Fifteen questions about short-term mission visits

Short-term visits – what are they good for? Nicci Maxwell, a mission partner in south-west Uganda, gives a thoughtful take on what short-term visitors can and cannot do for a mission project like Potter’s Village child crisis and medical centre.

Nicci Maxwell

Over the past couple of years, I’ve experienced visits from groups and individuals to Potter’s Village and to other nearby projects and been left with some very definite views on what makes a good or not so good visit. Here are a few….

1. Why are you going?

Make the purpose of your visit really clear to those you are visiting…..in advance! Are you coming to work or help or is this just a quick ‘look around’ as part of your holiday? We know that sometimes it’s really interesting to have a look at a project that you have heard about or supported in prayer and donations and we welcome those visits. However, there’s a big difference for the project between showing you around for your interest and welcoming short-term co-workers. Some of our best interactions have been with people who have said “We are on a holiday-of-a-lifetime but have a day to offer you.” They worked their socks off on tasks that needed very few special skills but desperately needed doing (painting, cleaning, sorting donations etc). They had fun and left a really great impression!

2. Is your group too big?

How many people are coming? Depending on the size of the project you are visiting, you may need to think about dividing your big group into smaller ones. This means you won’t overwhelm a small project and you might have a better experience too! Also think about the ‘skill mix’. Bringing a group of 6 psychologists, who all want to help, to a project where there is normally only work for one (or fewer!) might not be the best idea. Could you stagger their visits and provide help and support over a longer period?

3. Can you use your skills?

If you are coming to work with us, what skills do you have? Please don’t try to do a job here that you would never be permitted to do in your home country. If you are not a nurse, plumber, electrician etc in your own country, please don’t try to do those jobs overseas! Also bear in mind that a particular project may not need your specific skill set at that time and don’t be offended if you are asked to paint a wall or do some filing instead!

4. If you’re going to do it, do it well

If you want to help out, please try to do a really good job! We’ve all heard about the students doing a house building project that the local community undid and rebuilt properly after they left every evening!! If you are asked to paint a wall (am I overusing that example??), please do it well! Most organisations haven’t got the time or manpower to re-do it or the funds to buy more paint if you waste it – paint fights are a definite no!!

5. Your hosts have a job to do

Try to remember that the people you are visiting are doing their job! Perhaps the setting is unusual and the dress code is rather casual but they still have work to do, even if you are on holiday. Perhaps you want to treat or bless the team in some way – try to ensure you are not dragging them away from work that is important or be willing for them to spend only a few minutes engaging with what you had planned. Also remember that it may not always be appropriate for you to be part of everything your host is doing. The relationships they have been building, sometimes over many years, may not be at the stage where a stranger (you) can be easily introduced.

6. Genuine offers of help only, please!

Genuine offers of help that take some of the workload from the team are usually most welcome. I am always thrilled if a visiting doctor offers to do a night on call or even just an afternoon in outpatients for me after they’ve been around in the medical centre for a couple of days and learned the ropes. However, it’s really annoying if someone offers to help and then disappears off to drink tea for an hour at the busiest part of the morning! Yes, that really happened! The different surroundings may make it look or feel a bit like a holiday, but there really is work to be done!

7. Try not to make more work for others

Try not to make more work for the team at the project or create a financial burden for them. Insisting that you needn’t pay for accommodation or a meal at the project because you already give so much money from your home country can cause embarrassment to your hosts. Rather offer to pay and that might allow us to bless you by declining your offer!

8. How much do you really know?

Even if you have visited the project for two weeks every year for the past 10 years, you have still spent less time there than someone who has been volunteering for just six months! A short visit, no matter how frequent, will not give you the real feel for what it’s like to actually live in a place. Respect the lives and experiences of those who live and work permanently or semi-permanently in the place, even if their association with it doesn’t go back as far as yours might.

9. Think carefully about helpful suggestions

Try to respect the views and experiences of the local staff and long term volunteers. Your ‘brilliant idea’ or thoughts on how something ‘ought to be done’ may have been tried before! Maybe it’s not done your way for a very good reason. I’m not saying you shouldn’t make suggestions but be careful how you do so and don’t be offended when your idea isn’t taken up with the enthusiasm you think it deserves! With this in mind, remember that some things take time and money to set up and even more to be sustained and sustainable. The project you are visiting may have many different problems and priorities. Try to respect the fact that what you think is vital and urgent may be a little way down the project’s priority list, for good reason.

