review

PLEASE READ BEFORE PARTICIPATING WITH CCS

My purpose in writing this review is to help those researching a service-based trip and hopefully keep others from ending up in my situation. I was meant to be departing tomorrow to participate in a program with CCS in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. After a few things that seemed “off” towards the end of the process with them, I started doing some more in-depth research and what I found was truly upsetting. My goal is to share what I learned, consolidating several sources of information to make it easier for others. Read the below, do your own research and then make whatever decision is best for you. For my part, in the end there was no way I could be affiliated with this organization. Thankfully, I have found another program that I am quite pleased with. I am hoping to get my money back, but if I cannot, I know I will rest easier for not having been a part of a program like this.

In my initial research I came across plenty of good reviews. It was only when I went back and reexamined them did it became clear that the positive and negative reviews addressed very different items. The good reviews were all about housing, food, transportation, free time, and the excitement of being in a new country. Occasionally, you’d find mention of the work, but only as it pertained to the volunteer enjoying it and not about the impact that was being made. The negative reviews are all about the work (or lack thereof). Many of their former volunteers describe how there was little to no plan or guidance for them and that the work they did was useless. Most disturbingly, that some actually felt they were doing more harm. There are also numerous complaints about the few hours spent working, no plan to build on previous volunteer’s work and a general feeling of being not needed. CCS seems much more oriented towards creating an experience to make people who participate feel good as opposed to identifying a community’s needs and addressing them in a meaningful way. I highly recommend reading OrenRose’s thoughtful review on page 15 of this forum.

As you do your research, you will find that most reputable programs do not allow participation for less than 4 weeks when working with children. This is to protect the kids and keep their needs at the forefront. The tale of a non-native English speaker being told to teach children English and teaching them to spell incorrectly is horrifying. Further proof that CCS is not actively looking to place people in appropriate settings to address a need. There is a great blog by a CCS volunteer who for her part really enjoyed her end of the experience. However, in describing the impact she had, she details a detrimental involvement for the children she was meant to help. Her assessment was, “The negative emotional and educational impact on the children from the turnover is enormous and very difficult for me to swallow.” Her very enlightening blog can be found here: https://carynlevyonline.wordpress.com/tag/cross-cultural-solutions/

I also learned that I would only work 42-56 hours over the course of 3 weeks. I inquired about volunteering more and was told that it would not be possible during week one, but at the discretion of the in country staff they might find me something for the remainder of my time. My feeling was they had no need or plan and would likely find some busy work for me. Also, it seemed clear that I could not go out on my own and find other opportunities, as they seemed to be in control of where and how I spent my time. My impression from other volunteers is that the program seems to cater to those that may not have had much (if any) international travel experience, offering them a way to do so in a bubble. Those that had traveled before and/or volunteered before really seemed to be at odds with this program.

This was also my introduction to the fact that the afternoon activities are mandatory. While immersing oneself in the local culture is important, it is ridiculous that grown adults are not in charge of their own time. Feedback on these activities ranges from fantastic to terrible. (One volunteer’s experience of “learning” Swahili was being handed a list of verbs by someone who worked in the house.) Again, this only matters because you are forced to attend. Several people have complained about being treated as children. The curfew also precludes attending certain events and festivals in town as well. It would seem the only local culture that CCS finds to be of note is that which they provide.

As the process went on, it became clear where CCS’ real focus was. During the orientation call that lasted an hour, about 8 minutes were spent on volunteering. The rest was about shopping, leisure time, etc. I also learned that our on-site orientation would involve local tour operators coming to sell participants safaris, etc. Their priorities became more and more clear. Their time and money is spent on everything except what should be the main reason you are there. (Part of the money you pay goes to have someone make your bed for you!) Bagamoyo is also only a summer program. That means not only is CCS not engaged in sustained long term work there, but there is also a home that has to be maintained for the rest of the year.

As I took a closer look at their financial operations, I learned that their Executive Director is a voting member of the board. This is generally frowned upon in the non-profit world as it is seen as a conflict of interest. I inquired directly if he votes on budget/compensation and got a vague reply that did not directly address this concern. Their ED also makes about 3x that others in similar positions do.

