Volunteering – how do we get this right?

This post was actually written about a year ago, when I didn’t have a blog, but had so many thoughts swimming in my head that I just had to write them down. It was all but forgotten about until something jogged my memory today, and now seems like a good time to share it.

I have a fairly extensive volunteering history. It started when I was 18, and travelled abroad for 7 weeks to Costa Rica & Nicaragua with Raleigh International. I was very fortunate to be sponsored by the Jack Petchey Foundation, which provides opportunities to disadvantaged youths, to be able to go. Because my trip was fully funded, I was required to do lots of volunteer work across London upon my return in order to ‘give back’ to my community. I thoroughly enjoyed doing this, and my jobs ranged from sorting out flower bulbs, serving food and drinks at charity functions and completing office work for the organisation that helped to arrange my trip.

My trip with Raleigh was the most challenging thing I had ever done, but it ultimately fuelled a fire in me and set me up on the path to international development.  Upon returning home, I worked all hours to save up for more international trips – first to South Africa where I volunteered in a care home for babies and in a wildlife rehabilitation centre, then to Kenya where I worked in a school, then to India (though I had to come home early due to a family emergency before I actually started volunteering) and then back to Kenya again to volunteer at the same school (this time as a chaperone for other volunteers). Some of my placements were arranged independently with the centres, and others were through volunteer organisations.

I can’t really explain why I feel so compelled to keep volunteering and travelling, but my next trip is never far from my mind. I just love it. I am at my happiest when totally immersed in, and learning about, a culture so different from my own. And I’ve always loved helping people, ever since I was young. In my naiveté, I never really thought about the effect my ‘voluntouring’ had on projects and communities until I started studying for my degree. I always thought: helping others = good. I have since discovered that this is not always the case, and have seen with my own eyes some of the problems that can occur when volunteering overseas. For example, I have experienced fellow volunteers who decide that they knew better than the locals (and proceed to make their criticisms very vocal), and I have also seen the downsides of fundraising. On one occasion, I decided to raise some money and spent over £500 on playground equipment, exercise books and a few other things for the school. Whilst we had an absolutely brilliant day giving the children all of their gifts, I was extremely disheartened to discover when I went back two years later that absolutely nothing remained. Goal posts that we had constructed with the children in the field were gone, the globe and dictionaries were nowhere to be seen, and the field was empty once again. I’m sure I can think of many other examples, too.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been thoroughly researching this issue and have learnt about traumatic attachment issues that can occur from working with children, dependency on hand-outs, taking jobs away from locals and all those other issues that you can find in abundance floating around internet blogs and forums.

I have read many comments suggesting that us volunteer-lovers should go and help in our ‘own countries’. Now, herein lies another problem. Last year, I decided to do just that, and signed up to volunteer with a homeless charity over Christmas. ‘Finally,’ I thought ‘I can do some volunteering and not be made to feel bad about it!’ At this point, I was becoming totally fed up with the consumerist attitude that comes hand-in-hand with Christmas, and wanted to do something more meaningful that would make the holiday really special. I was so looking forward to volunteering at the shelter. Sadly to say, I really, really disliked volunteering there. In fact, I disliked it so much that I walked out before my shift ended as I couldn’t bear to be there anymore. Considering my past volunteer history, this was totally unexpected for me. I found the shelter to be extremely patronizing towards the guests, and the volunteers were given jobs that were absolutely pointless. We were placed in groups of 4 and told to clean handrails that had literally just been cleaned by other volunteers. We were told to ‘guard’ doors to stop the homeless guests going through them, almost treating them in a childlike manner. In fact, over 50% of my day was spent guarding a door that nobody attempted to go through. I felt like a spare part, just tossed aside and forgotten about. I had very little option to interact with the guests and, when I did (attempting to clear his breakfast plate as I had been instructed to do), I was snapped at so harshly that it actually made me cry! I felt totally unsupported by this organisation and we were not given a proper briefing about how to act around the guests or what to do should a provocation occur.  I decided to walk out when I realised that my time was being wasted and I wasn’t doing anything at all productive or helpful. My experience with the snappy guest made me feel that they didn’t actually want my help or company. They just wanted a hot meal and a warm bed for the night (and fair enough, I suppose!). I have read reviews about this organisation from others who have absolutely loved their experience, so I’m not sure if I was just having a bad day or if people are just not questioning whether they were really helping or not. I could be totally wrong, but I got the impression that most people were content with the idea that they were doing something good around Christmas time, regardless  of whether they actually were or not.

