Recently, there have been a number of books published discussing the effectiveness of short term mission trips. In his book, Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton says, “Contrary to popular belief, most missions trips and service projects do not: empower those being served, engender [foster] healthy cross-cultural relationships, improve quality of live, relieve poverty, change the lives of participants [or] increase support for long-term missions work.”
After hosting nearly 100+ international volunteers per year, we feel the need to ask ourselves, “If we are going to continue to support short term missions, how can we make sure these trips are having an impact worth the resources they require?”. Fortunately, Steven Corbett (coauthor of “When Helping Hurts”) writes, “Short-term [mission] trips… can be done in a way that blesses the communities they visit, avoids doing unintended harm, and leads to lasting change in team members’ lives. But doing so involves reframing the purpose of our trips, shifting away from an emphasis on directly engaging in poverty alleviation.”
In other words, there might be a need to redefine what “success” looks like for short-term mission trips. While long-term, sustainable programs are able to foster lasting, positive development, we believe (and have witnessed) that positive results are possible in short periods of time “on the ground”.
However, the question remains: How can we make sure that we are supporting productive short-term missions that address the areas of concern Lupton mentions above? After collaborating with La Paz community members for over 6 years, here are a few principles we have gathered.
1. Empower those being served
Lupton encourages us to not “do for others what they can do for themselves”. When we plan an activity to serve the materially poor, we remind ourselves of this principle. A good first step is to ask the community what they feel they need, and what are they able to offer? If a school needs painted, are there local painters who could be hired? If a wall needs built, are there local builders? If we are creating a library, are there local reading specialists that can be hired to support the program? Materially poor communities often lack resources, not labor. How can we provide the resources needed, and then support the laborers in their work? Often times, short-term mission members are able to raise funds and/or bring the items necessary to complete these long-standing projects. The short-term volunteers are also able to supplement necessary labor, acting under the guidance of local expertise.
2. [Foster] healthy cross-cultural relationships
There is only one way to cultivate a relationship: spend time together. However, even time spent together must be intentional. It is helpful to teach volunteers from the beginning to be culturally sensitive, to ask questions which encourage connection and openness and to examine themselves for biases and predispositions.
Those receiving resources can, and should, be asked frequently for their feedback. Do they feel respected and valued by the volunteers? Are there ways volunteers can increase in their cultural sensitivity? Is there something that they would like the volunteers to know about their culture? The responses to these questions are able to help further guide these cross-cultural relationships.
3. Change the lives of participants [or] increase support for long-term missions work
In the words of Corbett, “What happens after participants return home is typically the biggest factor in whether a trip was “worth it.” The short-term mission trip will hopefully be the beginning of life-long commitment to community involvement and social responsibility. Each day spent on the mission field is an opportunity to teach and deepen the participants’ understanding of global poverty. At the end of their time here in La Paz, we discuss with our groups how they might continue to serve within their own community, while remaining an ambassador for the programs in La Paz. Upon returning home, they are given tools to present the needs of La Paz to their local communities and churches. Our programs are dependent upon this global support. We have seen firsthand how each participant’s trip here is “worth it” because our Social programs have received ongoing, generous support in the months and years following their time here.
Within each of these three areas, it is obvious that relationships are key. Without ongoing, honest and humble communication among all involved, mission trips will prove themselves ineffective. Those seeking to serve should be conscious of not looking to gain an experience merely for themselves, but to adapt their goals for whatever best empowers those being served. For example, this could mean passing up the hands-on, emotionally-rewarding experience of playing with orphans and instead organizing closets of donations for overworked staff. Though this can be difficult to understand for some, often the best help short-term volunteers can provide is in terms of relief to those living in the mission field, supporting staff who are able to build long-term relationships with those being served.
Truthfully, it is up to each individual whether or not these short-term trips will result in long-term impacts. Kent Annon says it well in his article, “Poverty Tourism Can Make Us So Thankful”:Further reading on this topic:
If you have thoughts on this topic, we would love to hear them! Please feel free to comment below.
And, if you would like to learn more about our short-term AND long-term volunteer opportunities here in La Paz, please contact us!