Does volunteering abroad do more harm than good?

Andrew Dunkle, one of the founders of GO! Overseas, recently interviewed us about Edge of Seven.  GO! Overseas was started with the simple idea of creating a centralized website to provide the resources required for meaningful travel abroad. That idea has grown and expanded into a community driven website of like minded people who are all passionate about teaching, studying and volunteering abroad.  They have been generous enough to rank our blog as one of the Top Volunteer Abroad Blogs on their website.  I hope that you enjoy the interview!

Hello and welcome to another inspiring GO! Overseas interview. This week we are excited to feature Erin Guttenplan, the Executive Director for Edge of Seven. Erin launched this organization two years ago to generate awareness and volunteer support for girls in developing countries. She believes that girls are the backbone of community development and have the power to lift their villages, and their nations, out of poverty. Please visit her blog for more information about volunteering abroad. Enjoy the interview and share your comments or further questions below!

GO!: Let’s start with a brief introduction. Who are you, where are you, and what are you doing?

Erin: My name is Erin Guttenplan and I just moved from Delaware (where I grew up) to Denver, Colorado! I founded a nonprofit, Edge of Seven, to connect international volunteers with service projects in developing countries. We encourage Americans to get out and see the world in order to understand the challenges that we face globally. I am passionate about exploration and want to help others travel off of the beaten path.

GO!: How did you get involved in the volunteer industry?

Erin: Before launching Edge of Seven, I worked in the educational travel sector for seven years, working closely with U.S. teachers and administrators. I noticed a growing interest in short-term international volunteering because it provides a more meaningful adventure, fusing travel and service. The volunteer travel industry creates opportunities for personal and global development.

I also saw an open opportunity to connect volunteers with fantastic projects at a reasonable price. I wanted to create an experience that was affordable and life-changing so that as many people as possible could participate.

GO!: What is the core mission statement of Edge of Seven?

Erin: At Edge of Seven, we generate awareness and volunteer support for projects that invest in education, health, and economic opportunity for girls in developing countries. We empower girls by supporting initiatives that are locally driven, community focused, and sustainable.

We invest in girls because when girls earn income, they reinvest it back into their communities. When they are educated, they marry later and have fewer children. Girls are the backbone of community development and have the power to lift their villages, their nations, out of poverty.

My role as Executive Director is to champion our mission, guide our vision, launch daily campaigns to connect Americans with the challenges that face girls in developing countries, and work to unleash agents of change throughout the world.

GO!: How does Edge of Seven select which communities to serve?

Erin: First, we identify community based organizations in developing countries that are making tremendous strides to empower girls and alleviate poverty. Then, we create awareness, raise funds, and recruit volunteers to grow their grassroots efforts. The more money we raise, the more girls that we can empower, communities that we can support, and countries that we can push towards the end of poverty. Sky is the limit.

Our community based partners are entrenched in the villages that we serve. They conduct surveys to assess need and strategize development efforts based on that need. In order to support a project, there must be a team of local champions who will drive and sustain the initiatives.

GO!: How can volunteers stay centered with realistic expectations?

Erin: This is critically important. We believe that satisfaction is inextricably linked to expectation setting so we begin shaping expectations from Day 1. We talk to our volunteers about living conditions, we connect interested travelers with returned volunteers so that they can hear from people who have been in the trenches, and we distribute pre-departure materials that help volunteers prepare for their trip. Upon arrival, we host an orientation to teach volunteers about cultural differences and language basics.

We are crystal clear that international service is not a luxurious vacation. Volunteers must be willing to push their personal limits in order to help improve the lives of others and push developing societies forward. Some volunteers enjoy the process more than others but every single Edge of Seven volunteer has been thankful they joined us. I think our satisfaction ratings are a testament to our expectation setting.

GO!: What is the continuing benefit of volunteering abroad after a volunteer returns home?

Erin: It is our goal to make a measurable difference in the villages that we serve with a chain of dedicated volunteers over time. Each volunteer is one link in the chain so the process continues even after a participant departs.

In addition, after volunteers return home, they have witnessed poverty. They have lived among it. Our most powerful advocates are former volunteers who have returned to the U.S. and are championing our mission at the local level. It is one thing to learn about the developing world in a classroom. It’s entirely different to walk 3 miles for water, survive without electricity, and get to know children without access to food. They get it.

GO!: How do you respond to some criticisms that volunteering abroad does more harm than good?

Erin: It is a valid criticism. Before launching Edge of Seven, I spent five months researching community based organizations in Nepal, India, Thailand, and Cambodia. I spoke with hundreds of international volunteers and many times, more harm than good was happening because the provider was not responsibly connecting volunteers with projects.

Some providers are doing this to make money and exploit the communities “served”. There are providers who, even with the best of intentions, do not have the infrastructure in place to support international volunteers. Without training or support, the volunteer can certainly do more harm than good.

That being said, volunteering abroad can ABSOLUTELY be a mutually beneficial relationship. It can be poetic. I have watched villagers and volunteers shed tears during emotional goodbyes and witnessed personal transformations on both sides. Volunteers just need to make sure they are critical when determining a provider.

GO!: What are some of the less obvious benefits of volunteering abroad?

Erin: Humility. In the U.S., it is easy to become carried away with “things”, status, and titles. When you live in a rural village in Nepal where people do not own “things” and yet, they are some of the happiest people in the world, it shakes you. You are forced to take a hard look at your own priorities. It’s a humbling experience.

GO!: What does the future hold for you?

Erin: 2011 marked the beginning of our 2nd year! We hope to raise more money, send more volunteers abroad, and touch more lives. There are some cutting edge nonprofits out there and we hope to join the ranks of those creating massive social changes in the world.

GO!: Famous last words?

Erin: An organization is only as strong as the people behind it. I have been rendered speechless in the last year by the generosity friends and strangers. I’d like to thank everyone who has volunteered, donated, or supported Edge of Seven in any capacity. And, in particular, I’d like to thank my incredible family. They are my source of inspiration.

Thank you for the incredible opportunity to share my story and if anyone wants to learn more, please visit www.edgeofseven.org or email me at erin@edgeofseven.org.

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