Mental Health Disclosures by Volunteers

Our friends in the Amongst Us group on LinkedIn (which you should join if you direct a volunteer abroad program—email me for an invitation if you’re not a member yet) started a discussion recently about mental health disclosures by volunteers, and I wanted to open it up here as well.

As a volunteer applies for your program, how do you—or do you at all—require them to disclose mental health conditions or history? And how do you work with those volunteers who encounter related issues while abroad?

So far the comments have varied on the types of disclosure required (either by the volunteer himself or from a doctor or therapist), but a common thread in the discussion is that regardless of the process, there always will be some exceptional, rare cases that arise once the volunteer is in the field.

From my perspective, we saw this in Peace Corps as well. With a six- to nine-month average application with the majority of time spent on evaluating mental and physical well-being, we had arguably one of the most stringent application processes out there. Even so, we still had the occasional trainee decide “This absolutely is not for me,” and head home even before swearing in. And we had the occasional volunteer who’d decide the same thing months or even more than a year into service.

So friends: have any thoughts on the topic? How do you try to ensure your volunteers and programs are well matched—either before or during service?

ResponsibleTravel.com Temporarily Removes Orphanage Volunteering from Listings

Just saw this post fly by–ResponsibleTravel.com has temporarily removed orphanage travel programs from its listings. From their blog:

The removal of trips is a temporary measure, whilst, over the coming weeks we work with industry leaders to develop best practice guidelines and criteria for the child-focussed volunteer trips we offer via responsibletravel.com.

We want to ensure we only market volunteer trips that we have 100% trust in and that, as a community of responsible operators, we are leading the way and raising standards around best practice in this industry. We hope that by being independently created, the new criteria will help sustain the exemplary operators while removing those that may potentially tarnish the sector.

You can read more about the decision here. Be sure to scroll down to the comments as well, where there’s some lively discussion going on.

To our volunteer trip provider friends—whether you send volunteers overseas or host them in your own community—and especially those who offer orphanage programs, what steps have you taken to continually evaluate those placements? Have your practices changed in recent years or months?

And to those of you who receive requests for partnership from orphanages, how do you respond?

Have You Changed Your Program Offerings Due to the Economy?

From our state of the volunteer travel survey responses, to LinkedIn discussion groups, to forums and beyond, I’ve noticed volunteer travel providers worldwide becoming frustrated with their recruitment rates, which appear to be dropping from recent years. A few alternatives some have been developing—particularly smaller, niche ones that can’t quite compete monetarily with the behemoth ones we all know:

  • Internships abroad with a volunteer component
  • Longer-term volunteering
  • Service-learning (or learning service, as the case may be)
  • Career- or degree-based placements (e.g., veterinary training abroad for degree fulfillment)

Before I left my own volunteer travel company last year, I had the chance to start recruiting volunteers and interns for some new partnership programs in Central America; every single person who signed on during my time there wanted a semester-long placement or a career- or degree-related one (e.g., medical placement abroad for professionals in the field). In my interviews with potential volunteers and interns, all of them noted they very much wanted to travel, but as they had tiny, tiny budgets, they had to make sure it was absolutely worth their while: a longer-term placement abroad that satisfied degree requirements or helped build their careers was a two-for one deal in their book.

In speaking with other providers lately, many have noticed the same thing—short-term “volunteer vacation”-type projects just aren’t cutting it lately.

So friends: what have you noticed? Have you felt the need to change your volunteer placements to accommodate this new(ish) wave of travelers? How do your short-term programs stack up against your long-term ones, if you offer both? And if you have skills-based or unskilled programs, is one doing better than the other?

Volunteer Travel Operators: Get Off Your Asses and Help Your Industry!

Our goal at Voluntourism Gal is to provide insights into and facilitate discussion about the volunteer travel industry. And aside from a few wonderful, vocal people, you’re all clamming up—and that makes the whole “facilitating discussion” thing incredibly difficult.

In 2009, the State of the Volunteer Travel Industry Survey polled 28 U.S.-based organizations with a few short questions, which we’ll get into below. This survey allowed researchers, media, and stakeholders to understand where we were that year and what you guys projected for the future of your own industry.

