Abstract: Valuing Diversity: Intercultural Competence and International Volunteering (Society for Social Work and Research 14th Annual Conference: Social Work Research: A WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES)

11420 Valuing Diversity: Intercultural Competence and International Volunteering

Thursday, January 14, 2010: 3:30 PM
Pacific Concourse N (Hyatt Regency)
* noted as presenting author
Benjamin J. Lough, MSW , Washington University in Saint Louis, PhD Candidate, Research Associate, St Louis, MO


SSWR 13th Annual Conference

New Orleans, LA USA – January 16-18, 2009


Each year, millions of volunteers cross national borders to engage in activities they most frequently refer to as “social work” (Jones, 2004). Unlike many other forms of travel and tourism, the unique qualities of international volunteering allow these sojourners to connect intimately with the host culture as they serve face-to-face with community members. This contact has the potential to enhance the intercultural competence (ICC) of volunteers (Fantini & with Tirmizi, 2007; Savicki, 2008; Deardorff, 2008: 33). Under the wrong conditions, however, this contact can be ineffective or counterproductive—leading to greater prejudice and decreased acceptance of diversity (Reiman & Sprinthall 1997; Sherraden, Lough, & McBride, 2008; Simpson, 2004).


Theory and empirical research specify a number of conditions that can help volunteers achieve greater levels of ICC (Allport, 1954; Boss, 1994; CVO, 2007; Hammer, 2005; Mezirow, 1991). The actual effect of these conditions on explicit outcomes has yet to be tested, however. This paper hypothesizes that the degree of volunteers' ICC depends on four important variables including: 1) service duration, 2) cultural immersion, 3) guided reflection, and 4) contact reciprocity.


This study uses cross-sectional data from the International Volunteering Impacts Survey (IVIS) (Lough, McBride, & Sherraden, 2008). Researchers surveyed 582 volunteers who served with two sending organizations that contain a degree of programmatic variance across these four conditions. A three-step hierarchical regression tests the relationships between ICC and main-effect and moderating variables. Five additional control variables are also used to control for significant differences in individual and institutional characteristics.


Guided reflection and contact reciprocity are significantly related to intercultural competence, while service duration and immersion are not. The nine-variable model accounts for 28% variance in ICC outcomes. Although adding a third block with interaction terms contributes an additional 2% of variance, the F-value was insignificant at the .05 level—indicating lack of moderation.

Conclusions and Implications

Nearly all international volunteer sending programs claim that intercultural competence is an important outcome of service. However, programs that differ in design also differ in the outcomes they produce. This study is one of the first to test the relationship between a specific outcome and key programmatic variables. Studying how variations in programs affect outcomes is especially relevant today given the recent policy proposals aimed to expand and support a greater variety of international service models (Caprara, Bridgeland, & Wofford, 2007; Quigley & Rieffel, 2008; Rosenthal, 2008).

In addition, intercultural competence is an increasingly important skill for social workers practicing in a diverse “global society”. In addition to practice implications related to the social service activities of volunteers, the findings of this study have important implications for social work students serving in international field placements (Lough, 2009). Programs emphasizing guided reflection and contact reciprocity may produce more effective outcomes.