Rethinking International Volunteering: Interview with Claire Bennett, Co-Founder, Learning Service and Co-Author of Re-Thinking International Volunteering

Full Text Sharing



Interview with Claire Bennett, Co-writer of Learning Service



  1. Would you tell us your personal journey, how did you get involved with the issue of international volunteerism? How did it all start?

I ended up as a volunteer in Nepal almost by accident. At 19 I was not very worldly or well-traveled. When I found out about an opportunity to go to Nepal – and as a bonus, to volunteer in a school! – the decision was easy. The process of getting there was unfortunately less easy. The student-led organization that had arranged the placement pulled out of Nepal just before I was due to depart due to the escalation of the civil war, and the others due to go with me cancelled their travel plans. As I was already in contact with the hosting school in Nepal, I sent them an email. “Is Kathmandu really that dangerous?” I asked. “You will be just fine,” came the reply. So I went.

The year was 2001, and anyone who knows anything about Nepali history remembers that year as one of great loss and tragedy. The royal family was massacred, amidst conspiracy and speculation, and atrocities from both sides of the war were reported on a daily basis. My experience, living with a family and working in a school for underprivileged kids, was intensified by and intimately linked with these national level events. It is a cliché to say the experience was life-changing, but on returning to rainy England after 3 months of being away, I knew my life would never be the same again.

Three summers in a row, I volunteered in Nepal, and the third summer I stayed on for nearly a year, learning about rural development. These experiences led to me being a founder member of a rural development organization working in Nepal, PHASE Worldwide. Although to this day I remain deeply proud of my involvement in their incredible work, I began to question my own role in the process more and more. I encountered situations where local people just did not want our development. I saw projects that failed or that created even worse problems. I questioned whether a world consuming at the rate of my country was desirable, sustainable, or even possible. I reflected on my own arrogance and ego that had led me towards making the decisions I had done in my life.

I felt that these deep and unanswerable questions were fundamental to the future of our planet and yet were not being discussed. So I came back to the UK and began working with schools, youth and potential volunteers in development education – raising awareness about global citizenship, asking the big questions and encouraging people to care about and take action on global issues.

My involvement with volunteering has been lifelong. In the UK I was a volunteer trainer, fundraiser and trustee. Working in NGOs, I worked alongside and managed volunteers. My return to overseas volunteering came in 2008, when the gray skies and hectic lifestyle of home left me yearning for sunshine and a more grounded pace of life. I decided to apply to volunteer overseas with VSO. This differed from other volunteering I have done in that it is a 2-year commitment for experienced professionals to share their skills. I was just 26 and deeply honored to be accepted into the program.

I ended up in Cambodia as randomly as I had ended up in Nepal, with a role as an adviser for a small dynamic organization that was originally founded by a group of passionate local students. During my time in Cambodia I learned more about volunteering and its complexities. I saw large numbers of volunteers coming through for short periods of time to work on projects that made little long term difference. I saw projects that had been created purely for the entertainment of volunteers, where the community had little buy-in or say. And at the worst, I saw projects that were entirely corrupt, having no impact at all other than to enrich the founders. I started to understand the issues of orphanage volunteering, and see how well-intentioned individuals who want to help can be contributing to putting vulnerable children at risk. If a conveyor belt of people come through an institution offering money but staying for just a short time, it opens the door for corrupt and unscrupulous individuals to separate more children from their families and label them as “orphans” and to keep them in squalor however many donations come in.

During that time I met Daniela Papi, for whom I instantly developed a deep respect, and we bonded over our worldviews and deep belief in development education. I started running trips for her educational travel company PEPY Tours, and realized that I could combine my love of living in Asia with my passion for global education, a massive turning point in my life. I realized that my power as a westerner, as an educator and as a serial volunteer myself was to get these conversations to happen on a wider platform.

For me, the founding of our advocacy group Learning Service and writing the Learning Service book is an extension of my work in education. Nelson Mandela famously said that “education is the greatest weapon we can use to change the world” - an important task to have been set by such a great man. The aim of the book is to ask the huge questions that we authors have been grappling with for years, to spark critical debate, and ultimately to inspire individual volunteers and the sector as a whole to improve through collective self-reflection. We can’t provide all the answers, but we can at least ask the questions!


