraising it’s like, ‘do your bit, you had this great experience and now you owe us’. I think it can be kind of off putting... especially people who do a lot – organisations know you are the ‘go to’ person so it can be hard for people.’ (Returned volunteer 1, interview) ‘There’s nothing wrong with fundraising, at least that is practical and tangible. I can understand why people would want to do that. But would be you better supporting an organisation... helping them with their advocacy, or joining in with their campaign rather than doing something completely random and separate. ‘ (Development organisation representative, interview) Influencing development policy The former Irish Aid desk officer strongly supported the idea of actively creating spaces whereby returnees can use their knowledge and experience of working in countries in the Global South to inform Irish Aid and wider EU policy consultations. This has been done in an ad hoc way previously, leaving it mostly up to individuals to make submissions, so this idea is one that would meaningfully honour the experience of returned volunteers and development workers and can contribute to development impact at policy level. ‘The Irish Aid new country strategy could have returned development workers to comment on the strategy and people could listen that way, influence policy that way.’ (Former Irish Aid desk officer, interview) Networking events for returned volunteers The feedback from the focus group indicated that it is difficult to know what is going on, and that networking provides opportunities to connect with similarly minded people as well as create avenues for engagement outside of the organised options available through the sending agency, a more emergent approach to continuous engagement, giving agency to returned volunteers: Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland


‘Networking is great for people. It could just be an event in a pub, it wouldn’t have to be overly organised, I think it should be more informal and just let people start exchanging ideas.’ (Returned volunteer 2, interview) Linking to local injustice issues/ groups The feedback from the focus group identified a disconnect with local groups and justice issues, in particular new communities to Ireland, particularly those communities coming from the Global South. Additionally, the semi-structured interviews identified the value of volunteers with an overseas experience adding value to local initiatives: ‘I think you just get such a perspective on global issues problems, inequalities – it’s not just charity, you learn about your own country, you’ve problems in your own country too.' (Returned volunteer 1, Interview) Bring a global dimension into their career area Echoing the findings from the Literature Review, creating options for those who do not end up working directly in the development sector to bring a global dimension into their career is an opportunity to bring global learning into new spaces for development education: ‘I would say a lot of them keep that [their volunteer experience] with them as they begin their working life here. I know some people who would continue to bring in that global perspective just from their knowledge and experience of being overseas.’ (Development education representative, interview) ‘The other cohort coming back after working overseas are perhaps going on to different careers, it is really important for them that they know they can go off and be a banker, they can go off and do whatever, but they can still make a contribution, to their organisation, to society, to development education.’ (Development organisation representative, interview) ‘…to bring in a development education angle on all of their work. So whether it is in a voluntary capacity or whether it’s a career, there are opportunities to bring development education in.’ (Donor organisation, interview) Engaging within the local community As well as often feeling disconnect with the local community on return, coming home can be an opportunity for returned volunteers to develop new lenses on community activism locally: ‘The key thing for anybody is to map out the terrain, say “where are the community organizing in this neck of the woods?” Like there’s a community development project, a family resource centre, a citizen initiative like street feast, council initiatives, transition towns, a sustainability project


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

or an organic centre, community garden, a women’s group or a men’s shed. It’s about surveying your community, having a look at what’s there, what points of organizing and connection are there and then getting to know those’. (Development education representative, interview) Campaigning In the Mapping Exercise (Comhlámh, 2011) sending agencies identified the need for further training in campaigning skills for their volunteers and for the staff of their organisation. This was reinforced by Comhlámh’s internal baseline study which found that 18 of the 21 respondents indicated that they would find support in skills for campaigning from Comhlámh ‘useful’ (9 responses) and ‘very useful’ (9 responses) to ‘train their staff so that they can engage returned volunteers in education, campaigning or volunteering activities in Ireland’. They also felt that ‘providing access to external trainers to engage returned volunteers in education, campaigning or volunteering activities in Ireland’ would be ‘useful’ (12 responses) and ‘very useful’ (2 responses). Not getting involved! This is an important option that should be considered by volunteer sending agencies as well as by returning volunteers. For many people, they may not be ready to engage when they first return home: ‘I don’t think people need to do it [get involved]. Even if you are given options, suggestions, you might not want to do it. For a lot of people who don’t take your suggestions at that time, something might stick in their head and five years down the road it might still be useful’. (Returned volunteer 1, interview) Volunteer options with the sending agency Only 33% of the nineteen respondents of the mapping exercise (Comhlámh, 2011) stated that they shared opportunities outside of their own organisation, which indicates that the majority of VSAs only offer options within their own organisation. While this might seem beneficial to the organisation, if other options outside of the sending agency are not shared with returnees, it may limit the options they are aware of and therefore limit potential further engagement. One returned volunteer indicated that the options made available to returnees should be for the benefit of volunteers, not sending agencies: ‘They (VSAs) might be disappointed if people are not engaged. Maybe not now, and maybe not be helpful for you or with your organisation, but maybe down the line for them it might lead to something... They (VSAs) are coming at it from a different perspective, if they were coming at it from a returned volunteer perspective it could be different.’ (Returned volunteer 1, interview)

Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland



EXAMPLES OF RETURNEES’ ACTION PROJECTS ‘What Next’ is a four-day development education course for returned volunteers, beginning with a residential weekend and two more follow up days. As an outcome of ‘What Next’, there was support and funding to enable participants to pursue an action project. The action projects contributed to global learning and awareness-raising locally, through innovative projects with a global dimension and local relevance. Below are some examples of projects that were developed by the returned volunteers who took part in this course. Beyond Book Club The ‘Beyond Book Club’ was set up by Maeve who wanted to do something that generated debate, but who didn’t want to be considered an ‘expert’ necessarily. Each month, a book is chosen with a global justice theme and discussed with those in attendance – some of whom have not necessarily had an overseas experience themselves. Online Blog: ‘Let’s Live Consciously’ Letsliveconsciously.wordpress.com is a blog started by Michelle who, after her overseas experiences, decided she wanted to live a more ethical lifestyle.