Another common opinion that I have read on blogs is this: “Why do you need to go out and help? If you want to be effective, just donate money instead.” So, I decided to give this a go. When I was in India, just before I moved to university, I discovered that my mum had been diagnosed with breast cancer and jumped on the next plane home. I couldn’t think about volunteering with others when a loved one needed support. Once her treatment was underway, I began to think about how I could help in more ways than just attending hospital treatments with her. I decided, along with family members and friends, to take part in a sponsored walk in our bras to raise money for breast cancer research and support. Over the course of the summer, we managed to raise almost £3500. I felt extremely proud of this achievement. Then, a few months later, I was invited to a film screening of Pink Ribbons, Inc. by a seminar tutor. This film opened my eyes to some of the truths about breast cancer fundraising. It criticised the idea that we raise so much without following up on where the money goes. It suggested that breast cancer research was flawed and not collaborative, and that lots of the money is wasted on the same treatment tests being repeated over and over again. It suggests that the pink ribbon has been hijacked and glamorised, abused for profit from companies who use it to promote products, thus painting a ‘pretty picture’ of a very horrible disease. It also suggested that the constant use of the word ‘survivor’ in fundraising to describe people given the all-clear could have negative impacts on the loved ones of those who weren’t as lucky. Now, I am unsure what to think. Should I feel proud that I raised lots of money, or ashamed that I didn’t realise the harsh truths that can creep up behind the ribbon?

(Here is a link to the trailer of Pink Ribbons, Inc. for anyone interested).

And, here is my dilemma. I love charity work. I believe that caring for others, helping those less fortunate, giving a little of your time etc. is so important for our society. I think that people should be surrounded by kindness and have somewhere to go in times of need. But, how do we do this right? I have tried volunteering overseas, I have tried volunteering at home and I have tried simply raising money. But my efforts on all three parts feel tainted. I feel that, in a lot of cases, I’m just doing more harm than good, and that makes me very sad. I want to be able to help people. I think it’s so important. I’d like to think, too, that people would be there to help me should I ever fall into a bad situation.

Is there a way to do charity work with minimum harm? Or how do we lessen this impact? Should we give up trying to help strangers and just look after those that we know? Is it better to establish a long-term relationship with just one charity that you can invest your time in? Is volunteering ever just 100% worth it? I’d be really interested to hear any responses to this blog, and any positive experiences that you may have had. I could certainly do with some inspiration!

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3 Comments

Filed under Development Thoughts

3 responses to “Volunteering – how do we get this right?

  1. You really beautifully articulate many of the complex issues that arise with international development, or volunteering of any kind. Having worked for a charity and volunteered both locally and abroad, I have spent a lot of time thinking about all those questions (local vs international, donating vs giving time, etc etc). I don’t know that I have any real answers!

    Like you, my local volunteering experience was often pretty negative or meaningless, whilst volunteering abroad has always been incredibly rewarding and allowed me to feel challenged and appreciated. Learning how to connect and collaborate with communities other than my own has helped me to grow personally and professionally in ways I don’t believe would have been possible had I stayed at home.

    To me, donating or volunteering is not a selfless act – we do it because we get something from it. And personally I get the most fulfilment from giving of myself in different communities around the world. So that’s what I’m doing!

    Thanks for the food for thought,

    Cat

    • Thanks so much, Cat, for your comment. I’m glad that I am not the only one who asks myself these questions!
      I agree about it not being a selfless act – and I hope that, despite the negatives, I never lose my passion to volunteer.
      It helps ME more than anyone, and I know that I’ve definitely grown as a person from my experiences. I just hope that I can figure out how volunteering can be done with the least amount of harm, so that it’s definitely beneficial for both sides.
      I look forward to following your blog now too!

      Stevie

      • Sian

        Hi Stevie,

        Just came across your blog today and admire your honesty here.

        I have worked in international development for a number of years and, like you and Cat, have had similar experiences. When I was studying for my undergrad degree in international development I spent a year on exchange in India, and was asked similar (and, I believe, legitimate questions) about why I was interested in the problems that India faced when my own country had so many pressing issues (I am Australian, and we have so many saddening and pertinent issues such as the socioeconomic disadvantages of Indigenous Australians, poor treatment of asylum seekers, and homelessness and poverty, to name but a few).

        I recall speaking to a mentor in the international development field about these issues, and her telling me that if, as a development professional, I am not continuously grappling with and engaging with these concerns (including those you have written about above), then I am not thinking hard enough. I think this is true, and I have kept this advice with me throughout my career. International development, and the altruism that largely drives it, is not a purely benign field or universal concept, but is rather entangled with cultural assumptions and political power play. I believe that it is our responsibility to be cognisant of these issues, and that we should welcome being constantly challenged about what we are doing and why we are doing it.

        So I say keep on pondering these questions, and don’t let go of your passion to help others!

        All the very best,

        Sian

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