Volunteer Programs’ Jen Snow on the who, what and why of volunteering
For the last 26 years, Winrock has facilitated more than 5,000 volunteer assignments in 58 countries as part of the USAID John Ogonowski and Doug Bereuter Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) program – but what does volunteering mean in a development context? Who typically volunteers with Winrock, and what do they do? Jen Snow, Winrock’s associate director of volunteer programs, tells us more.
What is a Winrock volunteer?
Winrock engages skilled volunteers who are professionals with experience on a certain topic or in a certain field, and that have specific knowledge and the desire to share that knowledge with people in developing countries. The majority of our volunteers are mid-career or retired professionals that have years of expertise in their particular field. In some cases, we engage graduate students or younger professionals that are looking for ways to apply their experience and knowledge in a developing country context. Our volunteer scopes of work are needs-based and cover a range of topics, so we’re looking for a wide variety of expertise, backgrounds, and cultures. Historically, the Farmer-to-Farmer (F2F) program was more focused on farmers from the U.S. going to developing countries and training other farmers. That still certainly is an element of the program, but as agriculture has evolved over the years, so has the F2F program. And it’s not only F2F – we have volunteers working on other Winrock projects as well.
Does the volunteer have to shoulder any of the expenses?
There really is no cost to the volunteer other than their time. We have program funding from USAID or other donors to cover the cost of volunteer travel and in-country expenses. In some cases volunteers choose to donate materials to their host organizations. While this is not mandatory, it is very much appreciated.
What kind of work do Winrock volunteers generally do while on assignment?
Most of our assignments are two to three weeks in duration. Volunteer assignments vary based on the needs of the host organization – but can be anything from providing hands-on training on agricultural practices and introducing new agricultural technologies, to helping write business or marketing plans, improving governance of farmers’ cooperatives, or developing curriculum for schools and training centers.
What kind of volunteers are you looking for?
We’re looking for a wide range of people. Many of our volunteer programs work across the agriculture sector, from farm to fork, so we are looking for people who specialize in different aspects – including agricultural production for crops, livestock, or aquaculture, as well as safe handling, processing, marketing, farm management, etc. – depending on identified needs within our host countries and host organizations. We also have assignments related to renewable energy, water, gender, youth development, and ICT, and a lot of assignments focused on general organizational development. In this regard, we’re looking for people with expertise in finance, human resource management, governance, business planning, partnership development, or general management. Some of our current programs focus on agriculture education and training, which means we also need people with experience with pedagogy, curriculum development, and school administration.
Can you explain the connection between Winrock and Farmer-to-Farmer a bit more?
The F2F program was initially funded 31 years ago through the Farm Bill, and Winrock has been implementing Farmer-to-Farmer for 26 of those 31 years. We currently manage two F2F programs, operating in six core countries in Asia and Africa. Other organizations implement F2F programs in different countries and regions. We’re happy to be a part of the F2F family. It is a truly collaborative program, with USAID and all of the F2F implementing organizations working with each other to make sure we’re all doing what we can to get Americans to developing countries, building bridges and sharing knowledge.
What can Winrock volunteers expect from the organization?
Winrock prides itself on being a strong volunteer implementer, and over two decades of work in this sector, we’ve refined systems to make the experience efficient and effective for everybody involved. We have a team of people who take care of everything that the volunteer needs to prepare for his or her trip (such as travel arrangements, country briefing materials, travel insurance, and logistics). In the field, a Winrock staff person meets volunteers at the airport, transports them everywhere they need to go in-country, translates as needed, and helps ensure a successful assignment.
We do everything that we can to make sure that each volunteer is safe, well cared for, and well prepared for the duration of their trip. It is important to know that you can trust the organization that you’re volunteering with. In most cases we have presence on the ground and have been working in the countries where we send volunteers for many years. We’re proud that we can be a trusted partner in that regard, and that is something that we take really seriously.
What would you say are some of Winrock’s greatest volunteering successes?
We have so many. In every country that I’ve visited that has had F2F volunteers, I see and hear so many stories that demonstrate the impacts of this work: farmers increasing productivity; new agricultural products produced and sold for the first time; women and youth newly earning their own income; agribusinesses established or strengthened; beneficial partnerships forged… and the list goes on.
In Bangladesh, Nepal, Nigeria, Guinea, Senegal, we’re working with a lot of teachers and faculty at colleges of agriculture or training centers. A lot of them have never had training on how to be a teacher. They graduate with a technical specialization in a certain topic and they go into the teaching profession without being trained in how to teach. So we’ve had volunteers teach them classroom management skills and communication tips and classroom planning for the first time. They’re then applying things to their classrooms to get students more engaged and to improve the quality of their instruction, which benefits the future agriculturalists of each of those countries.
In Myanmar, we have farmers in villages that have never been exposed to a foreigner that were introduced to some simple tools and practices that are enabling them to now do things that they’ve never ever done before. Some of the farmers are testing new varieties of avocado that they’ve never grown, and they’ve named one of the varieties “Winrock avocado.” They feel proud of what they’ve accomplished and the connection that they had to their volunteer, and Winrock is now forever a part of their vocabulary.
How does Winrock’s volunteer work foster international connections?
Farmer-to-Farmer is truly a people-to-people program — providing the opportunity to not only share experience and skills, but then to build a connection with somebody else in another country. We do find that a lot of our volunteers stay in touch with the organizations that they’ve supported, so sometimes they go back because they have an interest in continuing the work that they started. Sometimes we have cases where the volunteers come back to the U.S. feeling inspired, so they’re creating linkages between their universities or their businesses here in the U.S. with their host organizations in other countries. That’s certainly been a win-win for everyone involved.
Many Winrock volunteers return for repeat assignments. What do you think inspires that loyalty to the program?
Sometimes they just get the bug! It feels good to know you’re making a difference and creating a connection that enriches you as well. It’s an opportunity for the volunteers to learn and deepen their own skills, adapt those in a totally different environment, and then bring that learning back to the U.S. and apply it to what they’re doing here. I’ve never had a case of a volunteer that came back and said that they didn’t get anything out of the assignment.
Why are you passionate about Winrock’s volunteer work?
I myself was a F2F volunteer. Prior to being on the volunteer programs team, I went out on an assignment to Nepal and trained a group of Nepalese NGOs on proposal writing and communication plans. It really tested and strengthened me as a trainer, and I felt lucky to experience such rich cultural and interpersonal interactions. The country easily became one of my favorite places on Earth, and my love of the Farmer-to-Farmer program began then. More than a decade later, I saw some of my trainees again in Kathmandu and had a heartwarming moment when I discovered that they still remembered me. That first international volunteer assignment was one of the peak experiences of my career.
And now, every time I go to the field, both the field staff and the host organizations — some with tears in their eyes — tell me how much they appreciate the relationship with the volunteer and the new things that the volunteer brought to them. And you hear it from the volunteers too. I’ll talk to volunteers when they come back to the U.S., or they’ll write us stories about their trip, and it’s amazing to hear how on both sides, these assignments really have profoundly impacted people. On the volunteer side, they’re coming back with a better understanding of what’s going on around the world, a better appreciation for what they’re working on or for what their living situation is here in the U.S., and excitement about doing more, sharing that with others, getting others engaged, figuring out how they can apply what they did in these countries to their work here. And then likewise, you hear story after story in the field about new things that people are able to do, and increased incomes that people are earning as a result of this work.
It really is a special program.