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

Her efforts were challenging but she was succeeding to live more consciously and wanted to share this with others, and so created a weekly blog, sharing some of her thoughts and actions with the intention of encouraging others to consider doing so too. Children’s Story Book on refugee issues After working closely with refugees overseas, Damien wanted to bring the issues he had experienced to children and young people. He devised a short story about a bird experiencing forced migration, and got the story illustrated into a book which is now a resource to be used in schools to raise awareness of refugee issues.

Illustration by Chloe Metcalfe

Video on HIV/ AIDs After working with the issue of HIV/ AIDs while overseas, Siobhán came home to find that this issue was not just experienced in South Africa, but an ever present issue here in Ireland too. She made a short video for World Aids day 2013 which was shared around social media networks to raise awareness of this issue. http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=l5GOFMaOV4A Gender Equality Art Workshops The issue of gender equality is one that Fran, Nahid and Emily shared a passion for, having learned about gender issues in their respective overseas volunteering placements but also motivated to raise awareness of gender as a local issue as well. They organised three workshops for people to come and explore the issue of gender equality and empowerment and the outcome was two beautiful paintings which formed part of a wider exhibition. The World’s Best News Why is there so much negative information about development among the public in Europe? Sean had witnessed many positive news stories while volunteering in Nicaragua, and inspired by the Danish ‘World’s Best News’, himself, Fiona, Maeve and Ross linked with Dóchas (to establish the World’s Best News in Ireland. https://www.facebook.com/ TheWorldsBestNews

Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland



CHALLENGES TO THE CONTINUOUS ENGAGEMENT OF VOLUNTEERS The challenges to continuous engagement were identified from the interviews, the Mapping Exercise and the focus group. Many similar findings emerged, and have been grouped accordingly blow. People don’t understand The whole experience of coming home is a challenge in itself for many returning volunteers, readjusting to life at home, difficulties settling in and people around not relating to what they had been experiencing overseas. ‘The main challenge for returnees is that people can’t relate to what they have been volunteering for. So if you try to tell someone about your year’s work in Africa or Cambodia, the eyes glaze over after two or three minutes because they can’t relate to that, so it can be a bit disconcerting’ (Returned volunteer 2, interview) ‘Within your own circle, friends and families, even if they are interested, some are just not! Just even if they are they might not just get it.’ (Returned volunteer 1, interview) ‘I think the challenge is to re-blend in with your surroundings; you feel a little bit torn, you want to get back into it but you can resist it’. (Returned volunteer 1, interview) 'You might be that flash in the pan; people are interested to hear your story, but once’. (Donor organisation, Interview)


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

As such, effective debriefing and the chance to meaningfully tell their story can be incredibly helpful for returnees. Having the opportunity to be with others who have been overseas and who may understand or at least relate to their experiences can be helpful, and so creating spaces where returnees can meet one another are all ways to address this challenge. Time limitations Time restraints and the day-to-day lives of returnees was something that was indicated both in the Mapping Exercise (Comhlámh, 2011) and the interview responses. ’Volunteers become busy with other things on return; our organisation becomes busy with new projects. Time is the main factor’. (VSA respondent, Mapping Exercise, 2011) ‘In a sense real life kicks in so time, getting the job, family, all of that obviously takes centre stage’. (Donor organisation, Interview) One response outlined the need for Comhlámh, volunteer sending agencies and anyone else who would like to meaningfully engage returned development workers and volunteers to be conscious of the changing needs when people do come home: ‘I expect the majority of active members are probably single with a lot of time on their hands. So how do you keep those other people involved is the thing, so if they have worked in Africa Asia or a development context, they come home, and then they naturally have a family and they get married and have a job – how do you keep them involved?’ (Returned volunteer 2, Interview) Therefore the way in which organisations plan activities should take into account the time limitations and the different profiles of the individual volunteers: those who are working, those with families, students, those who are already quite busy – and design activities that will allow for different limitations to engage effectively. A focus on the overseas phase Volunteer programmes often focus on the opportunity of going overseas, including preparation for going overseas and the activities while overseas, and often the return phase is neglected. Restricting an overseas volunteer experience to the overseas phase can limit engagement on return. Making the case for the importance of the return phase and the impact that this can have in terms of global learning and development education can be a challenge for VSAs but can be significant in terms of encouraging more volunteers to engage on their return. Some quotes from survey respondents in the Mapping Exercise (Comhlámh, 2011): ‘Because of the global nature of volunteering the coming home stage is the most difficult to ensure involvement’ (VSA Survey respondent, Mapping Exercise, 2011) Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland


