Our Practices for Short Term Teams

We’ve been a part of teams, led teams and we’ve made our fair share of mistakes. We continue to learn and to change; we strive to improve and to host teams that help and not hurt. Most of the harm happens unintentionally, when we act on our instincts. Most people that live long term as aid or missionary workers went on some sort of short term trip before diving in. Short and long term blend together. There are some great short term workers and some terrible ones. Conversely, there are some exceptional long term workers and some lousy ones. Whether we are here short or long term, there’s plenty of room for improvement. Let’s continue to share cross-culturally, to invest and to come up with better practices to make inter-cultural exchange beneficial to all that are involved.

1. Instinct: Bigger is better. The bigger the team, the more of a difference we can make. Everyone should have the opportunity to be on a trip.

Best practices: Small teams, less than 12, with mature, teachable people are hands down the best. They allow a team to sit in the home of a national and share a dessert. They don’t overpower and overwhelm a local community, school or church. Please don’t send people so that the poor people of the host country can “fix” them, their perspective or their attitude. Please don’t send people so that they can “fix” or “save” the poor people of the host country. Not everyone should go. The quickest way to do damage is to send inflexible people that don’t want to join the nationals in what they are already doing.

2. Instinct: Take charge, especially when we feel like nothing is being done or it’s not being done fast enough.

Best practices: Come with an attitude to learn, serve, and love. We are joining a lot of awesome work that was started before us and will continue after us. Keep a spirit of humility. Have respect for the laid back concept of time. Understand that we lose electricity and water often and that protests or broken down vehicles can completely shut down travel. A lot of things here are beyond anyone’s control. We must hold our plans loosely. Don’t assume that our project hasn’t been tried before. Try to find out about what has happened or worked in the past. There are many reasons why a project/school/ministry doesn’t take root in a community. Has another team already done VBS this year? Retreat? Dug a well? Ask before coming.

3. Instinct: work with other North Americans on a project that we picked and are excited about. Spend the bulk of the time with these team members. Latch onto the only English speaking national in the group or in the class.

Best practices: Work WITH and never FOR. If there are already nationals teaching, cooking, building, coaching, leading...let them do their job! If there isn’t already a solid group of nationals that at least equal if not outnumber the North American team, there’s a problem. You should be working with national doctors and nurses, pastors and lay leaders in a church, teachers and administrators at a school, foreman and construction crews, and coaches, parents, grandparents and other adult leadership in the community. If they did not get to have a voice in the planning process for the project or the way the project is carried out, there’s a problem. Those are red flags that this is a project that is FOR the visitors instead of WITH the nationals. If we go home with the name of one translator and a slew of photos of unnamed children, there’s evidence that we are not involving ourselves in a healthy way. We must be intentional about seeking out relationships.

4. Instinct: Work hard and take few breaks. We are only here for a week and we want to see results. Do all the leading.

Best practices: Bring our skills, tell our story, invest our time and resources but we should receive as well. If there is not intentional time set aside for us to sit under the teachings of the nationals, we are missing out! Do we know how to manage a classroom of 54 students of varying ages? Do we know how to cultivate and sell pineapples? Can we cook over an open fire for 100 people on a $40 budget? Have we raised children through a civil war? Do we know the pastor’s testimony? Do we know how to weave hammocks or fish without a pole? We should be doing just as much listening as speaking.

5. Our instinct: Recharge as a group, alone, on a “free” day.

Best practices: It’s a beautiful country! Visit the national parks, beaches, historical sites and the zip lines but TAKE our national team members WITH us as much as possible! Include them in the work and the leisure. Pack our van full of school children and enjoy learning the names of the animals at the zoo together. Let the teachers soak in the sun at our side. They work hard and want to be enriched by these experiences, too.

6. Our instinct: wear clothes that are comfortable, cooler and what our culture deems as “modest.”

Best practices: Clothes matter here. A LOT. Save shorts for our rooms at night. If we want to be taken seriously and be seen as adding to the work in a professional way, dress appropriately: pants. If we go to any construction site, school, clinic, or church service we will notice that men mostly wear pants and women mostly wear pants or skirts. North American style of dress is informal and comfortable but we will been seen as sloppy, as tourists and not fellow co-workers. Shorts on women is typically seen as sexy because the thigh is one of the most intimate parts a woman can display. Show respect by what we put on, bow to their notions of modesty instead of our own.

