How we measure the impact of Cross-Cultural Solutions volunteers

For those of you who are wondering how we track and analyze the impact of our volunteers and all of their hard work, we'd like to introduce you to our favorite numbers guy here at Cross-Cultural Solutions. Meet Stephen Thompson, the Senior Manager of Program Quality and Evaluation.

Tell us a little bit about your role at CCS:
My role is to support all of our in-country teams and operations. I monitor and evaluate all of the feedback we get from volunteers, in-country CCS staff, and partner organizations, and use that to determine how we can make our programs even better, and our impact even greater. Offering quality volunteer programs means that we provide valuable service to our partner organizations, and that our volunteers feel safe, comfortable, and productive. Whenever we identify an area where we can strengthen our programming we develop new volunteer resources, procedures, or program content to ensure that we are taking a holistic approach to make lasting improvements.

Can you explain what CCS means when we say that our volunteer work is sustainable?
First, from the perspective of our local partner organizations and their goals, sustainable volunteer work means that our volunteers are working to support the mission of local organizations rather than working toward goals developed by the volunteers themselves, or by the CCS team here at HQ. Sustainability means that if, for whatever reason, CCS no longer had a presence in a particular community, the local partners would still have the means and ability to operate and sustain themselves because they have not built dependencies on international volunteers. This is a key part of all of the work that we do.

Second, we make a commitment to our volunteers that the work they do is meaningful and not just created artificially for their experience. While they may not personally see the end results of their work, they can be confident that they are one in a long line of volunteers, and their efforts will be continued and sustained by the next volunteer. This way, each volunteer has the chance to work toward something greater.

Why is it important to measure what CCS volunteers do?
Our mission is to operate volunteer programs around the world in partnership with sustainable community initiatives, bringing people together to work side-by-side while sharing perspectives and fostering cultural understanding. This is how we have determined we can be most effective at working toward our vision, so it's critically important to know and understand what our international volunteers do. Our staff is in communication with our local partners on a weekly basis so that we can monitor exactly how volunteers are providing sustainable support. With this understanding, we can better prepare and support volunteers by explaining the nature of their impact, which we have found makes them even more effective.

To really answer this question though, I’m going to widen the scope a bit, and say this: it is important to measure what CCS does as a whole. Our volunteers are the face of the organization, and they work to support the local leaders who are effecting change in communities around the world. Our full time in-country teams are also a critical part of CCS, as are the HQ staff supporting the programs and all of our volunteers. And just as it’s important to know what our volunteers do and how they effect change, it’s equally important to know how our programs positively impact our volunteers. Effective and respectful cultural exchange means that volunteers should also benefit from their experiences and interactions with the community members with whom they work, deepening their cultural awareness and creating bridges of understanding between cultures.

If we don’t measure how we are doing, we’ll never know if we can do it better!

How do you measure our impact?
We ask for a lot of feedback, both from volunteers and our local partners. We survey each partner organization once a year to collect qualitative and quantitative data on what kind of impact our volunteers have on partner organizations and the community. We also hold annual workshops and invite all of the partners to share successes and feedback on how we can improve. In addition to all of that, we maintain weekly communication with these community leaders to ensure that we are aware of how our volunteers are doing. And of course, we survey volunteers a number of times—especially at the end of their volunteer experience.

We have also been lucky enough to be the subject of a number of external studies conducted in order to determine how effective international volunteer programs are at changing volunteer perspectives and attitudes, and providing sustainable volunteer work to international communities. I use this data, which is both quantitative and qualitative, to see how effective we are as we work toward our vision. In other words, does CCS help volunteers and community members to, a) value cultures different from their own, b) be aware of global issues, c) be empowered to effect positive change?

How do the results of your impact survey affect the decisions of CCS?
First and foremost, I think it has had the effect of affirming what each of us who have volunteered with CCS have already observed, and that is the importance of simple connections. Let’s take the most basic building block of what a volunteer can do—something as simple as making a connection with another person and making them smile. As a volunteer, to do that each day is important. All too often, these kinds of interactions and connections are written off as being inconsequential or superficial. The work I have done has shown me that if volunteers continue to show up day after day, making that person smile and making their day better, it adds up to literally years of better days. That is to say nothing of the more profound impacts of our volunteers, which include improving attendance and participation at schools, breaking down harmful stereotypes and stigmas, and improving language skills.

The positive effects we've seen the program have on the volunteers and community members have allowed us to really double-down on our work. We can measure how resources and programmatic content we provide impacts these outcomes, so that we can be most efficient and cost-effective in supporting volunteers and in-country partners.

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