Well, the landscape has changed and the information on the previous publication is outdated. This spring, we asked you five questions that would allow us to release a brand-new report with updated, relevant information. This report is intended to help the community grow and understand where we’re headed.

As of today, we haven’t received nearly enough responses yet to compile the 2013 edition. Many of you are interested in seeing the report, but you’re not actually participating in the research. Do you want to have a solid answer when someone asks, “Is volunteer travel growing?” How about, “How has your industry fared during the recession?” Do you want something to actually back it up? Do you want to see the most popular countries U.S.-based organizations are sending their volunteers to? How about an average return rate to see how you stack up against the national number? I know I did when I operated my own volunteer travel company. I built the 2009 report into my freakin’ business plan.

Those are answers we want to provide for you—and unfortunately, we can’t release or report on anything until more of you get back to us.

So! As a reminder: all participants’ information will be kept strictly confidential and only the results and a total list of companies that participated, will be produced. Your competitors will not know how many volunteers you specifically are sending abroad, or what your company’s return rate is, or any other information about you individually.

Please take a couple minutes to answer the following five questions (plus the optional ones, if you have time) and send them to me directly at Sarah@FrayedPassport.com or to Alexia at alexia@lassocommunications.com.

And to those that have already responded: Thank you!

MAIN QUESTIONS

  1. To which countries do you currently send volunteers?
  2. What is the most popular activity for your volunteers? Building; Community Development; Conservation—Environmental, Wildlife, or Heritage; Scientific; Health Care; Skills Based Professional; Teaching; Other (please describe)
  3. How many volunteers did you send abroad in 2012?
  4. Do you expect to send more or less volunteers abroad in 2013 than you did in 2012?
  5. What is your return rate for volunteers?

OPTIONAL QUESTIONS

  1. Do you feel the economy is affecting your business positively, negatively or unaffected? What, if anything, have you done to counteract the effects of the recession?
  2. Are there any valuable insights or lessons learned you would like to share with the industry?
  3. Which term do you most associate with your organization? Voluntourism, volunteer tourism, volunteer vacation, volunteer travel, volunteer abroad, or other?

To qualify as an operator in this survey, you must have a U.S. office; send U.S. volunteers abroad; not be faith-based in any way; require that volunteers must pay for their placement; and require that travelers work for more than four days of straight volunteering (e.g., cannot be an adventure travel placement with a volunteer component).

Please send all responses to Sarah@FrayedPassport.com or to Alexia at alexia@lassocommunications.com.

Reminder: State of the Volunteer Travel Industry Survey

Just a reminder in case you missed it: the 2013 State of the Volunteer Travel Industry Survey is underway!

You can view the previous one here (opens in a new tab as a PDF), or on our Voluntourism Research page.

With this report, we want to continue our research to see how the field has expanded, shrunk, or changed. Your participation in this survey will give us an accurate pulse of the industry within the United States, and will help us as we move forward with research, best practices, and more.

All participants’ information will be kept strictly confidential and only the results and a total list of companies that participated, will be produced—for free, and for all to see.

There are two ways to participate: wait until Alexia or I call and harass you, or just send me an email (Sarah@FrayedPassport.com) with your answers. We’d much prefer an email, as this will help us keep a record of your responses—from you directly—so that nothing gets lost in the mix, and so that we’re both completely on the same page about what you’ve reported.

Also let me know if you’d be willing to send the volunteer survey out among your networks, and I will send you a survey that is branded for your organization.

Criteria to qualify as an operator in this survey:

  • Have a U.S. office
  • Send U.S. volunteers abroad
  • Not faith-based in any way
  • Volunteers must pay for their placement
  • Travelers work for more than four days of straight volunteering (e.g., cannot be an adventure travel placement with a volunteer component)

Questions for operators that meet the above criteria:

  • To which countries do you currently send volunteers?
  • What is the most popular activity for your volunteers? Building; Community Development; Conservation—Environmental, Wildlife, or Heritage; Scientific; Health Care; Skills Based Professional; Teaching; Other (please describe)
  • How many volunteers did you send abroad in 2012?
  • Do you expect to send more or less volunteers abroad in 2013 than you did in 2012?
  • What is your return rate for volunteers?

