Serving people with cultural sensitivity
Is the heart of your mission hidden by cultural barriers? If your team of volunteers isn’t prepared to engage with a new culture, they could end up doing more harm than good as they travel. Cultural sensitivity is already something you as a leader are probably already very aware of. However, this can be a tricky subject to tackle with first-time team members–especially if they are young.
Here are a few guidelines for teaching your team to be culturally sensitive travelers.
1. Educate them on common practices
Are you traveling during a major holiday or festival? Are family units structured differently at your destination than they are at home? What past political and social events have shaped the cultural landscape? Thorough knowledge of these things will allow your team to have a greater understanding of how to interact and communicate with locals on their trip.
2. Review major taboos
Words, gestures, and practices that are perfectly respectful in our home country may be considered offensive somewhere else. Find a list of “cultural taboos” for your destination and share them with your team before you go. You may want to review the credibility of your list with your local hosts. Not all sources of information are equal!
3. Get a taste of culture before you go
Find a local market or restaurant that offers the cuisine of your volunteer destination. Watch a film or read a book written by one of the country’s celebrated authors. This will give your team a small glimpse into the culture before you even go. It will also get your team excited about their upcoming trip!
4. Establish rules for your team
Create a Volunteer Code of Conduct and make sure every one of your volunteers understands and agrees to your rules. When your volunteers travel with you, they become representatives of your nonprofit wherever they go. Characteristics such as respect, honesty, integrity, and responsibility are a few great things to go over. Your rules for personal behavior should take into account both the cultural values of your destination and the values of your organization. Here are a few important topics to consider:
- Dress code
Are you traveling to a destination with a more conservative approach toward clothing? Would fancy or expensive accessories cause an unintentional cultural barrier? Do some research to determine how your team can dress appropriately (and comfortably!) for your destination.
Prioritize your mission over your media. What does this mean? You should never let a camera come between you and the people you are trying to serve. Many new volunteers struggle with this concept because we are so accustomed to sharing pictures and videos of every moment of our lives. The tendency to “overshare” is less common in other parts of the world. Encourage your team to ease back on their use of technology. If they do wish to take a picture with a local, they should always ask permission.
5. Encourage humility and learning
Travel changes us for the better–if we let it. Encourage your volunteers to take a position of humility as they travel. If they approach their trip prepared to listen and learn, they will take home a rich new understanding of the world that can only be gained through experience. Show them how to ask the right questions, observe intently, and serve selflessly. Following these guidelines will help create a safe, meaningful, and effective volunteer trip for everyone on your team!