A Different Approach to Volunteering

As the years have gone by, I have watched Paramedics For Children change with the times. I noticed early on that some NGOs were either developing infrastructure or bringing in brigades of volunteers. Some do both, and over time these NGOs seem to go in either one direction or the other, or like in the hard times we are seeing these days, they just fade away.

The model we developed over the years is an NGO that is volunteer-driven using our infrastructure to both help the poor, and generate income above our regular donations, with the goal of becoming a totally self-sustaining charity. On several occasions over the past six years we have come pretty close.

Our approach is different. Our model involved the building of a medical clinic plus a small Bed and Breakfast to support the medical clinic through room rentals to tourists, who come to Copan to enjoy the ruins. This model works for our visiting volunteers as well, who work in our various programs.

It is common knowledge that almost all volunteers who work with any NGO must pay their own airfare, food, and lodging, and on top of this: a fee to the NGO as well. We found that by using our infrastructure we could develop a model that would save money because the income from the Bed and Breakfast funds the programs that our NGO supports. In essence by supporting our programs through room rentals we can deliver a volunteer the same experience and help more people, for less money. This is because we fund the volunteer experience from the room rentals. If we had not invested in our own infrastructure then we would have to charge the same fees as other NGOs.

Most NGOs charge the volunteer a fee to sign up, and it sometimes includes room and board paid to a third party. For example, if an average NGO charges the volunteer $1,500 for one week (the volunteers usually have to pay their own airfare on top of this as well), that works out to $214 per day. Out of that money they pay for the volunteer’s food at the cheapest hotel and restaurant they can find. The rest of the money goes to the NGO to pay salaries and other expenses.

Therefore if an NGO wants to bring in a large amount of money they need to bring a large amount of volunteers. The bigger the NGO, the more volunteers they need to bring. For example, if they bring a medical brigade of 40 people, they can generate a gross income of $60,000 for the NGO. The volunteer goes home feeling great, and has spent on average about $2,200 for the mission trip and the airfare.

Buckets of Bloody Teeth

Recently I was contacted by a dentist who told me that they bring groups of 60 people with 40 dentists and 20 support staff to Honduras, and he asked if I could help them find a location where they could do dental work. They wanted to treat at least 1,000 people per day from a field location somewhere near Copan Ruinas. I explained that the valley population was around 30,000 and based on a six-working-day stay, he was looking to treat 6,000 people or about 20% of the entire population of the valley. I then asked what they do in terms of dental care, and he replied mostly extractions.Bucket of Teeth

I asked him about filling or repairing the teeth but, he said they did not have the time, so they just pulled the offending tooth and moved on to the next patient. Later he even sent me some Youtube videos where I saw buckets of bloody, pulled teeth.

After digesting all of this information I suggested that rather than send a brigade of 40 doctors who did not have the time to repair and treat, why not send us one dentist per week for 40 weeks, working in a volunteer rotation whereby they could actually treat patients without having to pull so many teeth? The concept being that we could outfit a small building on the estate where a doctor could come for one week, stay at the B&B and work onsite daily saving teeth rather than just pulling them.

At the end of the week we would take that dentist back to San Pedro and pick up a new dentist who could then have a brief meeting at the airport to talk about the patients they had treated and share case files. Rather than buckets of bloody teeth why not show pictures of children and adults with repaired teeth still in their mouths?

With our infrastructure we can take up to 12 people (three to a room) who can be comfortably and safely housed. Daily, we could take them to some of the local villages where they could work in a safe and controlled environment. We have the resources to do this and have the people and connections to put together a great time for your volunteers as well as do a lot of good for the poor. The difference we can offer is that through our medical and dental clinic we can monitor the progress of the patients through a follow-up program of ongoing care. With an onsite dental clinic being steadily staffed by one or two volunteer dentists the brigade could be used to spot dental patients and then send the repairable cases to our clinic where the long term volunteers could treat them at their leisure. The same of course would apply to regular patients as well.

In summary, what I suggest is rather than just bringing one large group once a year, why not consider small teams rotating through our medical clinic doing both fixed station work as well as outlying patrols to the villages on a steady (weekly) basis?

I hope that I have communicated a more effective means of serving the poor. I have managed both the large brigades and the smaller ongoing types of programs as well, and I have found that not only are the smaller groups more effective, but the participants also seem to get a lot more out of the trips. And with this type of program, the NGO’s medical supplies and equipment can be safely stored here in Honduras, waiting for teams when they arrive.