  1. Can you tell some positive experiences, something you personally witness about international volunteering?

Once I started to learn about the complexities and difficulties of international volunteering, one course of action would have been to expose all the terrible projects that I have heard about. However, this probably would have resulted in turning people against volunteering. Actually, I still have a great belief in the power of volunteering. The passion and idealism that fuels the volunteer sector is a tremendous force for good. I see a world without volunteers and activists who believe in change and who are prepared to personally do something about it, as a world without hope. It is incredible that there are so many people refusing to passively accept the status quo and a heartening fact that the numbers of people drawn to and willing to do something are increasing. I believe in the power of this growing movement to do good in the world, and believe that if it is harnessed effectively it could be just what our divided world needs to usher a new era of empathy, justice, and cooperation.

For me, the most powerful examples of positive volunteer experiences relate less to what the volunteer was able to do overseas and more to do with what both sides learned and the incredible and inspiring things that volunteers have gone on to do with the rest of their lives. We have interviewed countless volunteers who have changed careers, who volunteer locally, who consume differently, or who just feel as though their perceptions have been changed and that they act more mindfully and with more awareness.


  1. You and a team of experts are currently working on “Learning Service: The Essential Guide for anyone considering volunteer travel”.  Can you tell us more about it? Which is the main message you want to give to the readers?

What we are calling “learning service” is actually a pretty simple philosophy, and it both starts and ends with the willingness and openness to learn. “Learning service” flips the more commonly used term of “service learning” on its head. It proposes a reversal of thinking: learning should not merely be a bi-product of service that happens after the service is complete, learning should come first and throughout a volunteer experience.

We illustrate this difference by imagining the typical volunteer traveler hopping off a plane in a foreign country exclaiming:

            “Hi! I’m here to help you!”

Though the traveler might learn along the way, the emphasis is on “taking action” first. In the learning service model, “taking action” is no less important, but the definition is wider and can take place at times and places other than the initial trip overseas. In our example, it would look more like someone getting off the plane and saying:

“Hi! I’m here to learn from you, about if and how I can take effective action to help, now or in the future.”

Learning service is an approach to international volunteer travel where:

  1.  Learning comes first and continues throughout a volunteer’s experience, before, during, and after volunteering
  2. Action is humble, mindful, and self-reflective.
  3. Learning and action continue in an ongoing cycle, before, during, and after any trip abroad, with new learning constantly informing action.   

It is personified by the second traveler who doesn’t jump off the plane and assume she should begin to take action and help in a place she doesn’t yet understand. Instead, she puts herself in a place of learning, rather than teaching. She learns about herself to understand her motivations and assumptions. She looks to the communities she is about to meet for knowledge about how and when she might be able to add value towards the goals the host community group has for themselves, and she is open to learning from them ways she can improve herself and her own community. Learning informs her action and learning continues throughout her experience.


  1. Who are the other persons in your book team?

We have a team of 4 co-authors who are based in the US, the UK and myself here in Nepal. We also have a small team and office based in Cambodia.


  1. What are the major practical suggestions of the book?

The book leads readers through the process of deciding whether they want to volunteer, how to do it mindfully and effectively, and how to continue taking positive action into the future. Learning Service suggests learning first, and by that we mean:

  1. Learning about yourself – your values and motivations and goals
  2. Learning about the context – the history and current trends of volunteering and the successes and failures of international development, as well as becoming aware of the main criticisms and pitfalls of how volunteer travel is practiced today
  3. Learning about your options – looking at the wide array of opportunities for volunteer travel, how it is marketed, and how you can research and find out information that will allow you to see if the opportunity is responsible and aligns with your values

We then explore how you can take action that is mindful, humble and self-reflective. In terms of an international volunteer trip, you need to think about what you do:

  1. Before you leave – how you physically and mentally prepare for your experience to be positive
  2. While you are abroad – how you can cultivate the attitudes and mindset to ensure you are open to learning and as effective as possible
  3. For the rest of your life – how you can ensure that your experience overseas was not a “one-off” but informs the decisions you make for the rest of your life.


  1. Can you tell us something about the portal? What is it? How can it be used? What are the future plans? is an information portal for anyone considering international volunteering. If you are interested in some of the practical advice outlined above before the book is available, we have downloadable guidelines and a six-part video series for those wanting to volunteer ethically available for free on the site.


  1.  Last but not the least, when will “Learning Service” be released? Where will it be available?

We are hoping for a release date of later this year in 2015. You can pre-order the book or register for updates on our website


Second part of the interview will be published on 27th of January.

Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

About Us

The idea is simple: creating an open “Portal” where engaged and committed citizens who feel to share their ideas and offer their opinions on development related issues have the opportunity to do...


Please fell free to contact us. We appreciate your feedback and look forward to hearing from you.

Empowered by ENGAGE,
Toward the Volunteering Inspired Society.