Volunteeringfor Change

PHOTO  Will Berkovitz

In addition to financially supporting more than 400 social change organizations in the developing world in 2011, AJWS mobilized hundreds of volunteers who traveled to communities far and wide to devote their labor and skills to furthering global justice.


Some of our volunteers were young, passionate students from high schools and universities across the U.S., who traveled in groups and assisted community-based organizations with bricks and mortar projects. Others were skilled professionals from a diverse array of fields, whom AJWS matched with grantees according to specific needs. From writers to attorneys to consultants, these volunteers provided training and services to help the organizations grow strategically and develop capacity.

Here are two examples of the valuable work they did to further human rights struggles in the field in 2011:


Julia Kohn, a food justice advocate from Chicago, volunteered for a year at Network for Environment and Economic Development (NEED) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. NEED works with Burmese ethnic minority youth who have fled from Burma to escape persecution by the military junta. The organization works to educate, train and empower youth to become the next generation of civil society leaders to take up their community's fight for human rights in their country. It also teaches sustainable stewardship of the land, so that the community can survive and maintain its traditional way of life.

Because of Julia's experience advocating for sustainable, local food systems in the U.S. and running community-supported agriculture programs and initiatives to make fresh produce accessible to the urban poor, AJWS matched her with NEED to co-manage its Model Farm Initiative School. In addition to directing the program—which teaches Burmese youth skills in sustainable agriculture, community organizing and renewable energy—Julia taught lessons in economics, food security, permaculture and community organizing. She also helped with fundraising, developed the organization's website and supported its staff to create a strategic plan and tools for monitoring and evaluating its work.

Reflecting on the experience, Julia says:

"My year at NEED was an incredible journey. Never before had I been in a place with such remarkable energy and resilience. NEED's commitment to fostering leadership among youth and fusing traditional knowledge with scientific methods inspired me every day. NEED is a one-of-a-kind organization, strengthening communities and networks across borders by using sustainable agriculture as a vehicle for activism."

During her time at the organization, Burma was in the process of undergoing dramatic changes, as civil society organizations like NEED have succeeded in breaking cracks in the military regime's chokehold on the country. AJWS has sent approximately 100 volunteers to work in the region over the past decade, and they have all borne witness to and contributed to our grantees' fight against oppression.


Dorit Heimer is an attorney in the U.S. who decided to take three months off to devote her time to global change. Passionate about women's rights, Dorit was looking to help women overcome poverty and violence in the developing world. AJWS matched her with Women's Organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy (WONETHA), an emerging leader in the Ugandan sex workers' rights movement.

WONETHA had been founded only three-years prior by three young women determined to improve the treatment and quality of life of Uganda's sex workers, a population experiencing extreme rates of violence, HIV infection and harassment and who were totally cut off from vital health services and legal protection. While WONETHA was making amazing advances in its work already—empowering sex workers to negotiate condom use with clients, educating them to understand their human rights, and engaging with police officers to prevent violence against them—the organization's leaders had very little education or experience in office management and fundraising. The 12-person NGO was still operating informally, even though its ambitious agenda required a sophisticated business model more fitting to its growing reputation as a changemaker.

Dorit was able to help WONETHA create a new staffing structure, implement a human resources manual and a managers' manual, and research Ugandan law to help the organization protect itself while doing its risky work. She also helped the staff improve their English and grant writing skills, which we hope will be a major boon to their fundraising efforts. She met several critical needs, and has left the organization with new skills and systems in place to manage their growth.

Dorit is quick to point out that almost anyone can be a valuable volunteer in the developing world, because many of the basic skills and education that we take for granted in the U.S. are vitally important there:

"I'm certainly no expert on grant writing and I'm not a human resources professional—or at least I wasn't either of those things before I got here. But it did turn out that just by dint of my education and experience and especially my facility with research and the internet and English expository writing - I could be helpful. I hope that my contribution will make a difference in the NGO's ability to more directly improve sex workers' lives."

Dorit descries the incredible transformation that the organization has undergone in a short time:

"One of WONETHA's leaders mentioned that when she was first told to use a computer as part of her job, she had never seen a computer—and didn't even know how to turn it on. Today the NGO is part of a vibrant network of sex workers in Uganda and around the world. It is held up as a role model to other sex worker organizations—and actually other human rights organizations—in Africa. The work they have done has improved the lives of many of their members, and they have started to change the conversation about sex work in Uganda. I think that's pretty amazing."

Her volunteer experience has not only helped the NGO, but changed Dorit's understanding of a complex human rights issue:

The main thing I've gained is an unexpectedly deep and rich appreciation for the complexity of people's lives so different from my own. Most sex workers live a dangerous, tough life. I don't think anyone chooses sex work if they have other options. But having said that, the many sex workers that I've now met, and especially the NGO staff members that I've gotten to know personally, don't seem to have any self-pity. From their point of view, they are using the tools they have to support themselves and their families—no different from those of us who use our brains, or our brawn. Most of them support not only their own children but often their younger siblings. Many of them have earned the money that put their siblings through school.

All they want is to be recognized as human beings, with the same access as anyone else to legal and medical resources. I have come to feel a real admiration for these women who work so hard to accomplish what they have been able to accomplish against huge odds.

If you're interested in learning more about volunteering with AJWS, click here.

About AJWS

Inspired by Judaism's commitment to justice, American Jewish World Service works to realize human rights and end poverty in the developing world.

About this report

This is a Web-only annual report. No paper, period! This change saved AJWS thousands of dollars that we can now spend fighting poverty and defending human rights. Going online also saved 30 tons of wood and 206,173 gallons of water. It prevented 18,575 lbs of greenhouse gases from polluting our air and kept 23,443 lbs of solid waste out of our landfills! Now that's savings we're proud of.