Back to the Future: returned volunteers as multipliers for development education

‘One’s destination is not a place, but a new way of seeing things’ (Henry Miller)

This article seeks to explore how to engage overseas volunteers on their return as multipliers for development education, based on the learning from a recent EU-funded project, ‘Back to the Future’, which is being delivered by three European partners: finep (Germany); SWM (Poland); and Comhlámh (Ireland). It is written from the perspective of Comhlámh and the particular experience of returned volunteers to Ireland, but draws on learning from the wider project, including the other partner countries. The article discusses the experience of coming home from an overseas volunteer placement, and gives examples of initiatives developed by Comhlámh as part of the “Back to the Future” project which support the continuous engagement of volunteers. It concludes with some guidelines for volunteer sending agencies, and provides information about where to access other resources.

Introduction to the project

‘Back to the Future’ is a three-year  EU-sponsored project, initiated by a consortium of three NGOs in 2011. The focus of the project is on the role of returned volunteers in development education. While each partner comes from very different contexts, we have been able to find common links. The underlying understanding we share is that returned volunteers are potential agents for change and therefore an asset to development education in their home country. The activities of the project included:

  • Development of resources for volunteers – a ‘What Next’ toolkit, social media guidelines, an information leaflet on how to stay engaged;
  • Development of resources for sending agencies – a training handbook, guidelines on development education in volunteering;
  • Training courses: for warm and engaged returned volunteers; and a ‘coming home’ training of trainers for sending agencies;
  • Advocacy and Networking.

The experience of coming home
For many volunteers, the experience of coming home can be an exciting time, a chance to reconnect with family and friends, and channel the energy of their overseas experiences into avenues in their home country. At the same time, coming home can also be a daunting process: the place that was once so familiar can seem strange; family and friends may not understand or have the interest in hearing about the time overseas; and it can be frustrating to witness the excessive wealth, consumerism and often apathy that can be quite striking on return. According to one returnee,
‘Knowing that many people that return from living/working abroad feel very similar in not knowing what exactly to do with their experiences.  For myself, it can be hard to find the balance between reintegrating back into a familiar culture, but also taking those valuable lessons and experiences from abroad and integrating them into my life as well’.

Before any returning volunteer can re-engage and participate in development education, it is important that their initial psychological needs are catered for, in particular having a personal debriefing and accessing any further support that will enable them to readjust effectively. According to one NGO representative who was a returned volunteer herself,

‘you can see people having burnout and coming back after really tough experiences and there isn’t really anyone to talk to, who really gets it, other people could be cynical because they’ve already been there… surely if you look after your staff it’s going to be better for them and for the organisation’.

Why should returned volunteers take action on global poverty and injustice?

If and when returnees feel ready to continue their engagement, that is, when their immediate needs have been met and they are now asking ‘what next’, there are many different avenues they could follow. The issues that perpetuate global poverty, like over-consumption, excessive wealth, unfair trading rules and environmental degradation, are mostly situated in the Global North. Returned volunteers are an excellent conduit to make the links between these global issues and what we can do about them in this side of the world. When talking about the added value of returned volunteers to development education, one NGO representative stated that,

you are bringing things to life and sharing your personal experience which is not something you are going to get from books or other things. You can be really passionate about it, telling stories, like “this is this 5 year old girl that I met and this is her story”, bringing thing to life in that way’.

Understanding the underlying causes of poverty and injustice before volunteers go overseas is effective so that while they are abroad they actively reflect on such issues and explore what can be their role when they return home. One returned volunteer believes that, ‘returnees have a huge potential. They should know about what is available to get involved with before going overseas, considering opportunities and preparing for this’.

What are the option to get involved?

When returnees are ready to engage, to take action and channel their experiences into their home society, what options are there and what best facilitates this? Many volunteers return home feeling very passionate, motivated and keen to share their experiences. Our research and experience has found that having structured spaces whereby they can do this can enable their voices to be heard is effective in increasing participation of volunteers on their return. According to one returned volunteer, “people want to join something which is organised for them, not necessarily to initiate their own ideas and projects”. For this to be successful, it is important to be able to offer structured activities, e.g. invite someone to talk or facilitate at an event; signpost them to a relevant course or organisation; invite them to take part in an existing campaign. For others, they may take the initiative to develop their own campaigns or projects. The project hosted examples of such projects.

