Assembling the Team

Once a site has been identified and goals have been defined, it is time to assemble a team to bring your volunteer plans to fruition. This process is certainly much easier if you have joined a well-established group—a move that is recommended for first-time volunteers. As a volunteer, you are usually responsible for funding some supplies and your travel to meet the rest of your volunteer group at a central location.

The size of your team depends on the goals of the project, the availability and limits of local transportation and housing conditions, and the time frame that is involved. Service projects of short duration can usually accommodate more people. Training programs or long-range programs—that is, those lasting longer than a month—generally have fewer participants, quite often just one or two people.

Many international projects are very demanding physically. Be aware of the potential for real physical stress. If you have any health problems, seek medical clearance before participating. Also, when preparing for a project in a foreign country, be prepared to do just a little bit more than your own share. With everyone involved applying this approach, work tends to get done without resentment. When every team member looks out for everyone else, the strength of the team can be awe-inspiring.

When team members provide mutual support, veteran volunteers can serve as sounding boards for newcomers. First-time volunteers often experience situations or cultural differences that defy comprehension based on their life at home. Talking about what they have seen or done can lead to a greater understanding of the situation. An evening roundtable discussion is an ideal time for volunteers to engage in these personal reflections.

Approaches to Team Building

Team building is essential in working with local volunteers. If you are organizing a team, consider an approach that uses mostly professional volunteers and then joins volunteers from the local site. The local people can be vitally helpful in notifying surrounding communities about the presence of the dental team as well as play an integral role in the following:

  • organizing and registering patients
  • assisting with restorative procedures and giving post extraction instructions to patients
  • washing, disinfecting, and sterilizing instruments
  • interpreting, cooking, and performing other tasks as needs arise.

In this cooperative approach, both the volunteers and local people are integrated into the project and share a common interest, commitment, and feeling of accomplishment and ownership.

Another team-building approach involves bringing all team members from home. This type of team could include non-dentist family members as volunteers, office staff, and representatives of the sanctioning organization. This approach allows more volunteers without clinical skills to participate but may preclude the integration of local people into the project. Groups that become too large for the local conditions, no matter what their intent, can suffer from the laws of diminishing returns. Space and efficiency become problems. It is important to remember that not all family members see the project through the same lens as a volunteer. It is unfair to a family member and possibly detrimental to the project to include anyone on an international trip who does not want to be there.

Selecting the Team Leader

One person, usually the organizer of the group, should be designated the team leader. Some experienced volunteers have suggested that this person might not necessarily be a dentist. Primary considerations should be that the person possesses good leadership and interpersonal skills, has a working knowledge of the project and, preferably, is familiar to some of the local hosts. The team leader should serve as the spokesperson for the group, a role that can be critical when planning activities.

The selection of a team leader is perhaps the most important decision that a group will make. Besides obvious organizational responsibilities, the leader must take a disparate group of people who do not know each other very well and develop a cohesive unit that will work well together. Ultimately, the leader must take responsibility for the day-to-day operations and tasks of the project. The leader must be sensitive to team members who, for whatever reason, are having difficulty adjusting to either the local surroundings or who are in conflict with other team members. The leader must be a leader.