Optional, if you have time:

  • Do you feel the economy is affecting your business positively, negatively or unaffected? What, if anything, have you done to counteract the effects of the recession?
  • Are there any valuable insights or lessons learned you would like to share with the industry?
  • Which term do you most associate with your organization? Voluntourism, volunteer tourism, volunteer vacation, volunteer travel, volunteer abroad, or other?

To be included in the report, we ask that you get back to us via email by this Friday, April 26. (Update: we’ve heard from those of you who’d like to send your answers along still–please send your surveys ASAP to Sarah@FrayedPassport.com and we’ll include you in the report!)

Thanks very much—we’re looking forward to hearing what you have to say!

Call for Entries: 2013 State of the Volunteer Travel Industry Survey

Alrighty, friends—we’re ready to start the 2013 State of the Volunteer Travel Industry Survey!

You can view the previous one here (opens in a new tab as a PDF), or on our Voluntourism Research page.

With this report, we want to continue our research to see if the field has expanded, shrunk, changed…well, you get the idea. Your participation in this survey will give us an accurate pulse of the industry within the United States, and will help us as we move forward with research, best practices, and more.

All participants’ information will be kept strictly confidential and only the results and a total list of companies that participated, will be produced—for free, and for all to see.

There are two ways to participate: wait until Alexia or I call and harass you, or just send me an email (Sarah@FrayedPassport.com) with your answers. We’d much prefer an email, as this will help us keep a record of your responses—from you directly—so that nothing gets lost in the mix, and so that we’re both completely on the same page about what you’ve reported.

Also let me know if you’d be willing to send the volunteer survey out among your networks, and I will send you a survey that is branded for your organization.

Criteria to qualify as an operator in this survey:

  • Have a U.S. office
  • Send U.S. volunteers abroad
  • Not faith-based in any way
  • Volunteers must pay for their placement
  • Travelers work for more than four days of straight volunteering (e.g., cannot be an adventure travel placement with a volunteer component)

Questions for operators that meet the above criteria:

  • To which countries do you currently send volunteers?
  • What is the most popular activity for your volunteers? Building; Community Development; Conservation—Environmental, Wildlife, or Heritage; Scientific; Health Care; Skills Based Professional; Teaching; Other (please describe)
  • How many volunteers did you send abroad in 2012?
  • Do you expect to send more or less volunteers abroad in 2013 than you did in 2012?
  • What is your return rate for volunteers?

Optional, if you have time:

  • Do you feel the economy is affecting your business positively, negatively or unaffected? What, if anything, have you done to counteract the effects of the recession?
  • Are there any valuable insights or lessons learned you would like to share with the industry?
  • Which term do you most associate with your organization? Voluntourism, volunteer tourism, volunteer vacation, volunteer travel, volunteer abroad, or other?

To be included in the report, we ask that you get back to us via email by Friday, April 26. (Update: we’ve heard from those of you who’d like to send your answers along still–please send your surveys ASAP to Sarah@FrayedPassport.com and we’ll include you in the report!)

Thanks very much—we’re looking forward to hearing what you have to say!

On Client Feedback: Guest Post from Ken Jones of Maximo Nivel

“Feed me…,” not just the words of a hungry child, but the daily demand of any small study abroad or service-learning organization. Or, [maybe] more famously, from the 1980s movie Short Circuit, “Innnpuuut, innnpuuut…” Anyone who runs their own business knows it’s consistently responding to feedback that ensures the organization delivers a great experience for its volunteers and students.Maximo Nivel Logo

The primary means of getting feedback is through client surveys. But feedback is of little use if 1) answer choices aren’t clear, and 2) response rates are low. Thankfully, you’ll find many experts giving advice about:

1) Unipolar versus bipolar response types.
2) What type of rating levels should be used?
3) Should negative responses be listed first?
4) Exactly how should questions be worded?
5) How long should a survey be?

