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Your method is the means by which you turn a goal envisaged into an outcome achieved. 

To be ethical, the method must lead to good outcomes for all and unintended consequences for none.

The first consideration in selecting an ethical method to achieve your STM goal is identifying what type of trip is most suitable, taking into account the skills, experience, constraints, priorities of ALL actors - once again giving precedence to the local communities or people at the centre of the trip.  

When it comes to the types of trips, we've identified 4 main models, which when well planned and thought through, can be ethical and meaningful for all parties. They fall under two distinct categories:

Action Oriented Trips

These trips are designed to facilitate teams or volunteers to achieve a tangible goal during the course of the trip. There are two primary action oriented models that lend themselves towards an ethical means. They are: 

1. Skills based volunteering and exchange

2. Asset Based STM trips

Learning Oriented Trips

These trips are designed to impart knowledge to teams about local and global issues. They promote awareness and challenge our assumptions. The learning then informs some type of post trip action that could take place immediately upon the team's return or be outworked over a longer period of time.

Learning trips include: 

3. Exposure trips

4. Advocacy trips

Remember those Guiding Principles?

Whether it's a learning or action oriented trip, the ethical directing principles still apply. These act as our first set of filters in determining what an ethical approach to achieving the goal might be. In fact reflecting on the principles will likely help steer us towards one of the four models as we consider how those principles apply to the goal, our situation and that of the local community we intend to interact with.

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 Unpacking the Ethical Models

Action Oriented STM Trip:

1. Skills Based Volunteering and Exchange

Skilled volunteer trips are typically more relevant to individuals or specialised teams.  

Skilled volunteering takes place when someone uses their specific expertise and qualifications to assist a local organisation or community in a niche area. Examples of skilled volunteering include:

  • An accountant setting up a finance system for a local organisation.
  • A videographer putting together a series of promotion videos or video case studies to help promote a local project.
  • A Senior Pastor or leader teaching leadership sessions in a locally run pastors seminar or conference.
  • A seasoned Pastor or Preacher speaking at a local church service. 
  • A social worker training local staff in case management systems or assessments 
  • A worship team holding workshops or participating in a local concert 
  • A water engineer consulting for a community on the design of a filtration system 
  • A team of teachers training local teachers at a professional development seminar
  • A counsellor providing debriefing sessions for overseas missionaries and field staff
  • A paramedic providing first aid training to church and community leaders. 

Skills exchanges: STM provide a rich opportunity for two-way learning and reciprocal sharing of knowledge, innovation, culture and skills. Skills exchanges can take place in one location/country or through reciprocal visits to both countries or communities. The latter, for example, could look like this: 

A local church in Sydney Australia was interested in setting up a STM program with their local partner church in Bangkok in Thailand which they partner with. After much discussion about what a STM program could look like the two churches decided to set up a skills exchange STM program. Every year, Each church sends a team to their partner church's annual conference. The trips provide an opportunity for both teams to use their existing skills to serve at their partner's event. They also learn new skills and have the opportunity to be exposed to new ideas that they may be able to adapt and apply to their own church's context. A debrief session is held after each church's event. This provides the host team an opportunity to give the visiting team feedback and gives the visiting team an opportunity to share their insights, observations and reflections back with the host church.

The outcome is reciprocal learning, the exchanging of skills and experience and mutual benefit to both churches. It strengthens relationships between the individuals and the entities. It promotes equality in the partnership by recognising that both churches have something to give and something to learn. In the end both the churches and the individuals on the team are richer for the exchange. 

Using your skills to build local capacity

If you're a practitioner contemplating skills based volunteering, it's completely logical that you'd naturally lean towards getting directly involved in the implementation of programs and projects that align with your expertise. In some cases this is fine, in others, direct practice requires a knowledge of language, culture and local context to be effective. STM trips are short by definition and don't allow the time to gain such understanding. So instead of direct practice, consider using your skills to build the capacity of overseas practitioners. For example; 

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Investing in local practitioners is likely to create an impact that extends well beyond the end of the trip, as local staff integrate the new skills and knowledge you've shared into their daily roles. It also safeguards against disruption or loss of continuity in services or programs as local staff are not being periodically replaced by overseas volunteers. This is particularly important for any programs or services designed for children.

