Volunteering has almost become a rite of passage in many countries, to take a gap year before University or to travel and volunteer for a couple of months in the Summer. In this blog it is this kind of volunteer I’m talking about, typically young students who come from rich backgrounds flying to poor countries. For some people it’s a great way to learn about new places and new cultures, for others it’s about having something different on the CV, while others have seen a video or documentary about how things are like in other places and want to go and make things better.
I was in the latter category, I wanted to change things. I always wanted to get involved in development work and so from an early age I’ve been researching and studying poverty, development, politics, and related areas. I graduated High School with good GCSEs, College with 4 As at A-Level, and a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from the University of York, in the top 100 of the best Universities in the world (and my second in an exchange program at the National University of Singapore, ranked 1st in Asia and top 30 in the world). I’m currently studying for my Master’s in Politics at UP Diliman, the top University of the Philippines.
I list those qualifications to make one point: all the qualifications, grades, and academic experience means pretty much nothing for charity work.
Charity work is a speciality in itself, something I’ll be writing about next in this blog. And so for volunteers it provides a unique opportunity for learning. Some volunteers return having had a fantastic experience, some come back thinking it was a waste of time, and most others learned a lot themselves but didn’t change anything in the long-run. In all cases, things can improve. There’s so many ways in which volunteering can be bettered, and mostly it comes down to preparation.
The problem is often down to a pre-conception of what things will be like. So here are five practical lessons based on my own experience, and other volunteers and NGO leaders, to hopefully help you understand more about volunteering.
1) You Will Get More Out Of It Than The Charity Will
This is practically universal no matter how useful a volunteer thinks they will be. The person who volunteers gets more out of the experience than the charity will. This is precisely because of the short-term nature of volunteering and that volunteers are new to the culture, the place, and everything about the area.
So right from the outset the volunteer will learn about these differences, a new culture, typically a new language, and about what life is like in another place. Travelling is the best form of education, and with a charity you have a tour guide, experts in that area, and a unique way into the community. The comparison in your own life and culture immediately builds critical thinking and other skills too, which would have been near impossible without stepping outside the culture. On top of that, charities must invest in the volunteer, showing them round, providing food (sometimes accommodation), and in particular the human resources to teach volunteers the basics.
So after flights, accommodation, and food, the volunteer may have spent over £1,000 and will arrive in an area where a qualified teacher was just around the corner for far less money. It opens the biggest question: is volunteering the right thing to do? There are groups of people who go to another country to build a school and find out later that the locals would tear it down and rebuild it because, not having the expertise, entirely unsurprisingly could not do construction work. Here’s a good article looking more into that subject, of whether we should volunteer in the first place.
For many people it’s not the right choice. If you’re looking to enhance your CV or travel and explore new places, then it’s almost certainly not right for you – or more importantly it’s not right for the charity. Likewise if you aren’t looking to learn about development work in the long-run or fund-raise for the charity, then the resources you spent on getting there, and the resources and manpower you take from the charity, make the charity worse off in the long-run. Recognising that, and recognising that most good charity workers are overworked and under-paid, it starts to become more obvious why some charities are now charging volunteers to go. So if you’re not paying for the experience, then you will certainly want to consider fundraising for the charity anyway.
And that’s all just the logistics. The children’s welfare in getting close to a person and seeing them fly off after a few months should be considered as you could pay a teacher’s salary for a year and make more of a difference without setting foot outside your home. This is something all prospective volunteers should think long and hard about before committing to the project.
So if your interest in volunteering is beyond travelling, learning a new culture, or expanding your CV, then it may work. Specifically, if you’re genuinely interested in NGO work for the long-term, whether getting directly involved or fundraising while at your own full-time job, then we have a good starting place.
2) You are Effectively an Intern
There are many similarities between charity and business; an organisational structure, a required technical expertise and experience to do well, that there are customers to market your products to, etc.
So if you’ve decided that you’re after the learning experience and commit to volunteering, then the best way to think about it is that you’re an intern. It would be inappropriate for an intern to go to a business and set about telling them what they’re doing wrong. An intern is on the bottom of the hierarchy because they are typically the least qualified of the people there. And all the grades, business management, and other experience back home means very little working in a poorer community. It’s a completely different world with a completely different set of skills.