‘Sometimes people want to go straight back out again instead of letting the learning sink in and sharing that learning here. This may not be as valued as going overseas’ (VSA Survey respondent, Mapping Exercise, 2011) VSAs could integrate clearly stated expected action on return into wider volunteer programmes. Therefore when recruiting volunteers ensure they are aware of the commitment to use their experiences for ongoing engagement and global learning activity on return. Lack of structured opportunities The Mapping Exercise also identified the lack of structured programmes on return as a challenge to the engagement of returnees. ‘We find that some volunteers have difficulty in making initiatives on return and are moving towards planning more structured activities in which they can engage’ (VSA Survey respondent, Mapping Exercise, 2011) This challenge was likewise identified in the focus group, who felt that only the most engaged returnees will establish projects, join initiatives and actively find opportunities to get engaged. The request emerging from the focus group was to design more and more structured opportunities for those returned volunteers who are not as engaged but who would still want to stay somehow involved. Restricting options to those within the VSA As mentioned previously, many VSAs only offer continuous engagement options within their own organisation. Only providing options in this way means that some people may fall off, as there is a limit to what organisations can offer. In addition to any options available within the organisation, signposting to a wider range of opportunities would allow more people to find an option that best suits them. The Dóchas Wednesday News and Activelink were two e-bulletins that were mentioned in the focus group as good links to share with returnees to begin finding out what is going on within the development sector. Both these bulletins share weekly information on events, jobs and updates from the development, development education and community development sectors. ‘A challenge in our country is that people don’t necessarily join the dots... there could be lots going on but maybe people don’t know about it. We need to join the dots, figure out how returned development workers can be aware of how they can support development activity from Ireland’. (Former Irish Aid desk officer, Interview) ‘I suppose other people just want to get on with their lives, not that interested in doing public speaking but perhaps would like to be involved, so how to facilitate this involvement without expecting too much from them?’ (Returned Volunteer 2, Interview)


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

Development and development education organisations ‘closed’ At the same time as stating the need for VSAs to open out and make linkages and connections outside of their own organisation, development and development education organisations likewise can be ‘closed’ to returned volunteers. This can be due to tight work plans and predesigned activities that leave no room for more ‘responsive’ approaches to hosting returnees who have skills and who want to be involved and act as a resource for these organisations. One returned volunteer mentioned the closed nature of the development sector in Ireland, stating that they found it difficult to volunteer or initiate projects within organisations, and that the opportunities that exist don’t necessarily honour the skills and experiences of returned volunteers: ‘I don’t think there is an open door there necessarily. And although charities are crying out for help, for people to come on board, they don’t necessarily go out of their way to set that environment up... charities should be more open to these people because if you don’t have that specific skillset they are advertising like an M and E officer, they are not that interested, unless you want to shake a bucket or something for them, and that’s possibly not the most inspiring thing to be doing’. (Returned volunteer 2, interview) Limited organisational capacity Limited organisational capacity was identified in the Mapping Exercise as a major barrier to maximising the potential of continuous engagement of volunteers, including the supports for individual volunteers, the capacity to offer options on return and managing local volunteers within the organisation: ‘Time and staff capacity limitations mean that we do not provide as many options for continuous engagement with volunteers as we would like to’ (VSA Survey respondent, Mapping Exercise, 2011) ‘Viewing communications as key to pursuing the continuous engagement of volunteers, the amount of time required for successful communications can sometimes present itself as a constraint for development education personnel’ (VSA Survey respondent, Mapping Exercise, 2011) Some ways in which to address this can include: reframing the wider purpose of overseas volunteering to put value and emphasis on the return phase; networking and linking with Comhlámh and other development education organisations to provide options for returning volunteers; and running collaborative joint activities between VSAs for returned volunteers.

Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland



WHAT HELPS RETURNED VOLUNTEER ENGAGEMENT? The factors that support returnee engagement, as identified in the research, are outlined below. Aftercare and follow up Volunteering overseas is usually a positive experience, but there are also stressful parts to it, as well as the stress of coming back home. The importance of follow up and aftercare for future engagement can make the difference for returnees and how they settle back home2, and the Code of Good Practice, Principle 9, particularly focuses on the care of the returnee by the volunteer sending agency. ‘You can see people having burnout and coming back after really tough experiences and there isn’t really anyone to talk to, who really gets it... I don’t know why, it seems quite short term, surely if you look after your staff it’s going to be better for them and for the organisation’. (Development organisation representative, interview) ‘Definitely the after care, the follow up with the organisations and with Comhlámh as well, just gently providing options of what you might (do). Without all that it might be very difficult’. (Returned volunteer 1, interview) Framing the volunteer experience within a wider context Previous research into continuous engagement found that 67.7% of the surveyed volunteers made the decision to stay involved before they went overseas (Comhlamh, 2009). Framing the volunteer experience within a wider context of global learning and ongoing engagement with development, rather than focusing just on the overseas phase, can plant stronger seeds for engagement and action on return. As early as promotion, recruitment and pre departure phases, supporting volunteers to understand their role in the bigger picture of development can enable meaningful engagement on return. 2: Lovell Hawker, D. (2004) ‘Debriefing Aid Workers: a comprehensive manual’, People in Aid (updated version 2002)


