There is a difference between the service provided by an Atlas Corps Fellow at a Host Organization and the volunteer work done by other individuals outside of the Atlas Corps model. In first instance (readers should know) most volunteers fill positions or carry out tasks that no one else will do (or that the organization can’t afford to pay); Atlas Corps Fellows on the other hand, are hand picked by the Host to undertake key projects in the organization that no one else can carry out and receive a (modest) monthly stipend in return.
A year of service means many things to those involved: the volunteer, the organization, and the ultimate beneficiaries; but the commonality , or rather the expectation of all of those involved, is that the volunteered time and other resources are employed to the fullest extent. Serving at Atlas Corps has given me a unique opportunity of analyze how all the pieces of this mixed model organization fit together and how it is contributing to the professionalization of volunteerism.
Best practices and lessons learned:
The potential of knowledge:
The amount and quality of knowledge and life experience that Fellows bring and share among themselves (outside of formal training spaces) is incomparable. As a Fellow, and now as an alumna, I will cherish above all the conversations with Fellows on how they see the world we live in and how they wish they could make it better. Learning from Fellows what an institution is like in their country, what marriage, child birth, human rights, food, dating and leisure are like back home is the best part of any exchange program. But then, what sets the Atlas Corps Fellowship apart from the rest?
In my 12 month experience, I have realized that what sets this program apart is the potential of advancement in the development field. The potential of bringing forward and into the financing -policy makers light in DC, new ways (more effective ways) of doing things in countries that receive financial and technical assistance from the United States.
This was the most interesting learning aspect of my Fellowship experience and, as part of my service, was showcased in the Atlas Corps event “Professional Exchange to Forward Civil Society and International Development”. This event brought together experts, practitioners and volunteers in the field of exchanges to discuss how exchanges can be used as a tool for citizen diplomacy and how we could learn from each other to measure the effectiveness of professional exchange.
There is definitely a potential to acquire knowledge from the individuals participating in exchanges, much more so and way beyond a”show and tell” of their country and experience in the US, but there needs to be a staff and mechanism in place that can effectively track these knowledge acquisition. I do not know what the best way to do so is, but what I know is that the field itself could incorporate M&E experts that will contribute to the professionalization of the field.
A growing and ambitious organization will naturally face some hurdles. From the advantageous position (and sometimes very gray area) of being both a Fellow and an Atlas Corps staff member for a year, here are some of the challenges Atlas Corps could face down the line and should prepare to overcome:
Finalists’ backlog versus number of available host organizations:
Candidate selection vs third party co-financing
Internal structure Strengthening vs expansion projects.