Telling someone what they should do, while having virtually no experience or expertise yourself, will not come across well. Many cultures are quite indirect, as well, so you may not realise you’ve offended someone. I wonder how many times I offended the staff at the charities I stayed at first without realising it. This is a universal thing. Every volunteer will offend someone without realising it at some point. So if you think of yourself like an intern for a business, you will understand that everyone else has a better understanding of the community, the needs, the projects, and everything else related to the charity. You can assist, and perhaps you have more technical expertise in a particular area so can teach that too, but an initial humility is absolutely required in order to understand your limitations and your role.
That doesn’t mean you should never share your opinions. But most of the time it means ask. There are volunteers who are constantly critical, keep comparing the situation to how things are back home, or keep saying things should be done a different way. And those volunteers who keep pushing the wrong buttons will get ignored, the volunteer will get more frustrated and not realise that they’ve annoyed a lot of people and that’s why no-one is jumping at the chance to show them round or explain things to them. Instead, if volunteers think and act like an intern, asking questions and treating it as a learning experience, everyone can have a better time.
3) There are Bad Charities: Learn Which are Good
Understanding that your time and/or donation is going to a good organisation that will use it well is a very legitimate concern. At the time of writing, the PDAF scandal was big news in the Philippines as some senators and congressmen set up fake NGOs or used existing ones to funnel money for themselves. Years later and the same thing still happens. If they, and other wealthy people, didn’t set something new up themselves they offer charities millions of pesos provided they would give back 50-90% of the “donation” back.
Even in good organisations problems can rise up quickly, charity is volatile work. At the start of Fairplay for All we had a volunteer which didn’t work out for everyone concerned. Things hadn’t progressed as quickly as we hoped before the volunteer arrived, meaning the drop-in centre wasn’t quite set up, and then both myself and Naomi got dengue and were hospitalised, among other setbacks. The important thing, though, is that you learn from such experiences. In hindsight, we weren’t ready to take on a volunteer at that stage. Since establishing ourselves further, the vast majority of our volunteers have really enjoyed the experience, contributed, and often gone on to fundraise for the charity too.
But there are horror stories of blatant scams and shams, and parents selling children to an ‘orphanage‘. They’re bad apples which often do seem to spoil the lot. Others have discussed the merits, or demerits, of voluntourism, and how it can hurt local economies and cause further emotional distress to the children involved. Or there are well meaning people who just should not be involved in charity work at all because they have zero expertise. At one football tournament, for example, one of the sponsors was a charity with feeding programs. The kids came back with fancy bags with a fancy logo… full of junk food. The problem the charity identified was that kids are malnourished. Their solution was to hand out junk food. They ended up directly causing further malnourishment because they hadn’t thought about their project enough, because they thought charity was easy to do.
So it can be difficult to weed out the good from the bad. The answer? Research the charity, visit beforehand if you can, and consider their long-term vision. Find out the registration number of charities beforehand and find others’ opinions. Many countries require online financial disclosure for example.
Any charity should have identified the issues they’re trying to solve and the ways they do this. The ultimate goal of any charity must be to solve that problem, whether cancer, homelessness, or human rights, so that one day people will not need the medicine, but will have fully recovered. So there must be a long-term vision and a concrete plan to get there, so that the charity’s mission is completed and they have no need to exist anymore.
So ask the charities you’re interested in volunteering at what problems they are trying to solve, and how they do that. If the ‘how’ is only short-term handouts, you won’t learn much as they’re not the experts NGO leaders should be.
4) Culture Shock
Culture shock is something many volunteers don’t hear about until they experience it. Volunteers may start feeling a little grumpy, uneasy, or unsettled, without realising that at a certain point this is entirely normal.
Food is a particularly interesting example. In the Philippines everything is rice with an ulam (ulam meaning a side dish, usually meat). Rice is eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and at some point most volunteers cannot bring themselves to eat another grain of rice. When I volunteered I used to sneak out some evenings to sit down for pizza and ice cream. While I’ve not found anywhere else in the world that does chips like England, pizza is my comfort food.