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

‘We frame volunteers’ experience within a wider context from the outset. Volunteers are encouraged to think about ways they could engage beyond the volunteer programme particularly while on placement and return’. (VSA survey respondent, Mapping Exercise, 2011) The following comment emerged from the focus group: ‘Returnees have a huge potential... It would be an idea to include information about what is available while overseas and when you come back during pre departure training. People need to consider coming home during their pre departure, including stress management, coming home supports and opportunities’ (Returned volunteer, Focus Group interview) Ongoing communication Regular and ongoing communication with volunteers was identified as being important at all stages of the volunteer experience, including on return. Providing regular opportunities for contact through activities such as social events and networking weekends provided many spaces for volunteers to re engage with the VSA and with one another on return. ‘We are in regular contact with the individuals and we hope to try and mentor each person and support them in individual and group action’. (VSA Survey respondent, Mapping Exercise, 2011) ‘Even if you are given options, suggestions, you might not want to do it, for a lot of people who don’t take your suggestions at that time, something might stick in their head and five years down it might still be useful’. (Volunteer 1, Interview) Linking with other volunteers Linking with other returned volunteers or those sharing a similar interest can help develop resilience and coping mechanisms, as well as feeling plugged in or connected with those who have had similar experiences: ‘It needs to be nurtured, people need to feel like they are not alone, that there are a lot of like minded people who still feel the world is unfair and unequal’ (Donor organisation, interview) ‘I think it depends on the person’s environment, like for me it was quite easy because obviously I was at university and you’re meeting people who might be a bit leftie or whatever, I had contact then with the organisation that I went with’ (Volunteer 1, interview)

Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland


‘Networking is great for people. It could just be an evening event in a pub, or wouldn’t have to be overly organised, I think it should be more informal and just let people start exchanging ideas’ (Volunteer 2, interview) A range of options to get involved The interests and needs of returnees varies widely, therefore it works well to have multiple options for continued engagement available. This can be provided through the sending agency if resources are available, or through external opportunities: ‘It seems to be a huge boost to the potential involvement of returned volunteers if there is a wide range of activities tailed to their various wants and needs’ (VSA Survey respondent, Mapping Exercise, 2011) ‘The range of available opportunities to participate in also seems to work well... some volunteers are looking to commit themselves sporadically or on a short-term basis’. (VSA Survey respondent, Mapping Exercise, 2011) ‘I would look at organisations that are in the persons local area – we are lucky in Ireland to have many people and organisations committed to social justice and it is just a case of finding the right organisation for you’. (Returned volunteer, Focus Group interview) Find a suitable opportunity Every returned volunteer will have a particular interest, and tailoring options to the unique interests of individuals will help them to find a suitable opportunity to continue their own unique engagement with development. It is good to have the option not to get involved, as well as recognising that there is no optimum time to get involved. ‘It is good to have an opportunity soon, not when you are just coming back from the airport but something that leaves you resisting the status quo... if you get into something soon it might lead on to something else’. (Returned volunteer 1, interview) ‘For some people - don’t put too much pressure on yourself; and for other people – if it’s niggling at you, maybe do something small. It depends on the returnee.’ (Returned volunteer 1, interview) ‘When people come back where are they at mentally, socially? What are people particularly interested in?’ (Development Education organisation representative, interview)


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

Personal motivation and encouragement As highlighted in the literature review, for many volunteers personal motivation is a major factor in their decision to stay engaged. Ways to nurture this motivation include providing encouragement and also linking with others of similar interests. ‘Keep networking and work with others to support motivation’ (Returned volunteer, Focus group interview) ‘Join a group. Do one thing at a time, it all makes a difference’ (Returned volunteer, Focus group interview) The importance of debate In many cases, returned volunteers can return home with questions about development; some may be disillusioned; while others may have a thirst to debate the current issues within development. Comhlámh has traditionally provided a space to host this debate, and today there are other spaces, including online fora, for this to happen. ‘In relation to [distrust of charities and cynical views of development] returnees also want to debate the effectiveness of aid and development; Comhlámh could provide a space for this to happen’. (Returned volunteer, Focus group interview)

Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland



CONCLUSIONS & RECOMMENDATIONS Conclusions Like the reasons for going overseas, the reasons volunteers chose to engage on their return are multiple and complex, and often it is down to individual volunteers to make this decision. However, there are conditions that can nurture and support engagement, including recognition, support from sending agencies, Comhlámh and other agencies, access to support services if needed (e.g. counselling, debriefing, coaching, etc.) encouragement, ongoing communication, and embedding development education and continuous engagement into wider volunteer programmes. Returned volunteers can be active citizens locally and globally, if the transformative potential of an overseas experience can be captured, nurtured and translated into meaningful action. The overseas experience can be a catalyst for a deeper and longer-term engagement: ‘I’m sure regardless of what people were doing it can be a really activating experience, if you think of it in its broadest sense it might encourage people to be more engaged citizens, and I think that there is potential to harness that for development education, for the local as well as the global’. (Returned Volunteer 1, interview) Overseas volunteering can be transformative and indeed the inspiration to share the learning that was experienced while overseas with people locally in Ireland or within Europe. There is no time limit for when this should happen, nor a ‘one size fits all’ approach to engaging returned volunteers. Rather, applying development education principles throughout volunteer programmes will nurture critical thinking, learning from the Global South, awareness raising strategies and the understanding for why such engagement on return can likewise contribute to development. This can include: raising awareness of interdependence and the structural causes of poverty and injustice; lifestyle changes at a local level with a global impact (e.g. recycling, ethical consumerism, etc.); and participation at a policy level, e.g. informing development related policy. Therefore global learning should be rooted in the wider volunteer programme – not just a focus on what volunteers do overseas nor an ‘add on’ when they come home, but embedded in a wider learning cycle that has informed action on return and advocacy as a major component. According to one interviewee: ‘There is best practice for volunteers and sending organisations – if their programmes are well designed then the volunteer aspect of going overseas should be rooted in


