Dear Returned Volunteers…

By Fiachra Brennan (South Africa & Mozambique 2013, Philippines 2016 & 2017, Vietnam 2018 and Silver Global Citizen Awardee)

“Be the change you want to see in the world”…and, if you can’t be that change, then either get out of the way of the person who wants to be that change or support the individual with your financial resources” – Attributed to Mahatma Gandhi

To returned volunteers,

I am a serial volunteer, which also means that I am very familiar with the strange and complex emotions you feel after returning from a project. Ever feel so far away from the placement, unable to support it? I understand. This blog is about finding ways to tackle those strange emotions in a meaningful and productive way. Here are 4 easy traps you should avoid as a returned volunteer, and some of the many ways to transform your experience from a single life event, into a journey, centred around making the world a better place.

1. Action over Rhetoric

Your volunteering experience was life-changing? Prove it. Start making changes. You are constantly reminded throughout the volunteer program that the hard work starts when you get home. That is the major long-term challenge – How to channel your learning and experiences overseas into a conduit for effecting long-term and impactful lasting change in your own community and beyond? It sounds tricky, so start small. What did you see, hear, or experience in-country that made you angry, sad, disappointed, inspired, or motivated?

Sports Day PhotoAngry about the long-lasting legacy that war and conflict has had on innocent civilians in Vietnam? – Start looking at your consumption choices, see what major companies and institutions have an involvement in the arms industry, start lobbying them to divest. Boeing, for example, are heavily involved in weapons production, and are also the largest commercial airplane manufacturer in the world.

Sad about all the plastic you saw polluting the rivers and oceans in the Philippines? – Embrace reusing, join a movement to campaign for governments and companies to take action to tackle this problem. Friends of the Earth have an ongoing “Sick of Plastic” campaign.

Disappointed that people with disabilities don’t have more opportunities to thrive in many societies? – Get involved in a campaign like #valuable, which calls for businesses to recognise the value and worth of the 1 billion people in the world with a disability.

Inspired by the success of SERVE and their partners in promoting gender equality and female empowerment? – Continue to support this work with your time, your money, and your advocacy. For example, a crucial funding stream for overseas development is the Irish government, through Irish Aid. A government promise to commit 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI) to overseas development was made in 2007, but has now been delayed until 2025. Put the pressure on your local TD to speed things up and fulfil this long-awaited promised.

Motivated to become a more active and engaged global citizen? – Get involved, take action, be the change you want to see in the world. And keep doing all the great things you were doing before as well!

2. #TakeMeBack

Instagram posts, endless messages, longing snapchats, all craving one magical thing – “Take Me Back”. Words are cheap and easy, start thinking about how to make your desire a reality and, crucially, why you want to do it.

Here’s a few important questions to ask yourself:

Why do you want to go back? – For a quick holiday to reminisce or for another volunteering commitment?

When do you want to go back? – Right now, in a year, or in some vaguely defined distant future?

What else do you have to offer and how best can you offer it? Will your return be beneficial to the host community? What skills can you offer? Is there anything new you can learn at home and then share with the people overseas?

Ask yourself these questions and then get serious about it. Don’t wait for life to drop this opportunity into your hands. Fight for it.

Be the change you want to see, and just do it.

Put a plan together. Do some research, start sending emails, see what the local community needs. Transform “Take me back”, from something hollow, into a meaningful desire to continue your journey as a global citizen and be the change you want to see in the world.

3. Saviour Complex

Sports Day GroupVolunteering feels good. You return to your home country filled with positive thoughts. Embrace it, take pride in your work, speak about it with passion and fervour. And do not forget what was accomplished and how. Sustainable development is achieved through partnership; local and international stakeholders working together year-round to effect change. As a volunteer you make a small but substantial contribution to an ongoing effort. You work in solidarity with the local community, not imposing solutions, but instead following their lead, learning from their situation, and offering help in a way that is appropriate to their needs and desires.

Speak about the local heroes, share their stories, put them at the centre of the development narrative. Recognise these changemakers. Start thinking about how your actions and opportunities at home affect them, see what actions you can take to be the change you want to see in the world.

4. Critique

The Irish voluntary tradition is long-running, well-established, and very well respected. It is not immune to criticism. Engage in debate, defend it, criticise it. The sector is bigger than one project or one organisation. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion and offer solutions for how to improve it. Use your experience as a springboard for positive change and reform. You are no longer an outsider looking in. You are now a part of this tradition and can become an advocate for making it as impactful as possible. Volunteering should be about helping others without getting anything in return – Is that accurate? Join the conversation! Do you think the Global South benefits from volunteering in a meaningful way? Join the conversation! Do you fundamentally disagree with this blog? Join the conversation!

Be the change you want to see in the world!


These are the thoughts and opinions of one serial volunteer who appreciates the power and potential of the voluntary sector as a meaningful force for global change. It is dependent on individuals being willing to get involved, to give their time and money, to

give their energy, and to open themselves up to experiences and perspectives that challenge their status quo. It shouldn’t be an easy journey, but it is meaningful, inspiring, and very worthwhile. Thanks for getting involved and keep up the good work!