Ethical Volunteering and Living Out Our Values
What is ethical volunteering?
From our President & CEO Sara Nathan:
“There’s a lot of skepticism about community service when people leave their country to do it. And for good reason — individual saviorism often takes precedence over beneficial volunteering in the “voluntourism” industry, where people (often youth) head to another country to do community works projects.
But can volunteer work outside of one’s home country be beneficial or healthy? How do we make sure that community service is driven by altruism, rather than virtue signaling? How can we commit to not promoting reliance on Western countries?
For AMIGOS, our first step is making sure that we teach our volunteers that service is about supporting, empowering, and learning. We believe it is crucial to work with local communities, not for them. If we listen to what communities actually want, instead of making decisions for them, we can bridge the gap with partner organizations in the places we visit and work with their needs, not in spite of them (something that is all too common).
In our programs, we follow the principles of ethical service as laid out by Stanford University, which set a high standard for those looking for volunteer opportunities. Their system is broken into several categories:
- Respect and Inclusion
- Safety and Well-being
- Learning and Reflection
We believe that these principles help us to find a balance; cultural exchange and volunteering are not inherently toxic. When you embrace a global community, discover ways within yourself to be humble, respectful, and accountable as you move through the world as an empathetic person.”
Our Vision: A world where all people are lifelong leaders sharing responsibility for our global community.
Safety First & Always
We prioritize the health and safety of AMIGOS volunteers, staff, and host communities
We believe in the capacity of youth to become leaders for positive change
We strive to transform volunteers and communities in measurable ways
We create socially and environmentally conscious partnerships, through collaboration with communities throughout the Americas
We promote diversity of volunteers and stakeholders and work to break down barriers
We maintain respect, transparency, and high standards in everything we do
How Our Values Guide Our Practice of Ethical Volunteering
Safeguarding the health and safety of our volunteers, staff, and host community members has become even more critical over the past two years. The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated an updated health and safety protocol rooted in our values. In 2020, this meant suspending our in-person programs and creating virtual opportunities for youth across the Americas to serve their communities and connect with each other. In 2021, we launched a new model of in-person group programs with rigorous health and safety guidelines, a protocol that successfully prevented COVID-19 transmission between volunteers, staff, and community members.
In addition to changes made during the pandemic, AMIGOS maintained existing health and safety guidelines like our 24/7 on-call safety system, expert guidance from our Medical Director and Mental Health Consultant, vetted local clinics and doctors, in-depth health and safety training for staff and volunteers, and mental health first aid training for staff. Our health and safety system was developed using what we learned over more than 56 years of running programs for youth in the Americas.
AMIGOS was founded on the principle that young people can change the world. Our programs focus on empowering youth from across the Americas to take ownership of their projects and collaborate with one another. Volunteers return as project staff, serve on local chapter boards, or even work at AMIGOS headquarters! We provide many opportunities for youth to take on more responsibility as they grow within the AMIGOS network. Alumni report increased confidence after their AMIGOS experience. The success of more than 30,000 alumni demonstrates that young people rise to meet the challenge they face and carry this energy, focus, and perspective into successful careers in college and beyond.
Throughout our programs, we intentionally facilitate learning, reflection, and evaluation. These practices enable volunteers to process their experience, understanding how they are impacted by it. Reflection and evaluation is a key component of social and emotional learning. Through our programs, AMIGOS goals are in accordance with Positive Youth Development Theory. Skills volunteers learn include positive personal identity and purpose, conflict resolution, resource mobilization, planning and decisionmaking, interpersonal and cultural competence, responsibility, and more. Additionally, we strive to provide volunteers a comprehensive understanding of the history, culture, and power dynamics in the community they’re working in. This context enables them to proceed with humility, empathy, and an open mind.
Since 1965, AMIGOS has cultivated long-standing relationships with local partner organizations. When we plan programming in locations across the Americas, we first consult local agencies to find out how we can support the work they’re already doing, set up projects in areas that want to partner with AMIGOS, and involve local youth and community members in project planning and implementation. By operating in a framework of reciprocity, we recognize the collective strengths of our volunteers and community members and the values of collaboration and interdependence. Students are trained in the concept of cultural humility and practice this by uplifting the perspectives and voices of their host community, listening to their ideas, feedback, and concerns, and keeping an open mind. In this way, ethical volunteering is put into practice through community-based initiatives (service projects) determined by local partners in collaboration with the host community through community meetings, surveys, and open discussions.
We aim to build relationships across the Americas, so we sponsor Latin American youth as full participants in our programs. Each bilingual program has at least two spots reserved for youth from Latin America. We provide leadership opportunities for youth across the region as well: last year, 50% of our summer staff members were from Latin America.
Another way we strive to increase diversity in our programs is to reduce barriers to entry. Established local chapters across the U.S. work with students in their area to provide financial and other types of assistance to prepare volunteers for their AMIGOS project. We seek out partnerships with organizations like KIPP and DiscoverU to enroll their students in our programs. Each year, we provide $300,000 through our Financial Assistance Fund. You can learn more about our impact and our commitment to access here.
We have also deepened our commitment to creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization. You can read updates and the commitments and actions we outlined here.
Respect is a crucial part of ethical volunteering. At AMIGOS, we actively seek to involve the host community in anything that affects them. Volunteers practice showing respect for others’ perspectives in group and community meetings, while engaging in community service, and throughout their AMIGOS project. We encourage volunteers to recognize the unique assets different people and viewpoints bring to the table.