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

that education, people having an understanding of where they fit in’. (Development organisation representative, interview) ‘What can I do?’ is a common question among returnees. Development education needs to be the host for this question, and sending agencies, Comhlámh, development education organisations and wider community based initiatives need to have a joined up approach to support the learning and further engagement of returned volunteers. This includes making links between what they were doing overseas and the structural causes of poverty and injustice, importantly how to participate in these underlying structural causes. One example was that of a flower farm in Kenya: ‘Recognising that the real difference I am going to make, it’s not just planting lots of lovely flowers in a part in Kenya, it’s by coming back here and explaining to people why there is such poverty in those parts of Kenya – does it have anything to do with how we behave here, with our trade or our consumerism or our government policies? Try to make those links with what you have seen and how we are contributing to that.’ (Development organisation representative, interview) It was identified that many returned volunteers end up working in the development sector which is one intuitive next step to getting more engaged in development. However, for those volunteers who do not end up working directly in development, the feeling is that they can still contribute in a significant way, for example in their lifestyle choices, informing others, and integrating a global dimension into their work. The focus group teased out the idea of starting where people are ‘at’, that is for returnees to identify what it is that they would be most interested to do, and to find the support to do this. This may be through peers, through the sending agency or other organisations such as Comhlámh, their local community, University or other support mechanisms. The participants of the focus group questioned whether it was an assumption that returned volunteers wanted to be involved in global justice activity when they come home, or whether this was a desire of VSAs and development education organisations locally. This issue is something that needs to be interrogated further among VSAs and volunteers, and making sure that any follow up activity in terms of global learning and development education is relevant to the individual volunteer and what they want to do. Finding a suitable opportunity therefore is key for returnees to find their own path and follow their own interests: in supporting this, new ideas may emerge. Volunteer sending agencies need to start where people are ‘at’ and grow returnees’ personal, individualised journey from here. ‘Respect the individual’s choice’ (Returned Volunteer 1, interview) – which at some stage may be to not get involved– and continue to communicate with volunteers long after they have returned home. Once they have engaged, it is about sustaining this for a more meaningful and longer term engagement. As well as structured opportunities and active engagement with development education in Ireland, the feedback suggests a value in simply bringing returned volunteers together. The highlight from the ‘What Next’ course for engaged volunteers was just this. If this is the ‘hook’ for many returnees, the next step can potentially be a deeper engagement with these like-minded people, and doing something as a group, e.g. lobbying on an Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland


issue, raising awareness together, engaging with or initiating debates. As identified in the research and the wider learning from the Back to the Future project, there is enormous potential of returned volunteers as multipliers for global learning, in terms of the credible voice they bring, their passion for the issues and first hand experiences. However, this is currently an untapped potential and could be a valuable resource for development education delivery in Ireland. Some examples are detailed below in the recommendations. In terms of the work of volunteer sending agencies the Mapping Exercise found that there is a lot of good work already going on, which should be strengthened and continued. However, often the understandings of the term development education can be so diverse that there is no shared understanding or working modality (see ‘Guidelines for Development Education in Volunteering’). Further support to strengthen development education in volunteering includes: funding support for development education; membership of VSAs to IDEA (Irish Development Education Association); and continued collaboration between VSAs. Further links could be made between volunteer sending agencies and community based, development and development education organisations which would increase networking and further signposts and options for returned volunteers.

RECOMMENDATIONS For Comhlámh: • To support alumni networks of returnees across Ireland according to areas of interest, e.g. the country they volunteered in, campaigning, anti war, geographically situated groups of returnees, etc. These could form member groups within Comhlámh. • Facilitate the development of greater links between VSAs/ volunteers and local community groups, including new communities in Ireland, for returnees to bring a global dimension to existing local justice work. • Further training opportunities to be made available for returnees, in particular public speaking skills, campaigning and project management skills. Comhlámh to take the lead on this, but not to replicate any existing trainings that are there and to tie into existing initiatives as far as possible. • Development of a centralised hub of information for continuous engagement opportunities across Ireland for returned volunteers. The hub would be informed by development education, activist groups and other sectors of activity in Ireland, and easily accessible by the wider network of returned volunteers who wish to get involved. • In order to create more coherence in terms of quality development education in volunteering, further efforts should be made to integrate development education into the principles of the Comhlámh Code of Good Practice. This could be informed by volunteers, sending agencies and development education practitioners.