10. Got a new idea…?

Thinking of starting a new innovation or piece of research? Do your homework first! Ask why such a project doesn’t already exist – perhaps it has been tried and failed before and there are valuable lessons to learn! What is already being done locally? Does it really need to change? Could you support an existing project rather than start something new? How will your new idea be sustained after you leave? Try not to put additional burdens of work or finding finances on to the local team. Even something simple like collecting data for your research project may cost the local team time and money…where will they get the paper to print more of your questionnaires and how will they afford to send them back to you? How will you acknowledge their contribution? Beware…just because you are not in your home country, it doesn’t mean you don’t need proper approvals to collect data about things like patient care. If you are planning to start something to make your CV or university application look good, perhaps you should rethink your motives as these projects are seldom sustained for more than a few months and seldom accomplish anything more lasting than just that one line on your CV!

11. Ask about appropriate dress and behaviour

Remember that you are representing far more than just your family, church or even country. The local population that you are visiting seldom know where you are from and will often judge your behaviours as being “all white people/foreigners do that”. It may take many years to undo the impression that your careless remark or behaviour created, especially within a small community. This applies specifically, for example, to the way you dress or your use of alcohol. Ask your hosts about the most appropriate behaviours.

12. Plan ahead – ask what you can bring…

You will be a popular visitor if you ask in advance what you can bring out with you for the project you are visiting. Perhaps there’s an item of equipment, some donated clothing or supplies or even a birthday present that needs to be personally couriered rather than posted. Most people working in another country or culture will have something they really miss from ‘home’. Could you pop some of their favourite chocolate or shampoo or a DVD in your luggage to make their day? This may take some pre-planning but it will be appreciated!

13. …And you will know it’s wanted!

On the subject of bringing donations….try not to make your rubbish our problem! Bringing something that doesn’t work properly or items (I’m thinking especially of drugs) that have expired just means we have to dispose of them here and facilities for dealing with waste, especially recycling, are often much less advanced and more expensive than where you’ve come from. So, without sounding too ungrateful, please make sure we actually want and can use what you have decided to bring! I recall one marvellous visitor who actually offered to take a broken piece of equipment back to the U.K. for disposal – he’s definitely the sort of visitor who is always welcome!

14. Mind your hosts’ time and space

On a more personal level, please be considerate of our time and space. Time off is precious and often planned in advance so that shopping and washing and other chores can be completed as well as trying to get some extra rest, spend time with family or catch up with local friends. Unless you are a close personal friend, we might choose to recommend a local tour guide to show you around (good for the local economy too!) rather than spending a precious day off showing you the sights. Even though you may feel you know the few people at the project well through newsletters, social media etc, they may not feel they know you equally well as one of many supporters. Try to understand our reluctance when you ask to look around our home, perhaps because you donated some money towards its construction or furnishings. In an environment where very little of my life is private, that feels very intrusive. If I invite you in…well that’s a different story!

15. Lastly…do you really need to come?

And finally, a tough question… Do you really need to visit? Or could the cost of your trip accomplish more as a donation of money? Yes, personal contacts and direct experiences are lovely to have and sometimes very important but are they always necessary for the work of the project? Ask yourself whether you might actually just be in the way?! Perhaps after an initial visit, would a Skype chat be cheaper than a re-visit but almost as effective?

So: welcome thoughtful visitors!

After all that, we do welcome visitors who have the best interests of our project and our community at heart. Just think carefully about your visit so that it is beneficial to you and to those you are visiting!

We want to keep thinking and asking good questions of all our mission involvement. We have previously published articles on short-term mission: Don’t waste your time and from an African perspective.

Church Mission Society is recognised by Global Connections as operating under the Code of Best Practice in Short-Term Mission 2019 and 2020. Short-term and gap year mission opportunities are available through CMS.

Published 29 January 2020
Region
Africa

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