Our method is the means by which we 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 our short-term missions (STM) goal is to identify which type of trip is most suitable, taking into account the skills, experience, constraints and 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 four 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


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.

Unpacking the ethical models:

action orientated trips

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 promotional videos or video case studies to help talk about 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; and
  • a paramedic providing first-aid training to church and community leaders. 

Skills Exchanges

Skills exchanges are STM trips which 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 a partner church in Bangkok, Thailand. After much discussion about what a STM program could look like, the two churches decided to set up a skills exchange STM program. Now, every year, each church sends a team to the other church's annual conference. The trips provide an opportunity for both teams to use their existing skills to serve at their partner's event. Team members 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 debriefing session is held after each church's event; providing the host team with an opportunity to give the visiting team feedback and the visiting team an opportunity to share their insights, observations and reflections with the host church.

The outcome is reciprocal learning, an exchange of skills and experience, and mutual benefit for both churches. It strengthens relationships between the individuals and the entities and 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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+ Case Study: Building the capacity of local educators

Hope Education is an initiative of Hope Global, whose mission is to ensure children in post-conflict countries have access to quality education. Hope Global does this by coming alongside schools and teachers and providing teacher training that is tailored to the local needs and aligns with existing local and national education plans and objectives. Hope Global strategically recruits professional teachers and trainers from Australia who are willing to go on a STM trip for 2-3 weeks in order to deliver the training conferences. Each trip is made up of volunteers with the specific skills needed to help field partners achieve their goals, so every volunteer is making a valuable contribution. Hope Global has had team members who are teachers and head teachers, IT trainers, business professionals, photographers and nurses to deliver the training sessions, and this list is always diversifying. The organisation also utilises a small number of ‘general’ volunteers on each trip to assist trainers and ensure the smooth running of conferences and training sessions. As a result of building the capacity of local teachers, Hope Global’s STM teams have contributed to real and lasting positive change in the lives of children and young people.

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.

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's not, it can become precious time and resources diverted from community priorities towards something that is peripheral.

One of the threats to good practice in STM is the claim that love alone can change the world.

This is a common statement used to recruit STM teams by way of convincing people that they don't need specific skills to participate, just love. Love is without question the greatest virtue but it’s a motive, not a means. It must take the form of an action to be expressed and perceived, which is why the Bible instructs us to “love in word and deed”.

In the context of STM, the impact of any intended 'words and deeds' still must be evaluated from the vantage point of the most marginalised. If they are found to be wanting or likely to cause harm, they are not ethical. In fact, they aren't even a true expression of love, for the Bible says that "love does no harm to its neighbour”.

This nice-sounding statement that love alone can change the world is therefore deceptively damaging. It’s an invitation to disengage our minds from the Great Commission. It's a dismissal of the need for expertise, critical thinking and the application of ethical guiding principles and good practice in missions – short and long-term. The result can be teams acting outside of their skill sets and qualifications, and taking on roles or undertaking tasks on a STM trip that they would never undertake at home – and for good reason.

Approaching STM in this way may achieve some of the experiential goals the team might have but is unethical due to the risk of harm and likelihood of poor outcomes for local communities. STM should and can be widely accessible but this does not equate to permitting people to engage in tasks they are ill-equipped to perform.

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. In taking this approach, we realise that change is not dependent on the ideas, resources or initiative of outside teams or organisations, nor should communities be treated as passive recipients of charity or change determined and delivered by outsiders. 

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 alongside communities to work together and lighten the load. Either way, it's 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 because it:

  • allows all parties to play to their strengths while still prioritising the goals and objectives of local communities;
  • naturally lends itself to using teams in capacity building and support roles;
  • promotes equal partnerships and solidarity;
  • prevents teams from initiating activities or projects that can't be sustained locally;
  • challenges the 'white saviour complex' by encouraging teams to discover and affirm the strengths of local communities;
  • 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;
  • reduces the likelihood of wasted resources; and
  • is relational. 

+ Case Study: Strengthening Vulnerable Families in Cambodia

In 2012, Australian Christian Churches International (ACCI) began working in a remote area in northern Cambodia, in partnership with a local church. Church and community leaders received training in community-led development principles so that the church could be a catalyst for holistic transformation in the community. The families of Prey Tatung identified access to water and sanitation, and food security as the two initial challenges they wanted to address. Once they had installed sufficient wells and ponds to provide water, they began to set up permaculture farms for each household, which would provide each family with a sufficient supply of food all year round. The church organised training sessions, run by a Cambodian permaculture specialist, who taught them not just how to set up and build their own farms but about food groups and seasonal crops, so they would be able to maintain a balanced diet throughout the year. Each family was given a few basic supplies and then provided their own manual labour to set up the farms.

