A Princeton University study in 2005 found that 1.6 million people took short-term mission trips for an average of eight days. The cost? About $2.5 billion a year. If we fast forward and include non-mission short term trips, the amount today would be closer to $4 billion.
If you are planning a short term trip for your youth group, community, or school, here are four suggestions to keep in mind.
1. Don’t waste efforts on unusable projects. Many stories are told of construction projects that were completed by short termers and then never used. Often this is a failure in research and cultural sensitivity. For example if an American team comes in and builds a house for someone made to fit our ideas of how houses should be laid out not to culturally accepted standards in the host country, that house may never be used. Or perhaps the ditch you are digging isn’t really necessary. Just because someone asks for something you can afford to give doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to give it to them. The best approach is to have someone locally assess the needs, consult with the local leaders for the project, and then strategize with you to determine the most effective ways to help.
2. Instill long-term vision for short-term tasks. Why do we even go on short term trips? Is it to fill the empty time of summer vacation until school starts again? Is it so volunteers can feel they have a purpose to their lives? Giving to others in need feels good and can give us a sense of purpose. Some people even seek that good feeling as an end in itself. But what is the bigger picture for why you do what you do? One way to have a long-term vision is to go narrow but deep, rather than wide. Select one or two countries in which you want to invest your volunteer resources and then return to those sites yearly. Keep track of progress in that country or community.
3. Plan for reproducibility. We are told that money fixes everything. If people are poor, it’s because they don’t have enough money. But the truth is much more complicated than that. In many places, people don’t believe they can or don’t know how to make life better for themselves. In our rush to equalize the amount of stuff, Americans often don’t consider the vast amount of knowledge, skills and opportunities that we have.
When planning short term projects, fancier isn’t always better. The best short term programs are ones the local community can afford to sustain themselves after we are gone. In order to do this, we must from the beginning plan projects that are culturally reproducible.
4. Avoid taking unnecessary risks. Foreign travel is a risky business. The government and culture of the United States don’t have jurisdiction outside our borders. Americans know this, but don’t often think about what it means. It means people stand in line differently. They might look at you as a fat wallet instead of a person. If you need medical evacuation to return home, neither the State Department nor the agency who made travel arrangements can pay for it. Although there is no way to eliminate all of the risks, a wise planner takes them into account.
Good Neighbor Insurance annually insures close to 100 short term teams. Check out our short-term team plans.