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Be Mindful

The desire to share our skills and knowledge with others is generous and commendable, but for it to be good for local communities we need to ensure the local organisations and communities we intend to share with genuinely desire the skills we bring or the opportunity for exchange. 

The best way to ensure this is to give local communities and organisations the primary say in requesting and recruiting skilled volunteers. After all they know best what skills and assistance they would benefit from and what their priorities are at any given time. When skilled volunteering placements align with local priorities, the time it takes the host organisation or community to prepare and facilitate the volunteer is time invested in the community's own goals. When it is not, it can become precious time and resources diverted from community priorities towards something that is peripheral. 

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2. Asset Based Community Development Trips

An asset based STM trip is one in which we first recognise that every community has assets and the capacity to envisage and initiate positive change for themselves. Change is not dependent on the ideas, resources or initiative of outside teams or organisations and therefore communities should not be treated as passive recipients of charity or change determined and delivered by outsiders. As well meaning as this might be, it can be deeply disempowering and therefore counterproductive and unethical. 

In asset based STM, teams are encouraged to recognise the assets, strengths and existing efforts of local communities and use their assets and strengths in a supporting or complimentary way. This could be by way of contributing to the resource pool communities require to fulfil their self-identified goals, or coming along side communities to work together and lighten the load. Either way it is a 'do it together approach'. 

An asset based STM trip is therefore the opposite of a 'deficit approach' in which teams identify the 'gaps, need and problems' and attempt to use their own resources, skills and ideas to 'fix' them on the community's behalf. In a deficit approach, we run the risk of wrongly diagnosing issues and developing inappropriate responses. Taking an asset based approach to STM on the other hand has lots of positive benefits such as:

  • It allows all parties to play to their strengths whilst still prioritising the goals and objectives of local communities.
  • It naturally lends itself to using teams in capacity building and support roles.
  • It promotes equal partnerships and solidarity
  • It prevents teams from initiating activities or projects that can't be sustained locally
  • It challenges the White Saviour Complex by encouraging us to discover and affirm the strengths of local communities.
  • It prevents teams from disempowering local actors by taking away their decision making rights or doing things for local communities that they are completely capable of doing for themselves.
  • It reduces the likelihood of wasted resources.
  • It is relational 
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Learning Oriented Trips:

3. Exposure trips

As the name indicates exposure trips are about exposing people to other countries, cultures and contexts. The primary purpose of exposure trips is to give people who are sensing a longer term call to missions or overseas development an opportunity to explore that calling. Exposure trips can help people get a more realistic sense of what it might be like to live in a given country, work in a particular field as well as better understand what they should be doing to prepare and equip themselves. 

Exposure trips should therefore really focus on providing people with opportunities to:

  • Meet with and talk to seasoned missionaries or development workers who can explain what it is like to live in a given country and work in given culture.   
  • Visit organisations working in their field of interest to get a sense of what is already being done, by whom, what works, what doesn't and why. This helps future missionaries begin the process of  formulating an approach that is based on actual context and evidence rather than assumptions. 
  • Observe, everything from how programs run, to community life, to aspects of culture. Shadowing field workers can be helpful too, as long as it is appropriate considering the nature of their work. 
  • Learn about the country or community's history and the political, historical and contemporary dynamics that affect the present day reality. Visit museums, key cultural sites, and gather information for further learning. 
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4. Advocacy Trips

Advocacy trips are designed to equip teams and volunteers with knowledge and awareness for the purposes of advocacy efforts that are most likely to take place once they return home. It is a two-part method that takes the following form: 

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Stage One: 

Teams go overseas to engage in an intensive time of on-field learning.

This is a boot camp experience that allows them to deepen their understanding of local issues and their connection to global issues or systems.

This may take place by:

  • Organising field visits to learn about community initiatives and meet with local families.
  • Attending presentations delivered by organisations or local community groups working on addressing certain issues. 
  • Providing opportunities to observe programs in operation where appropriate. Exemptions would include any residential care programs, rehabilitation programs or contact with highly vulnerable client groups (For more info). 

