This article was originally posted on my website, The Traveling Advisor.
If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
~Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s
Today is International Volunteer Day (IVD). Every volunteer interaction means impact on volunteers and communities and with “hundreds of millions” of people volunteering every year (United Nations), the potential impacts are significant. Volunteering can be a vehicle for good but also harm. For this reason, it is important to approach the time-honored practice of offering skills and services gratis with an open heart and a critical mind.
Most volunteer organizations cite reasons to volunteer such as “make a difference”, “enhance your resume”, “learn about new cultures” and so on and so forth. All of these may indeed be reasons to volunteer but what I would like to offer today is something quite different. It is an attempt at an uncomfortably candid perspective on the issue of volunteering for those who have never volunteered but are considering it as well as to those who are volunteering veterans. Here are my 5 reasons to volunteer and 5 reasons NOT to volunteer abroad, based on my personal and professional experiences of volunteering and years of study, conversation, and reflection on these topics.
Let’s begin with reasons NOT to volunteer (everyone likes to end on a positive note, right?).
5 Reasons NOT to Volunteer
Few (if any) could articulate reasons not to volunteer as well as Ivan Illich in his speech entitled “To Hell with Good Intentions” which is as relevant today as it was in 1968. However, here is my attempt to address real problems I see in myself and in others I have worked with or advised on the subject. Nothing is ever perfect, but if we can recognize these particularly pernicious attitudes, we may actually do more good than harm.
- You find yourself saying “I just want to help people.” This vague notion probably indicates the presence of the following reasons NOT to volunteer below. Continue reading.
- You assume, without any real investigation, that you can help the people you want to help. There is a clear distinction between wanting to help someone and being able to do so. For example, do you speak the language? Do you understand the reasons why the person or people are facing the challenges that they are? Do you have a concrete skill to offer? Do the people you want to help want to be helped? (Was there ever a time someone offered you unwanted help….an overbearing parent perhaps?)
- You are volunteering to assuage your own guilt-complex. This one is tricky to spot but super important to recognize. For instance, if you feel guilty that you eat every day and others do not, you will likely do more good exploring the root causes of poverty and trying to change them or helping financially support a relief effort than spending thousands of dollars going to a poor place to witness poverty and take pictures of it.
- You want to get away with doing things abroad that you have no business doing at home. Few things rankle my bones more than the idea that a twenty-something political science major on spring break (or otherwise) is going to go on a ‘medical mission’ to a ‘poor’ country. Would you want an under-qualified and untrained college student helping deliver your baby or pull out your rotten tooth? I think not. Leave professional work to professionals.
- You want others to think you are a good person. If you want others to think you are a good person, be one when they are looking and when they are not. Using a volunteer program to gain social acceptance is the wrong reason to volunteer and ultimately unhelpful to the people you will supposedly be serving.
5 Reasons to Volunteer
People have come together to create real change in their communities and when that happens, it is inspiring to say the least. Like Rotary International nearly eradicating polio from the planet thanks to the work of volunteers and sponsors or Partners in Health revolutionizing healthcare in Haiti and around the world. Also important are the experiences that change individual’s lives forever. Volunteering with positive outcomes is possible.
- You have a concrete skill to offer. My little sister said it best after a one-year stint living and volunteering in a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. “I realized that I had nothing to offer the people I was working with. So I decided to return to the United States, get a nursing degree, and then consider going back.” She did not mean that she couldn’t make friends or learn, but simply that she was getting more out of the experience than the people she was supposed to be serving. This is not to say there is only room for medical professionals in the world of volunteering. It is to say, however, that volunteers are most helpful after cultivating a skill or skill-set over time and are aware of how and when it is appropriate to use that skill in context.
- The community you are going into has defined their need and invited you to come. This is one reason why volunteering on a program where the organization partners with respected local organizations is so important. That organization has built up relationships with people over time who have defined their own needs and the conditions under which they are and are not willing to accept volunteers. You may have the skills and the understanding, but if you are not invited it means that you may not be welcome, whether you realize it or not.
- You are able to effectively communicate and relate with the people you are working with. I recently interviewed a friend and mentor of mine and the founder of the first-ever international volunteer organization of its kind called Volunteer Positive. About a year ago, a group of people affected or infected with HIV supported each other, shared stories, and volunteered together on common projects in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In this case, the experience of having HIV (or supporting someone who has HIV) enabled these two very different groups to encourage one another and address common problems together.
- You are willing to take responsibility for the outcomes of your actions. Volunteer experiences are often fraught with uncomfortable questions that typically arise from a realization that a policy or practice you have embraced your whole life, consciously or otherwise, has a direct negative effect on someone else. In that moment, the choice is to ignore it, feel guilty about it and try to do something to alleviate the guilt (oh no! see #3 in Why NOT to Volunteer), or reflect further on that experience. One possible outcome of that reflection is to identify the extent that you contributed to a particular circumstance and understand when and how you can change your behavior and/or advocate for change on a larger scale. This website called Admitting Failure presents an excellent example of people taking responsibility and turning that into something positive.
- You understand that volunteering does not necessarily mean “accomplishing” something materially. As the opening quote suggests, if your freedom is “bound up” in another person’s freedom, you are ready to work alongside someone and learn in a mutually-beneficial exchange. This may mean something visible, like cleaning up after a disaster, building infrastructure, or performing surgery for those who cannot afford to pay for it. However, it may involve you being present by the bedside of someone dying or giving a hug to someone considered ‘untouchable’. It might mean identifying problems and solutions in discussion with an individual or group. Let go of the idea that you have to have “something to show” for your volunteer experience. Remember, volunteering is not for show. If it is authentic service it may be invisible to everyone but those who were directly involved in a meaningful exchange.