Well into the project, an Australian church contacted ACCI wanting to send a STM team. ACCI, being careful to not hamper the community-led development process, determined that it would be valuable for the team to come and learn from the community and see what they had been able to achieve using asset-based development. They also asked the community leaders if there was anything they wanted team members to do while they were visiting. The village leader told staff that there were six vulnerable families which had yet to set up their farms because they could not complete the manual labour themselves due to age or disability. Additionally, these were all families struggling to feed children or grandchildren. In response, the village leader was organising community work teams to help these six families set up their farms. He invited the STM team members to participate in these work teams and help dig the families’ fish ponds. Each team member was paired with members from the community and spent three days digging fish ponds. It was not a case of a team of ‘white people’ coming to do all the work and undermine the empowerment process, rather the team worked with the community, building relationships with them as they laboured and ate together. At the end of the three days, all six families had ready-to-fill fish ponds and the team walked away having contributed to a healthy and meaningful community development process.

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's like to live in a given country and work in a 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's appropriate to the nature of their work. 
  • Learn about the country or community's history and the political, historical and contemporary dynamics which affect the present day reality. Volunteers could also visit museums and key cultural sites and gather information for further learning. 
Facilitating an unrealistic experience for a STM team or volunteer is not a helpful way to provide exposure and recruit long-term workers.

It actually sets them up with unrealistic expectations of what long-term ministry will be like, which will likely have a negative effect on them if and when they go out to the field longer term. Unmet expectations are one of the top reasons missionaries come off the field, and therefore we do no service to upcoming missionaries if we exacerbate this problem.

So, be careful not to create a situation which gives team members an exaggerated sense of 'impact' on a STM trip. It might make them feel good while on the trip but it’s not genuine and will undermine volunteers’ ability to evaluate and appreciate the real nature of the work and the true effort required to contribute to lasting change.

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's 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.

STAGE TWO: The team returns home and turns its focus to action and advocacy.

Utilising their firsthand knowledge, team members raise awareness and advocate for change within their personal spheres of influence – among family, friends, their workplace, church and community.

This may include:

  • Hosting awareness-raising and fundraising events.
  • Looking at ways their own culture is complicit 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, thereby giving voice to local people who want their story to be heard and used to catalyse change. 

+ Case Study: It’s all about education and advocacy
– A pastor’s perspective –

“We’re not interested in a ‘doing-based trip’, we’re interested in a ‘learning-based trip’ ... that’s more about coming alongside partners in the field and watching and observing.” Ps Danny Major, Global Pastor, Enjoy Church, Australia.

Several years ago, Enjoy Church launched a new missions campaign called Collective 61, which partners with several organisations in Cambodia that assist vulnerable women and children. Enjoy Church runs STM trips to Cambodia once a year, with a focus on helping team members develop a holistic understanding of the issues of injustice that create poverty and vulnerability, and to inspire long-term action.

The trips are extremely purposeful. Prior to departure, team members attend a training session on ‘poverty and empowerment’, which challenges their understanding of poverty and the perception that we can ‘fix’ people’s poverty by helping them become more like us. As soon as they arrive in Cambodia, team members are provided with information on Cambodia’s history, the people, and the positive and negative impacts of aid on the community. They visit two rural communities and witness the difference between NGO-led and community-led development, and they see the pride and joy community members take in their achievements when a community has led its own development process. By meeting with Enjoy’s Collective 61 partners, the team is exposed to a holistic view of human trafficking, including the root causes, local issues, solutions and outcomes. But at no point does the team meet survivors of trafficking or at-risk children, or take part in the projects themselves. During the STM trip, everything the team sees and experiences helps team members understand the global nature of these problems and helps them connect the dots between what is happening in Cambodia and how it’s linked to what we do in Australia; everything from, “… our belief systems, the clothes we wear, the perfume we buy – it can all have an adverse affect in-country,” explains Ps Danny.

When team members return home, each is now aware, knowledgeable and equipped to advocate on behalf of the people and programs they have visited from a more educated point of view. As Ps Danny states, “One of the best things they can do is to go home and begin to change how they live, to speak out, and educate others on the most appropriate part they can play”.*

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 is, it leverages volunteers' actual spheres of influence, which aren't generally located in the overseas communities they go to visit. Our spheres of influence are at home among our family, friends, colleagues and workplaces; in the community groups we are a part of and in the context of our professional networks. 

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True influence always leverages social capital and is highly dependent on trust. It's rare for volunteers to have social capital or trust 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 has 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 (for example, ethical purchasing) in order to help address global poverty is one way that advocacy-based STM teams can have a 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 which address the real issues and don't result in harm.  

Consider this scenario: 

An advocacy-based STM Trip to Bangladesh, for example, 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, which is 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. If you're keen to learn more about this issue, take a look at the video and link below. This 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, as well as provide you with information to help you and your team 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 and priorities of ALL actors and prioritising the community's interests above all else.