Stage Two:

The team returns home and turns their focus to action and advocacy.

Utilising their first-hand knowledge, teams raise awareness and advocate for change within their personal sphere of influence - amongst family, friends, workplace, church, and community.

This may include:

  • Hosting awareness raising and fundraising events.
  • Looking at ways their own culture is complicity in causing issues of exploitation or poverty in the country they have visited and advocating for change.
  • Sharing stories and experiences of the people they met by way of giving voice to local people who want their story to be heard and used to catalyse change. 

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Leveraging Social Capital

Engaging returning volunteers and STM Team members in post trip advocacy is probably the most effective way for them to contribute to long-term change for communities overseas. The reason being is it leverages volunteer's actual spheres of influence, which aren't generally located in the overseas communities we go to visit. Our spheres of influence are at home amongst our family, friends, colleagues and work places. They are amongst the community groups we are a part of and in the context of our professional networks. 

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Influence always leverages social capital and is highly dependent on trust.  It's rare for volunteers to have social capital or trust build in overseas communities and therefore the notion that we can have a 'significant influence' in those communities isn't particularly realistic. The truth is any influence we do have overseas is leveraging the social capital of someone else- a local missionary, development worker or local organisation who have invested the necessary time to build that trust. We can however have legitimate influence if we shift the focus of our action from field-based to home-based through advocacy. 

What does home-based advocacy have to do with it?

The majority of teams and volunteers engage in some form of community or development related work in the course of their STM trip. In most cases the focus is on addressing vulnerability, alleviating poverty or assisting people who have been exploited or marginalised. Learning and advocacy trips can help highlight the ways in which some of the root causes behind the issues that create poverty and vulnerability in the ‘developing world’ may actually originate or have their roots in the ‘developed world’. 

Issues such a climate change, global markets and capitalism are key causes of poverty and vulnerability, yet the distribution of cause and effect is uneven. Developed countries contribute much more to the causes, yet developing countries are harder hit with the effects. As a result we need to reconsider where we focus our efforts; on addressing the symptoms overseas or the causes in our own backyards. Helping our friends and family at home understand what they can change in terms of their practices (ethical purchasing for example) in order to help address global poverty is an example of how Advocacy-based STM teams can have a really significant impact. 

Another example is educating people about being wise with their giving to overseas programs. Often donors lack understanding of the root causes of these issues, which can result in funding being directed towards inappropriate responses that don't solve the real problems, and can in fact create new ones. Returning STMs can help educate donors (churches, individuals and businesses) and assist them to identify and direct their giving towards ethical and appropriate programs that address the real issues and don't result in harm.  

Consider the scenario below

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An advocacy-based STM Trip to Bangladesh could be designed to help participants learn about:

  • Systemic injustice (such as labour exploitation in supply chains);
  • Root causes of child vulnerability (such as those that cause poverty);
  • Appropriate solutions that address root causes and uphold the full scope of children’s rights (such as family preservation and family strengthening programs);
  • Harmful effects of residential care (such as emotional, cognitive and developmental delays and institutionalisation); and
  • The role that Western donors/volunteers unwittingly play in proliferating ‘orphanages’.

Team members and volunteers could then return to their home country and raise awareness about:

  • Supporting companies which offer their workers a living wage and fair work conditions;
  • Supporting programs that strengthen families rather than funding orphanages; and
  • The perils of volunteering in, and visiting orphanages, and ethical alternatives.

In this way, the STM trip would equip participants with knowledge to advocate and speak up for children and families overseas, an incredibly worthwhile call to action. This could include advocating for a redirection of funding away from harmful programming, to ethical community-focused options.

Let's be Honest

Volunteering in orphanages is an incredibly common and popular STM activity, and it can be confronting to hear it referred to as a harmful practice. See video and link below, which will take you to a page dedicated to unpacking the reasons why there is a global push to discourage orphanage volunteering, including in the context of STM trips and help teams and volunteers consider more ethical ways to support children and their families. 


Selecting the type of trip that you will be part of, be this action-oriented or learning-oriented, requires you to carefully consider the skills, experience, constraints, priorities of ALL actors - prioritising the community's interests above all else.

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