On this board you will see reviews by 3 people that were kicked out of the Costa Rica program on their first day. The story is very odd, but one thing that was consistent was that no one from CCS bothered to speak to them, they were simply presented with letters telling them to leave. I have no reason to believe their word over CCS, except that CCS' response on this public forum was to call the woman a liar and not address any of her actual concerns. Nor those of the others. They did this with another negative review as well. Rather then address the issues and present their POV, they responded unprofessionally. If you take a look at better-rated organizations such as IVHQ, you will see appropriate responses to criticisms. This one thing speaks volumes about an organization.

Letting all this go and just focusing on the work, the odds of my doing anything useful seemed slim to none. This was my main reason to not participate. The best-case scenario I could have hoped for would have been for me not do any harm, to have a neutral effect. The likelihood that I would have a negative impact was far too great. And in the end, are we not going to try and do some good? Is that not the point of this whole thing? I just could not be a part of a program that seems to be a vehicle to parade foreigners through an area in need as some sort of show and tell/cultural sight seeing tour to make them feel good about themselves. As one reviewer writes, this is a cultural vacation. Or volunteer vacation. But if you are expecting, as I was, an opportunity to work hard and make a difference, this is not the program for you.

The more I learned about effective volunteerism, it became clear that if you are going for a shorter period of time (let’s face it, we don’t all have the ability to go for longer trips) that a different type of project with specific objectives is more impactful. Habitat International builds for example, that have more immediate goals for short-term participation.

In the end, the most important thing I learned was to ask questions. If using an agency, apply to a specific program as opposed to a generalized location. What are the organizations long-term goals? Short-term goals? How do they use volunteers? What kind of constructive criticism have they received? Or better still, go direct. There are plenty of opportunities where there is no cost to volunteer, you just pay your room and board. You can be sure then that your resources are being used wisely. Perhaps most importantly, reach out to past volunteers – this has been the most useful.

Location: 
Overall: 
1
Support: 
5
Value: 
1

Comments

Thank you for your feedback, and we’re sorry to hear that you won’t be joining us in Bagamoyo this year. We understand your concerns raised regarding the impact of the volunteer work being completed, and would love to address these in more detail. We take both volunteer satisfaction and impact very seriously, and regularly monitor this through in-person visits by our in-country staff and surveys. Last year, our volunteer satisfaction rating was 99.6%, and our impact in the community was rated as “positive” or “highly positive” by all partner organizations worldwide. In addition, we have had an independent longitudinal study conducted by the Washington University School of Social Work to study our impact in communities. This also addresses the impact on children, and we structure our volunteer work assignments specifically so that our volunteers are assisting permanent staff members at these work assignments, not taking primary responsibility for the care of the children involved (in part) for this reason. Please see our impact measurement standards at http://www.crossculturalsolutions.org/blog/how-we-measure-impact-cross-cultural-solutions-volunteers for more information on this topic. As a former CCS volunteer myself, while 4-5 hours of volunteer work per day might not seem like a lot, for most volunteers, it is a very exhausting and full day. Working with cultural and language barriers in an under resourced environment is emotionally and physically exhausting for most. Of course, we do have some volunteers who would like to take on additional volunteer work in the afternoons, and we do allow that. However, we realize that the first week of adjusting to a new location can be taxing, and we want to allow time for our volunteers to participate in Cultural & Learning Activities (some which are optional, such as language lessons) to appreciate and understand the cultural and social issues that face these communities – which creates a more well-rounded and in-depth experience. Over our 19 years of experience in working with volunteers, we have a great deal of experience with what works well for volunteers and for communities – and all of the locations where we work are led by experienced in-country staff made up entirely of local nationals; these in-country staff, together with their local community, determine the needs best met by volunteers. Our staff does include a housekeeper in all locations, whose responsibility includes creating a clean and sanitary environment for all volunteers and staff. We are proud of the fair employment conditions that we’re able to create through these programs in our locations worldwide and the impact of our programs being run entirely by local nationals, who understand and appreciate the needs of their own communities best. We completely agree with your advice to ask a lot of questions – and our Program Specialists are all available to respond to any questions any volunteers may have, as well as to provide references from former volunteers to speak about their program experiences. In fact, the IVPA includes a list of questions for all volunteers to consider when selecting a program, which can be found at http://www.volunteerinternational.org/principles.html. Please also feel free to reach out to us to discuss any of your questions or concerns. We would love to speak with you in more detail about any of these issues.