Making Short Term Trips Work: 3 things we look for in partners

As you likely know if you’ve been apart of, well, more than one short term service experience, not all short-term trips are created equal.

One of the biggest things we hope our students learn on their Spring Break service trips is what it means to truly partner with a community.  It’s a multi-faceted process, covering everything from sustainability in the work, to understanding the everyday lives of people living in the community, to learning people’s names.

Before our Spring Break service trips, we spend about four months exploring these themes in team training.

Then we send them out and wonder if anything sticks.

I’ve only been running this program for 2 years, but that is still 35 teams, working with about 18 different organizations, sending over 350 students.  That’s enough teams for some to be amazing successes, and others to be amazing failures.

A team in Antigua, Guatemala with a dream partner.

Unsurprisingly, what sticks depends as much on our partners as it does our team leaders or staff.  I am so deeply grateful to our on the ground partners who become co-educators with us for these weeks.

When it comes to those partners, here are three things that are making a huge difference in our student’s experience.

1.  We build partnerships with organizations who are invested in a community, full-time, year round.  We want our students to learn from people who live day in and day out in this community, so they can understand their challenges and their goals.

In contrast, there are other organizations who basically exist to facilitate trips for teams.  They are often operate from the U.S. and are only on the ground for short periods of time with a team.  These organizations have pros and cons to them, they do some good things and I don’t mean to put them down.  But they are not a fit for us.

2.  As much as possible, we work with organizations who are overwhelmingly comprised of locals. This is true for both our domestic and international teams. It’s important to work with organizations made up of the people from that community, for lots of reasons.

For one, we believe that community members can and should be the champions for addressing their own issues and solving their own problems.

For another, there is a model of outsiders invading a location with little more than good intentions, creating a frenzy of work that may or may not be genuinely helpful to the people who do life there.  This can be minimized by working with locals who know their community’s needs, assets, and history.  They also own the community’s hoped-for future.  That future should never be set by a drop-in team.

3.  We work with organizations who want to work with students but who also have a strong sense of their own mission and methods.  In other words, can they use a group of enthusiastic, well-intentioned, largely unskilled college students to accomplish their own goals?

This can be a dance, because if an organization really needs the labor a group can provide, they may feel pressure to let that group do things (good things, even) that are slightly askew from their mission.  On the other hand, a student group can be a bit like herding cats, and it can frustrate a partner to be slowed down.  So we try to find partners who can appreciate all the good of working with students and be patient with the, well, not so good.

And if it works?  Oh, if it works, the students come back with more questions than answers, with respect for this community that hosted them, and with a commitment to keep learning and serving.

If it works, this happens:

My. Heart. Melts.

film by David Chang, Junior.

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