What Next: action projects

‘What Next’, one of the courses for returned volunteers, created the opportunity to meet other motivated returnees, to critically explore development and identify options to take action locally. Part of this was support in designing and delivering a small scale action project, the intention is that by initiating a small project with support could encourage participants to develop bigger projects in the future. The focus of the action project was to raise awareness of global justice issues locally, and many creative projects were developed between the three countries. Some examples of projects that were developed include:

  • art workshops and a travelling art exhibition on gender empowerment;
  • the design of an app for phone and website use;
  • production of short films about global development issues;
  • a monthly ‘meet up’ for returned volunteers to Ireland;
  • a monthly book club;
  • workshops in schools;
  • a ‘World’s Best News’ campaign.

The learning from the project is that having the structured courses and a small pot of funding were both incentives to support and encourage the returnees to take some kind of action.

There are multiple other ways in which returned volunteers can engage, including: personal lifestyle choices, ethical consumerism, living sustainably, further education about the issues, lobbying, advocacy and campaigning. The ‘next steps’ for each returnee as an agent of change making depends completely on the individual; and with support from sending agencies and others volunteers can be supported to identify the path that best suits them.

Good Practice from Ireland

Comhlámh is involved in promoting advocating for Good Practice in Volunteering from Ireland. A Code of Good Practice has been developed which 38 volunteer sending agencies have signed up to, with 11 principles to promote good practice within their volunteering programmes. Building on this, through the ‘Back to the Future’ project, we have further explored the potential to strengthen development education within volunteering programmes using the Code of Good Practice as the tool through which to do this.

In 2011, Comhlámh carried out a ‘mapping exercise’ to identify existing good practice amongst Irish sending agencies, and through further research and consultation with returned volunteers, we developed a set of ‘Good Practice Guidelines for Development Education in Volunteering’. The purpose of the guidelines is to enable volunteer sending agencies to support returned volunteers through their organisation to continue their engagement in development from Ireland, through integrating development education throughout their programmes. The guidelines can be found here. The guidelines encourage volunteer sending agencies to deliver programmes whereby development education is at the heart of the work they do with volunteers. This includes: integrating development education into the training approach, to skill up all staff development education, and that development education is introduced across volunteering programmes, including pre departure and coming home stages (not as an ‘add on’ when they come home). By putting a strong focus on development education volunteers will therefore have a deeper understanding of why it is important to take action on return, to continue their engagement with development issues and address some of the reasons why poverty and injustice exist in the first place. On return, the guidelines encourage sending agencies to maintain contact with volunteers, tailoring programmes to their specific interest, providing structured opportunities to continue engagement and signposting to other opportunities.

In Comhlámh’s experience of working with returned volunteers, we have found these guidelines to be an accurate and effective way of strengthening development education and the continuous engagement of returned volunteers. We have attempted to adapt our courses and programmes based on feedback from returnees themselves, and in an ever-changing context, we continue to review and evaluate the work we do with returned volunteers. To meet the need for some of the support and information that volunteers could access on return, we created a What Next Toolkit for returned volunteers. This outlines the process of coming home, further information on some of the global and connecting global issues, and ways in which they can take action on these issues. The toolkit was co-written between Ireland, Germany and Poland, drawing on examples from each country.


The intention of this article was that the learning from the ‘Back to the Future’ project might or inspire ideas or provide a guide for volunteer sending organisations in other countries to maximise the potential of returned volunteers. The added value of this project taking place in 3 countries: Germany, Ireland and Poland, means that best practice and innovative ideas were shared and replicated. We would like to continue this ongoing learning and sharing amongst ourselves and also with any other organisations that may have good ideas of what is working well in terms of returned volunteer engagement.

From reflecting on the development education courses for returned volunteers, and the various resources that have been produced, we have been able to gauge what has worked well to enable volunteers to continue their engagement on return. Final comments from some of the returnees themselves would speak more than what we could translate here,

I feel like I can make a difference, that every single person can and I can start in even the smallest ways, like what brand of coffee I buy right up to fundraising, campaigning or volunteering abroad’

‘The most important learning has been about the possibilities for change; and how we can all strive for and achieve change; even in small ways. It showed that many people and organisations are working at this already. So basically, changes regarding global injustice are possible!’

I feel more confident while speaking about issues relating to development education. It has helped me evaluate my own volunteering experience in a more positive way. Being around a great bunch of like-minded people has motivated me to keep involved in this area.

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