7. Our instinct: Stick to North American food that we know and like. Pass on food that looks or smells different. Throw away excess food in the garbage. Sit with our best friend on the trip or our spouse.


Best practices: Eat national food as much as possible WITH as many nationals as possible. Instead of crowding around the table as a group, spread out. Share tables with our national team members. Nothing bonds us quicker to others than sharing a meal together. If we want to win hearts and trust...pick up a fork or a tortilla! Remember that food is expensive and many go hungry. Before scraping our food into the trash can, politely ask if there is a place we should put our plates. Maybe our leftovers will be eaten or maybe they will go to the dog, pig or chickens in the backyard, either way, nothing goes to waste here. Always show a kind and grateful attitude for the meals and snacks that we receive. Teams always eat better and more often than the national people.

8. Instinct: hyper focus on the project/work site. Be leery of trips outside this designated area. Preserve our North American concepts of privacy by not entering into homes.

Best practices: Our project site is most likely located in a community. It impacts the community and is likely to be impacted by the community. Visit homes, churches, schools, parks and clinics. Pack away our cameras and just look and listen. Buy an ice cream cone at the corner shop or a banana at the local market. How do the people travel? How do the kids get to school? What do they eat? What do they sell? What do they drink? How is the infrastructure? Do they have medical care nearby? A library? Where do the kids play? Are there Catholics or Protestants, Jehovah’s Witness or Mormons? What are the local building materials? How do people earn a living? Are there other NGO’s or government projects in the area? Learn more than just our one, small work site because our project is NOT an island.

9.Instinct: bring a lot of stuff to give away.

Best practices: If we bring resources to donate, don’t bring junk and let the nationals give it out with us or maybe just leave it with them to use as they see fit. Be strategic in our donations and do our research: maybe the clinic needs vitamins but maybe they just need a new bathroom. Maybe the school needs notebooks or maybe just scholarship money. Find out what the needs are before collecting a bunch of stuff from back home. Giving out freebies should take up a very small percentage of our time here.

10. Instinct: be profoundly impacted and moved by what we see and tell nationals that we will buy them a camera or send their son a monthly check to attend law school. Promise things out of a heart breaking or promise out of feelings of guilt.

Best practices: Don’t promise anything. Don’t promise we’ll be back. Don’t promise a new bike for a sponsor child or a new house for a teacher. Don’t promise to write or send photos. Don’t promise to “friend” them on facebook. Don’t give out anything without asking. Not following through on promises and handing out money causes a lot of damage to the work you are joining. There are ways to give that are healthy and ways that are destructive. Take take time to seek these out before acting. Ask the advice of those that are living and working long term in the area.

11. Instinct: take ourselves very seriously. When things get hard or we are tired, we tend to use sarcasm or inside jokes.

Have fun! Smile! Laugh! Nationals like to have a good time, too! We will make mistakes. Try to be lighthearted. Sarcasm usually don’t translate well and can leave a bad impression. We will be remembered by how people felt when they were around us more than what we built (or didn’t build!).

12. Instinct: when we see tin shacks or children begging, criticize or view everyone here as victims.

Best practices: Ask questions. A LOT. If something doesn’t make sense, ask a question. Do not assume the worst of the people here. Do not assume that they don’t know any better. Do not assume that the way things are done North America will work here. We need to save our judgements until we hear more of the story.

13. Instinct: do very little pre-trip training and team building because of busy schedules.

Best practices: The people hosting our team do a lot of pre-trip planning and arranging. We can do a lot to make sure the trip goes well and is impactful for everyone involved BUT team leaders can make or break a trip. Before the trip: are there team members that won’t come to meetings? Won’t learn a few Spanish phrases? Refuse to follow dress codes or be open to new foods? Those are red flags! People like that think the trip is about them: their adventure, comfort and control. They can take down a team quicker than a rainstorm on your construction project and they tend to poison the whole team as the days roll on.

14. Instinct: build something “bigger, better, and stronger,” just like we do back home.

Often, less is more. It’s better to spend time with people than to do more. It’s okay not to get the project done, let them finish it when we are gone! Use their tools. Take our time. Can the national team guard this piece of expensive equipment when we leave? Can they REPAIR it? Will building this house cause the pastor problems in the community? Will building him an even bigger house cause the whole community problems? We should be asking how a project can continue on in the future before investing.