My post here is not an end-all guide for creating the perfect client survey, but the simple, straightforward “survey powered by squirrel” approach we use and have developed over 10 years in business.

GET PHYSICAL

Our system is based around physical feedback cards. These are filled out on the volunteer’s last day of their program. We regularly achieve collection rates in excess of 90% of participants, and we do this by requiring our teams to collect a minimum of 90% in order to qualify for team bonuses. A 90+% collection rate helps ensure the results reflect a wide view of our program.

When we miss a volunteer on their last day, we email an electronic feedback form. In our experience though, the physical cards get a far higher response rate and volunteers give us more useful information on them. E-surveys are likely less effective because of crowded email boxes, effective spam filters, and emails are just too easily set aside (and never returned to).
Physical feedback cards also have immediacy—the volunteer’s feelings about the program are upfront and fresh in their mind; it’s not a week or two after the volunteer’s experience.

SHORT & SWEET

Our survey fits on a 5 x 7 card. There are 10 key points on which we ask volunteers to rate us. This means when a volunteer looks at our card, it’s something that immediately looks easy to complete and is not time consuming. Volunteers rate us on four areas: Orientation, Accommodation, Volunteer Project, and Our Organization (e.g. Client Service and Facilities).

RATING LEVELS

Most performance review systems use four level, five level , and seven level rating scales. For example:

Always Exceeded Expectations / Frequently Exceeded Expectations / Sometimes Exceeded Expectations / Met Expectations / Sometimes Didn’t Meet Expectations / Frequently Didn’t Meet Expectations / Never Met Expectations

Five level and seven level rating scales are most common and I’m told the most accurate. Be careful, because the experts say 0-10 rating scales reduce reliability and validity. The argument for more options in rating levels is that when there are more answers to choose from, the volunteer has more options to better reflect how they feel, and the survey provides improved granularity for analysis.

The problem with these systems is that I’m never sure what to make of them. Does a 7 out of 10 equate to 70%, so that’s a “C” or “Satisfactory” or is it actually a stronger rating, because it’s above the mid-point (5/10)? Also, what’s the difference between “Okay” / “Satisfactory” / “Fair” / “Acceptable?” And, should these ratings be considered any “good?” Aren’t these just nicer ways of saying “needs improvement?”

To keep things simple and straightforward, we use only three rating levels: “Excellent,” “Good,” and “Needs Improvement.” We look at the volunteer experience in these terms: “Did we exceed, meet, or not meet the volunteer’s expectations?” Three rating levels keeps it super simple!

ANALYZE OPEN RESPONSES

On the back of our feedback card, we ask our volunteers to give us additional comments. Approximately 70% take the extra minute or two to leave us additional thoughts. These free text answers provide valuable insight into volunteer satisfaction. However, they need to be analyzed and comments need to be categorized for tracking.

We read every single one of them, and we react. If a team member could have been friendlier, this is brought to their attention; if a team member is mentioned by name in a really positive way they’re told and congratulated; if a host family is criticized, we hold a meeting with the family, and so on.

BE REAL—Read, Evaluate, Act, Learn

Most importantly, we track our feedback statistics. These are discussed in weekly team meetings and action points are identified. If there is something very serious, the card is immediately brought to the Executive Director’s desk!

We insist that teams track their results week by week. If feedback statistics are put off until the end of the month, the gathering and reporting becomes too large a task. Also, by looking at statistics week to week, our teams can react more immediately and they’re not “surprised” at the end of the month with lower than expected results.

Finally, volunteers are happy to leave feedback, but they’re even happier when we’ve acted on their feedback. When we identify tough or critical comments we respond to the volunteer. We never respond defensively, though we do take the time to provide things like price breakdowns, answers about our business relationships, our plans for improving a particular project, etc.

In the end, client feedback is an incredibly effective business tool, but it can easily become over complicated. Read up on what the experts have to say and experiment and adapt your process as you go along. Above all, keep it simple and look for ways to drive collection rates as high as you can—this maximizes your input.

Learn more about Maximo Nivel at www.maximonivel.com.