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

For Volunteer Sending Agencies: • Start where volunteers are ‘at’. Signpost opportunities to returnees, tailoring options and taking into account their skills, needs, time availability and interests. Keep in mind a wide range of returnee profiles, including those who live outside of major cities and those who go into full time work on return. • Share further information on local options for engagement with volunteers. This information should not be limited to the offers of the sending agency concerned but include options offered through other networks. Networking and linking with existing initiatives and organisations can increase VSA knowledge of what is going on already within Ireland. • Integrate information about continuous engagement from the start of volunteer programmes, including recruitment and pre departure training stages. • Nurture any interest and ideas that emerge from returnees, which may result in innovative projects beyond the options that already exist. Ideas can develop and grow through support by the VSA, including funding (see EIL Seed Fund). • It is ok for volunteers not to get engaged! The optimum time for returnees to engage is when they are ready. In the mean time, support, access to services and ongoing communication can mean that volunteers know the sending agency is there and options available if and when they do decide to get involved with something. • Provide regular and ongoing contact with the returned volunteers who have volunteered with your organisation. Many returnees have stated that they feel ‘used’ by their sending agency after they come home and are only contacted to be asked to do or contribute something to the organisation. Find ways to communicate on an ongoing basis (e.g. newsletter, Christmas card, a personalised email) to strengthen relationships with volunteers. • If not already, become members of IDEA (Irish Development Education Association) to strengthen and build capacity of development education within organisations. For Volunteers • Find ways to stay inspired, e.g. linking with individuals, groups and organisations involved with social justice issues and change making. • Begin by doing just one thing. Starting small can be an incentive to do more and get involved at a deeper level. • Take it easy on return – only get involved if and when it is the right time and if there is enough energy to do so. Even then, get involved with initiatives that are energising and for which a valuable contribution can be made. For development education organisations: There is a need for more structured opportunities for returned volunteers to be a resource for the wider development education community in Ireland. Examples of ideas that emerged during the course of the research and the wider project include:

Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland


• Creation of a ‘Volunteer Skills Bank’ as a resource whereby returnees can donate their skills and organisations can engage directly with them. This could be facilitated by Comhlámh but with support from IDEA to have it utilised within the development education community. • Within the Volunteer Skills Bank, establish in particular a panel of returnees who are available to give talks, presentations and workshops in schools, community groups and other local spaces. Those returnees who are involved should have training, not assuming that just because they were overseas they are ‘experts’ in global issues, but receive support and mentoring to do this. • Actively create spaces whereby returned volunteers can input into policy consultations as part of a wider national or EU wide policy consultations. • Outreach and actively engage returned volunteers in courses, activities and events taking place through development education organisations, drawing on the expertise and energy of returned volunteers to inform and enrich development education. “Visions” Finally, to end with some quotes about the vision interviewees had for returned volunteers as a resource for global learning. ‘It is the voice that returnees bring back, building that constituency for a just world, holding governments to account, developing trade policies that Ireland is fighting for fairer regulations. That returned volunteers have played an important role and remain an important part in that constituency, remain a voice of reason that’s saying ‘poverty globally must be challenged – and hands off the poor in Ireland; policies must be fair for people here at home as well as overseas.' (Donor organisation representative) ‘What is my vision? That those who want to stay involved in development can stay involved, and that there is more public engagement. That volunteering play a leading role in changing the public’s understanding of development as a charity one to one of social justice.’ (Former Irish Aid desk officer) ‘That whole idea of active citizenship, that’s what returned development workers are – they are active citizens – so whatever form they chose to take it, they are people who want to change things and make a difference and have their voice heard. Try to keep them active, encourage, mobilise and support them’. (Development NGO representative)


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

LEARNING FROM THE PROJECT IN GERMANY For the German research, nine interviews were conducted with returnees, representatives of sending organisations, representatives from NGOs working in the field of development education and a representative of a volunteer sending agency. Current situation Many young Germans volunteer overseas, most often for one year, after they have completed secondary school, and to a lesser extent students who have finished their apprenticeship (third level studies) will chose to volunteer. Often the voluntary service is seen as a time for reflection to decide about further studies or their future career. Voluntary services are supported by state funds: in 2012 more than 3,300 volunteers went to a country in the Global South through the program “weltwärts”, funded by the Ministry of Development Cooperation. These funds, the highest in Europe in the area of volunteering, give financial support to the volunteers, e.g. for traveling costs as well as for the costs of living during the voluntary service. At the same time, a lot of volunteers go abroad within other programs and without governmental funding. Similar to the high number of volunteers there is also a high number of sending organisations in Germany; within the “weltwärts” programme, more than 200 organisations are registered. Sending organisations offer workshops to support the volunteers before, during and after their stay abroad. Many sending agencies do not see the return as the final point of a voluntary service but instead emphasise that activities and continuous engagement in Germany are an integral part of it. Some also offer seminars on continuous engagement, where volunteers can think about future engagement and gain practical knowledge to help them perform their role as a multiplier in Global Learning. However, many returnees lack information on the variety of options to act for global justice. This includes options within their own sending organisation – for example in public relations, fundraising, etc. - as well as possibilities to engage in other NGOs or become part of organisations and networks of other former volunteers. Returned volunteers as multipliers for Global Learning in Germany All the interviewees emphasised the importance of returned volunteers for Global Learning in Germany. During their time spent in the Global South they were encouraged to question their views on global problems from a European perspective, for the purposes of speaking with a more Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland


authentic voice on global issues. Many returnees want to stay involved with global topics after their return. The will to speak about the experiences made and share them with others can be a motivation for returnees to get involved. When exploring how returnees can get involved multipliers in Global Learning, the following conclusions were drawn: • Returnees need freedom to be able to develop their own ideas and projects. • Returnees should be offered individual options for continuous engagement which fit their interests and capabilities. • Common experiences in a group of volunteers, during seminars before and after their voluntary service, can help to make positive memories and strengthen the motivation of returnees. • There are plenty of options for continuous engagement in Germany, but often returnees are not well informed about them. Sending agencies have an opportunity to share further information on local options for engagement with their volunteers. This information should not be limited to the offers of the sending organisation concerned but include options by other NGOs and institutions. • Networks are important for the motivation of returnees and can help to exchange knowledge and information on projects and activities, e.g. regional groups or associations of volunteers. These spaces offer a platform for the exchange of experiences and a forum to plan joint activities and find inspiration for future engagement in Germany. Some organisations are working to form a common voice to represent the interest of volunteers and participate in the political process. • The experiences gained abroad and the motivation to contribute to global change is not enough to make returnees experts on Global Learning. Trainings on methods and themes of Global Learning are crucial to prepare returnees for their work as multipliers in Global Learning. Sending agencies can have a role to support this, or work with other local organisations that can do this. • Skills such as project management tools can be useful for returnees who have the desire to implement their own projects. These project management tools could be integrated into the training offered for returned volunteers by sending agencies. • Time constraints are a challenge for continuous engagement: after returning, many volunteers start their studies and move to a new city, which makes it difficult to find time for activities. More flexibility and support from universities for projects on global issues could facilitate greater engagement. • The exchange with volunteers from other countries, including from the Global South, can help volunteers to get a broader perspective of the different circumstances of voluntary services in different countries. It can furthermore create the space for discussions about privileges and global injustice and strengthen the process of enhancing the quality and sustainability of international voluntary services.


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

Examples of returnees’ projects in Germany Thirty three action projects were developed in Germany by returnees during the training offered by finep. Examples of these include: A group of returnees shot a short film on the working conditions in textile production in low-income countries. They documented their interpretation of the life of a worker in a garment factory for one day – sitting in front of a sewing machine for 15 hours with only a short break. With the short film they wanted to share this experience and raise awareness for the social problems caused by the demand for cheap clothes by German consumers. Two volunteers created an exhibition of photos from their time abroad as a volunteer to make people aware of the situation in these countries. The exhibition dealt with the global problem of waste. They complemented the photos with information on global waste disposal and effects on life of people and the environment in the Global South. The exhibition has been shown in two German schools with great interest. Another two returnees developed a signpost raising awareness of the impact of consumer behaviour on the Global South. The signpost was positioned near shopping district, and passers-by could pick up additional information in the form of folders and postcards to take away. Recommendations Generally speaking, sending organisations should try to include the perspective for continuous engagement already into the preparation seminars for volunteers as well as into the seminars after return to make them more aware of their role as multipliers in Global Learning. Furthermore, it is crucial to qualify returned volunteers who are willing to dedicate to work on global issues in their home country, and to inform them about different opportunities to get active within the sending organisation as well as in other groups and areas, so that they can find the kind of work that fits their talents and interests. Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland


LEARNING FROM THE PROJECT IN POLAND The research was based on phone questionnaires with nineteen sending organisations, in-depth interviews with six organisations, on-line questionnaires with one hundred and twenty volunteers, one focus group interview with seven people and three additional in-depth interviews with returned volunteers, three interviews with experts on global education, as well as a consultation with the persons managing volunteer support program within Polish Aid (Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Current situation Overseas volunteering to countries in the global south is relatively poorly developed in Poland. Polish organisations send a small, but noticeable number of volunteers to the Global South: the number can be estimated at 400 people per year. The most popular locations for volunteers are Africa and the former USSR; fewer volunteers go to Central and Latin America. The length of a volunteer’s assignment ranges from very short ones lasting a few weeks (called ‘workcamps’) to assignments of one year or more. These assignments are often part of wider development projects or in cooperation with local Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). There are very few donors that support volunteers to the Global South. Most volunteers are supported through European programmes such as Youth in Action (mainly to former USSR). The main Polish donor is the Volunteer Program of the Polish Foreign Ministry, which supports ca. 30 volunteers per year to go overseas. A large number of volunteers are supported by private donations, often collected with support from sending organisations. Sending organisations in Poland are either larger organizations (sending 20-50 people per year); and smaller organisations (sending less than 10 people per year). A small majority of the larger organisations are in different ways affiliated with the Catholic Church. Larger sending organisations operate more strategically: they maintain better contact with volunteers and have more offers of continuous engagement for them. On the other hand, there are a noticeable number of smaller organisations who have limited continuous


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

engagement options, maintain very close contact with their volunteers, who often remain involved in their work after return. In the case of larger sending organisations, 25-33% returning volunteers on average continue their engagement. In the case of smaller scale organisations the number is similar, although it has been noted that in a lot of small organisations, based on members’ involvement, everyone or almost everyone remains engaged. Returned volunteers as multipliers for Global Learning in Poland Only a minority of organisations have a structured programme for involving returned volunteers. Many organisations are open to involving volunteers but engagement is usually initiated based on needs and opportunities rather than structured opportunities. A small number of organisations do not offer any further involvement opportunities to returning volunteers. The perceived benefits of engaging returned volunteers for sending organisations are: organizational development (new people with new ideas and perspective), knowledge and experience of volunteers, the opportunity to use their direct experience in global education, as well as the potential role of volunteers in promoting the organisation. Volunteers remain involved after their return because of: potential for personal and professional development, possibility for personal fulfilment in a relevant area, as well as the fact that engagement makes the return easier and minimizes the post-return shock. Factors that prevent organisations from engaging volunteers after their return include: limited resources (lack of time, staff and financial resources), and lack of competence to work with returning volunteers; a large number of organisations does not know how to involve a returning volunteer and consider their duty with the organisation finished as soon as they are home. Factors that prevent volunteers from remaining engaged after return are: lack of time and change in life priorities (seeking paid employment, lack of opportunity to work with the sending organisation for money, decision to start a family), lack of available opportunities for engagement, lack of adequate preparation for departure, assignment and return (lack of clearly defined objective of the assignment and potential cooperation after return, lack of psychological preparation for the cultural shocks during assignment and after return), as well as a lack of confidence that such involvement is meaningful. A large group of volunteers considers their assignment as a step in their own development or an interesting adventure, and does not plan further engagement upon return. Factors that increase the likelihood of volunteers being continuously Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland


engaged after return include: involvement in the sending organisation or the general topic of development cooperation even before the departure; good relations with sending organisation and preparation for the departure, including both increasing the volunteer’s competence, and becoming acquainted with the organisation and its members of employees; and preparation for return: building awareness of what the engagement after return will be, and psychological preparation to process the experience and endure the post-return shock. Although returning volunteers, their knowledge and experience may establish a significant potential to utilize in global education, its quality may not be adequately high. Volunteers are often not prepared to implement global education, and their narrative may often focus more on their own experience and impressions than on presenting the global interdependencies and the reality of the South. Recommendations 1. Adequate time should be devoted to prepare a volunteer for his or her assignment. Preparation should include, clearly defined volunteer role (including information about engagement in global education after their return); clear tasks on return; high quality education programmes that enable returnees to be global education multipliers; and psychological preparation such as reverse cultural shock and dealing with conflict. 2. It is important to build a relationship with a volunteer before departure, and to provide continuous contact with persons who may support them during the assignment and after return. It may be achieved through: involving them in the work of the organisation; providing the volunteer with mentoring and support throughout their experience, including in global education; providing space for volunteers to process the experience after return. The research found that this allows for more effective processing of experiences and drawing conclusions, which positively affects both the volunteer and his or her further involvement. This can be through a mentor (e.g. former volunteers or employees in the sending organisation) or through structured spaces, e.g. a returned volunteers group. 3. It is important to provide returning volunteers with opportunities to remain engaged. The research has shown that providing opportunities are a crucial factor in the volunteer’s further engagement. Such opportunities may be created through: offering the volunteer particular tasks to fulfil; providing volunteers with space to implement their own ideas (requiring an openness and active support from the organisation); utilizing the knowledge and experience of volunteers for the purposes of global education. 4. It is important to develop the organisation’s competence in the area of working with volunteers during the assignment and after return, including understanding reverse cultural shock and other competencies to help volunteers to process the assignment and experience. Competence in global education allows for better preparation of returning volunteers to provide high quality work in this area. 5. It is necessary to do advocacy with donors supporting volunteering to the Global South, in order to obtain financing for work with volunteers after their return. The work with a volunteer after return and preparation for further engagement, also through help in processing the experience and competently using it in global education, is just as important as the pre-departure preparation and the assignment itself.


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland



1. Allum, C. (2008) ‘Measuring Volunteerism in Civic Engagement’, available at request of the author. 2. Benthall, C. Blum, N. Bourn, D. (2010) ‘Returned Volunteers and Engagement with Development: VSO Longitudinal Study’, Institute of Education: London. 3. Comhlámh, Volunteering Options (2008) ‘The Impact of International Volunteering on Host Communities: a summary of research conducted in India and Tanzania’, Comhlámh: Dublin. 4. Comhlámh (2009) ‘Research into Barriers to Continuous Engagement: as experienced by returned volunteers and returned development workers’, Comhlámh: Dublin. 5. Comhlámh (2011) ‘Development Education and Volunteering Overseas: Comhlámh mapping exercise among sending organisations’, Comhlámh: Dublin. 6. Darnton, A. and Kirk, M. (2011) ‘Finding Frames: new ways to engage the UK public in global poverty’, BOND: London. 7. Dochas (2013) ‘Attitudes towards Development Cooperation in Ireland: report of a National Survey of Irish Adults by Amárach Research 8. Fricke, H.J. (2012), ‘Comhlámh’s RBF related questionnaire responses from VSAs and volunteers’ (unpublished) 9. Lough, B. J. (2011) ‘International Perspectives from Weltwarts and ICYE Volunteers’, Centre for Social Development with Volunteer and Service Enquiry Southern Africa (VOSESA) 10. MacRory, Lorraine (2009) ‘Towards Understanding how to Engage Returned Volunteers: management recommendations for VSO Ireland’, All Hallows: Dublin. 11. McGinn, P. (2011) ‘Engaging Returned Development Workers in Development Education’, Centre for Global Education: Belfast. 12. www.osdemethodology.org.uk 13. VOSESA (2011) ‘International Voluntary Service in SADC: host organisation perspectives from Mozambique and Tanzania’. 14. McCloughlan, P. (2013) ‘New Evidence on Overseas Volunteering from Ireland and its socio economic impact in Ireland. Comhlámh: Dublin. 15. VOSESA (2011) International Service Perspectives from Weltwärts and ICYE Volunteers

Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland




European Union

CSOs Civil Society Organisations IDEA Irish Development Education Association MDGs Millennium Development Goals VSAs Volunteer Sending Agencies


Back to the Future: Returned volunteers as multipliers for development education in Ireland

© Comhlámh, 2013 www.comhlamh.org

This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Comhlámh and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union

Profile for Comhlamh

Back to the Future: Returned Volunteers as Multipliers for Development Education in Ireland  


Back to the Future: Returned Volunteers as Multipliers for Development Education in Ireland  


Profile for comhlamh