Reverse culture shock is less known but equally important. When you return to your country or community, you’ve seen and to a degree experienced another way of life. For myself, this was particularly acute with how unimportant the problems and stresses in England were in comparison. For the most part the biggest nutritional problem in England is obesity, while malnourishment in the Philippines meant some children were eating food thrown away in the trash. So while millions of people in one country have too much, millions in another are starving.
Socially it becomes difficult to relate to other people and their problems, and you can feel out of place. Ultimately I felt like a foreigner in the country I grew up in, as few people can understand if they haven’t been through it. So my solution was to move to the Philippines. I always knew I wanted to work in the development sector so that was my plan to a large degree. But if you’re not planning to work with an NGO full-time it can be harder to reconcile.
So prepare for culture shock and reverse culture-shock too, discuss this with your point-person at the charity, and they should be able to help prepare you a little more. Your social support network will be important, but when you get back and explain things to your friends they just won’t be able to relate. You’ll need to be patient with them, as they’ll get quickly annoyed with you for saying their problems are nothing in comparison. Every country and community has problems, while some face bigger problems than others, it is not that person’s fault.
5) Understand the Context: We are not Rich Because We are Smarter or Work Harder
Some volunteers will go to another place immediately thinking they can “save the world”. They want to help, it’s a noble goal, but they don’t realise they’re effectively showing up to work without any tools.
In understanding how effective a volunteer can be this is probably the most important point, and it’s built into the very language we use when we talk about the world. When we talk about development and poverty it’s usually about the First World and Third World. The language is evolving to categories of ‘developed’, ‘developing’, and ‘under-developed’ countries which though maybe sounds a bit better, retains all the condescending hierarchical implications of the first. Either way one is better than the other by definition, and unfortunately many people don’t realise how inappropriate and wrong that hierarchy is until they step out of the ‘winning’ side.
That’s because we’ve defined ourselves as winning based on GDP (Gross Domestic Product), and similar economic averages which don’t show the nuances of a situation or explain how we got there in the first place. The result is that our experience of the developing world is often limited to short documentaries and 30 second TV charity adverts; we get treated repetitively to the idea that if we give this poor, needy person some money it will solve everything. So we get the impression that if money is the solution, and as we have money, we are the solution.
It takes a long time to understand why the world is the way it is. And the first lesson is to understand that the countries or areas we’re going to volunteer in aren’t poor because they lack money or lack volunteers. Poverty is systematic, it exists because of complex, intertwining, global political and economic systems; it exists because the system has been built to exploit others and create a hierarchy between people.
So it’s incredibly important to recognise that we are not rich because we are smarter, work harder, or for any other reason of merit. We are rich because we were lucky enough to be born in a rich country. We were lucky enough to be born to descendants of colonists not slaves, where since then those governments have done everything in their power to make sure the same powers in play then remain so now.
This is more complicated than I can do justice right now, of course. And each area in each country has its own story anyway. So in the most simple way, the game is rigged. A structure exists which creates poverty generation after generation, for the benefit of someone else. And we need to understand that, in all its ugly forms, in order to begin to change it.
For a volunteer, this context is all important to learn too. The answer? Recognise that when going to another country, or even a poorer area of your own country, you are still inherently no more skilled than anyone else. It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people think they have the right to tell people what they should and shouldn’t do when they get there. The first part of volunteering is to understand; to understand the culture, understand why it is less developed, and understand how we can change it. Without learning the background, culture, or language, trying to tell people what they should and shouldn’t do is like trying to play doctor and diagnose a patient with a complicated disease based on something you read online years ago. You’re more likely to kill someone than cure them.
Be honest with what skills you have and what you can and cannot do. If you can’t treat someone medically in your own country, then you can’t do it in another. It’s simple when you think about it, but travelling on a plane to go somewhere else doesn’t make you any more qualified. And even then diagnosis changes per country as the experiences and background factors of what could have caused whatever illness change frequently.
So if you want to volunteer, think about your passion, think about what you do excel in, and what practical experience you can impart. By recognising our limitations and what we are good in, we can make the experience better, before we even start. Volunteering can be a good step, but it is a step. By recognising this, we can recognise the impact we will really have. By doing so we can understand whether volunteering really is right for us in the first place, and improve our experience if it is.