New Study: The Worth of What They Do

Repair the World Announces Results of a Study Examining the Effects of Alternative Breaks and Other Short-Term Volunteer Projects on Communities in Need in the U.S. and Abroad

Repair the World today released The Worth of What They Do: The Impact of Short-Term Jewish Service-Learning on Host Communities. The study, prepared by BTW: Informing Change (BTW), examines the positive, long-term effects of short-term service projects – often called alternative breaks – on communities-in-need both in the United States and overseas. To date, a number of studies have been conducted on the impact of service projects on individual participants, such as a sense of accomplishment and first-hand experience of global problems such as poverty and food insecurity.

However, relatively little research has been done on the impact of service projects – Jewish or secular – on the communities they serve beyond the concrete gains of the service project itself, for example, a newly-built house or freshly-painted community center. Since short-term (lasting from one to four weeks) service-learning projects can involve months of planning in addition to the expense of staff, travel and accommodations, there is at times skepticism about the impact of short-term service and volunteerism within the broad service community: How do we know that our service is really making a difference? Should we just give the money to the community? Will all this be worth it? Is this what the community really wants or needs?

For this reason, in one of its first pieces of research, Repair the World focused on the impact of short-term service-learning programs – not on participants but on communities. The study found that if partnerships between service-learning programs and host communities are jointly developed with a focus on community needs and implemented with best practices, then the benefits to host communities are positive and multiple. These benefits include the tangible service projects themselves, the empowering of local volunteers, the development of local leadership and the cross-cultural ties that develop between communities.

As part of its research, BTW conducted a total of 18 confidential interviews. Of these, thirteen were with host community representatives (five in the U.S. – four of which were in New Orleans, eight were abroad – Ghana, Israel, Nicaragua and Ukraine). BTW also conducted five interviews with staff members of the Jewish service organizations that participated in this study (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, American Jewish World Service, Hillel International, Jewish Funds for Justice, and Yeshiva University). BTW singled out these five Jewish service organizations for the study because these organizations adhere to best practices in the service field, maintain strong relationships with their host communities and engage in successful service programs.

One of the first positive impacts of short-term service projects noted in The Worth of What They Do is that short-term volunteerism jumpstarts local volunteerism. Young volunteers bring energy and excitement to the community and help residents realize that the work they are doing is both rewarding and important to the community. The volunteers’ presence is an incentive for residents to get involved, especially community members who are in the same age group as the volunteers. As one host community representative explained, “Kids from the neighborhood don’t want to make a garden. They don’t want to move horseshit around to fertilize it. But if they’re doing in with college kids from New York, that’s different.”

Another positive effect of volunteer projects is that they provide host communities the opportunity to develop local leaders. Community members gain new knowledge from working with service programs. Those residents selected to lead and guide short-term service projects in their local neighborhoods and villages often retain the skills and new-found capacity long after the volunteers leave. For example, in one community interviewed for this study, local master tradesmen served as work crews to help design the project and train a corps of unskilled workers and volunteers. This experience showed the tradesmen a new way of using their expertise and gave them practice in leadership.

Participation in short-term projects also contributed to a shift in community self-identity, among several host communities interviewed. Many community members reported coming away from the service project with an enhanced sense of self-efficacy. Further, two host communities reported greater community willingness to confer leadership roles on women after seeing the roles taken on by female volunteers. As one community-based organization said, “We have general rules here … we don’t expect ladies or girls to work on village projects. And then we see the American girls – they mix the mortar, they are doing the hard work just like the men. After the Americans leave, the community knows that women can do more. They are seeing their women and girls with different eyes. The [volunteers] have given our women a new place of honor.”

Another gain host communities experienced from their partnership with short-term service projects was the cultural exchange with volunteers. This is particularly true in international sites where learning about the lives of American young people was described by one community leader as “world-opening.” Host community residents, both in the U.S. and abroad, found they enjoyed educating others about their community and lives, and valued the opportunity to share their stories with young people from other parts of the world – or country – who were very different from them. Fortunately, through electronic and social media communications like email and Facebook, many young people in host communities maintain their connections with their volunteer counterparts after the volunteers have returned home, creating meaningful relationships and new points of interaction.

Lastly, in addition to the concrete gain of the project itself, host communities interviewed in The Worth of What They Do noted additional tangible resources they gained from even short-term projects that they would otherwise not have. Building and construction tools and surplus materials supplied specifically for use in volunteer projects usually remain in the community after the project is over. In some cases, resources related to cultural and educational components of a project (e.g., equipment and supplies for music, art, youth sports) also remain in and enrich the host community.

For all these reasons, host communities choose to continue to participate in short-term service-learning projects. However, projects and partnerships are not without challenges. Some of these challenges are inherent to short-term service learning projects and will remain no matter how well service practitioners and host communities work together. Among the most common challenges encountered by host communities are the steep learning curve in the first year of a project, time limits on what can be finished or accomplished, difficulty in parting when volunteers leave, handling programs’ changing priorities or funding decisions, and language and cultural barriers.

Host communities interviewed in this study reported the need to make a number of adjustments to their programs after the first year of the partnership, including identifying projects better suited for short-term volunteers with basic skills. The short time frame of short- term service programs means that only some projects are appropriate. Best practices have shown that either designing an entire project that can be completed in the time that volunteers are there (e.g., building a school classroom or delivering fuel) or tasking volunteers with one piece of a bigger project (e.g., installing drywall or painting a mural) helps both parties understand that they are contributing to something bigger than this particular service project and strengthens feelings of accomplishment.

Another challenge identified by host communities is the difficulty in parting when volunteers leave. Often community members feel abandoned when volunteers return home. As one community-based organization relayed, “The only thing it would be best to avoid – but how? – is the difficulty of separation at the end of the week of volunteering.” The study found that service programs that made an effort to make residents aware of how long volunteers would be in their community and explained the short nature of these relationships succeeded in reducing the discomfort experienced when volunteers left.

Concomitantly, because service program practitioners usually do not see themselves continuing to support the same service project or the same host indefinitely, care must be taken to “spend down” or gradually begin severing ties, if needed. Unanticipated reductions in levels of support or volunteers can cast a gloom over host communities. If a service program must suspend a project or reduce its grant, taking the time to plan for and communication this decision to a host community is paramount to maintaining the positive impact accrued in the host community from earlier years of partnership and service.

Finally, in non-English speaking locations, host communities are more likely to have positive experiences with service programs if the project includes an experienced translator who is familiar with local culture and able to communicate effectively with both community members and volunteers. Ideally, volunteers will have some facility with the host community’s language and some of the community-based organization’s representatives will have some English proficiency. This holds true for cultural competency, as well. Sensitivity to cultural differences is important in both international and domestic projects. Communities are best served when volunteers are educated in advance about community norms and practices around gender roles, communications style and work habits along with knowledge of the economic realities of the host community.

The findings of this study raise important implications that extend beyond any single service program or organization and instead speak to the nature and capacity of the short-term service-learning model. By examining short-term projects and best practices in terms of successful partnerships with host communities, this study answered the key question, namely, can quality short-term service projects have a positive impact on host communities served, with a resounding yes. As service practitioners work to develop programs and improve their practice, Repair the World will use these findings to inform its field-building work in service of quality program development.