As an organization focused on responsible volunteering and international exchange, Unearth the World is proud to post the guest blog below from the founder of one of our community partners – Lara. While we believe that the work our travelers do is of paramount importance, how they decide to share their experience is just as vital. Read on for Lara’s sage advice on how to best articulate your international volunteer experience on social media.
Volunteering abroad – now a billion dollar industry – is more commonplace than ever before. If done correctly, it can be a positive experience for both the community and the volunteer. With millions of people participating in international volunteering, it’s not surprising that pictures from these volunteer experiences are popping up on Instagram and newsfeeds all over. However, discussions on ethical volunteering and how to do it “right” seem to miss talking about an important piece of the puzzle: how do we properly portray our experiences on social media?
Social media is a powerful tool. As a volunteer abroad, you may be encouraged to harness your social media power to share your experience with friends and family… for good, of course!
Yet, many international volunteers miss the mark on how to use social media in an ethical and responsible way. Just take a look at this 2014 satirical article from the Onion, pointing out the rather ridiculous journey of a young white woman volunteering in Africa for six days. The result of her short volunteer trip: a new Facebook photo with African children. Even though the article is being ironic, it’s perfectly on point with how volunteering abroad can be misrepresented, often by the volunteer itself, and cause harm on social media.
The good news is that you don’t have to be THAT volunteer. I have put together three pieces of advice to help you get to a place where you can be ethical, responsible, powerful and effective when communicating your volunteer abroad experiences on social media:
Ask About Consent
All organizations should have some sort of policy regarding giving consent (or not giving consent) for use of images, video and other media on behalf of the non-profit organization. If they don’t, this is a red flag. This policy most likely will not give consent for volunteers to share photos through personal social media channels and this is done precisely to protect program participants’ privacy. For example, would you go into a school for special needs children in your own country and snap photos for your Instagram? Likely not. It’s simply not responsible towards the vulnerable population you’re working with.
And, even if the organization gives you – the volunteer – consent to post photos on your personal social media channels, resist, resist, resist! Instead, insist on sending them your best photos and having the organization make the decision on what to post, using their own ethical guidelines for social media. Then, be sure to “share” the organization’s post, which passes along not only your own photo (you can ask for photo cred!), but shares the name of the organization to hundreds, or maybe thousands of people, which only furthers the cause for which you are volunteering. Win-win!
Keep posts focused on the work you are doing
Avoid sharing photos of people that have nothing to do with your work or why you’re there. If you want to snap a few selfies with cute kids in your community (if allowed) – great, but keep them for private showings to friends and family (and off of social media). Just because you met an amazing, random street kid in Nepal, does not mean you have the right to make him your next profile picture. Doing so not only strips the person of their own privacy, but also very often encourages stereotypes harmful to the community.
Instead, do post pictures of the building you work in, the community at-large, and the landscapes surrounding you, using these to guide your social media followers to understanding what life is like where you are.
When you do share photos from the organization’s page or channel, use the opportunity to talk about the issues and your thoughts! Facts about the education or health care system, for example, paired with carefully thought-out observations you’ve made can be so very effective towards educating others of WHY you are volunteering and WHY this cause needs others’ attention. You have so much power as a volunteer, it’s important to make the issues the main focus and educate others!
Now you have an understanding of the right (and wrong) way to post about your volunteer abroad experience on social media. And, while there might not be a “perfect” way to engage in this kind of social sharing, if you ask about consent, keep posts focused on the work you are doing, and inform others, you are on the right path!
Go out there, make a positive impact and use social media for good!
Lara DeVries is the founder and the Executive Director of the Light and Leadership Initiative (LLI), a grassroots non-profit working in the outskirts of Lima, Peru. She hails from the suburbs of Chicago, IL originally, but transplanted herself to Lima in 2009, when LLI began programs. Peruvian education, ethics of volunteering abroad, and community development all are topics in her wheelhouse.