Volunteering 101 Series:
An Orientation on Grassroots Volunteer Work
Reality Check: Volunteering Benefits & Pitfalls
Are volunteering programs more helpful or harmful?
Cianjur, Java / Indonesia · 2015 volunteer and local teacher
Disclaimer: This article is part of a series titled “Volunteering 101: An Orientation on Grassroots Volunteer Work” exploring the dynamics of volunteering with nonprofit organizations. My insights are based on two years of personal volunteering experience with nonprofits in Latin America, Asia and Africa as well as research and conversations with people involved in the sector. By volunteering I typically mean self-organized participation in grassroots projects as opposed to voluntourism or government postings, even though I will touch on these as well.
If implemented right, volunteering programs employed by grassroots nonprofits can add additional value to projects along various dimensions. However, oftentimes benefits come alongside cultural and ethical pitfalls that should be considered to guarantee that advantageous and sustainable impact outweighs the drawbacks. The focus of this article is on volunteering as opposed to voluntourism, a difference I elaborate on here.
Since benefits and pitfalls of grassroots volunteering are oftentimes two sides of the same coin, I will position them next to one another, while addressing the dimensions that seem most essential to me.
benefit Volunteers are a free labor force for nonprofits, which usually have limited funding for salaries.
pitfall Volunteers might be used for tasks that could otherwise translate into jobs for locals. In reality, however, due to limited funding, the situation is often more along the lines of “if nobody does the job for free, nobody does the job.”
Salasaka / Ecuador · 2012 a group of volunteers with local facilitators and kids in front of the library.
skills & ideas
benefit A free workforce can help nonprofits with the execution of generic tasks, but volunteers might also bring in skills, which are not accessible locally. Native English speakers, for instance, can add value to educational programs that foster language skills to empower local youths and improve their job opportunities. In addition to that, volunteers are typically encouraged to implement new ideas and complement existing projects with fresh outside perspectives.
pitfall Since volunteers are oftentimes either young or unqualified (or both), they don't necessarily have experience in the field a nonprofit places them in. An example that is often quoted by volunteering critics are construction works which local workers could have done better and quicker. While this might hold true in the voluntourism sector, the situation in volunteering scenarios is usually a different one in my experience: volunteers might assist on construction sites, but function merely as an additional pair of hands that saves the locals time, contributing to tasks nobody would hire another paid worker for.
Salasaka / Ecuador · 2012 volunteers building a wall at the local school
activism vs. donation
benefit Volunteering at the grassroots is not just about the work itself, but also about awareness of disparities and social injustices around the world. Traveling to a different country and engaging with communities can open eyes to the necessity of changing things not just locally, but also globally. A grassroots project aiming at the empowerment of local women sewing clothes might also raise awareness of a more complex global dynamic, which calls for fair trade and a change in consumerism back home. Additionally, volunteers, who have witnessed local living conditions personally are more willing to make donations and raise funds among their peers, since they know exactly where the money goes.
pitfall If volunteers would forego their personal engagement on the ground, they could donate the money for their flight tickets and other expenses related to the grassroots experience. This would be a large monetary contribution to projects and could help to pay for a local workforce that possibly does a better job in the first place, as discussed above. However, there are two things to keep in mind: firstly, people might be hesitant to donate to a cause whose legitimacy they cannot personally gauge without having seen it with their own eyes; secondly, many volunteering experiences are part of longer journeys that people would have undertaken regardless. Within the context of voluntourism, the donation argument is more valid, due to the short term nature, much higher expenses and limited awareness related to the experience.
Kitende / Uganda · 2017 ingenious sink
mentality & cultural exchange
benefit Volunteering programs are not about flying in saviors to lend helping hands to local populations, but about international collaboration, during which the local workforce and volunteers work hand in hand. Moreover, they are about a cultural exchange that is beneficial to both sides, who learn from one another’s skills, knowledge, language and traditions. Industrialized countries might be more developed in terms of technological and economical progress, but developing countries harbor tremendous wisdom that is getting lost elsewhere – like living in symbiosis with nature and cherishing social ties and moments over success and recognition. Volunteers, who understand and appreciate the dynamic of mutual exchange contribute to it and share their insights back home.
pitfall Volunteers, who think that their engagement is a one way street of selflessly helping others, might fall victim to the White Savor Complex, a mentality that hinders the promotion of community-empowerment from within. Short-term volunteers often gain limited and biased insights into local cultures and lifestyles, which can lead to the spreading of falsehoods back home, especially when paired with the know-it-all attitude of a White Savior. In addition, some critics argue that the economical chasm between local populations and foreigners becomes painfully obvious through volunteering programs, leaving locals longing for more material possessions. On top of that, the introduction of Western mentalities, habits, fashion trends and English as a language might contribute to the extinction of local cultural facets. However, these arguments disregard two important factors: for one, large disparities in economical means and lifestyle do not only exist between nations, but also within them. It’s not like kids in India have never seen a smart phone and the wealth of rich locals outshines the financial means of volunteers by far. Secondly, patronizing locals by artificially trying to protect their culture against a globalizing world, denies them the agency to choose what they want to do with their lives, what they want to buy, wear, eat and study.
Salasaka / Ecuador · 2012 traditional weaving and clothing
sustainability & empowerment
benefit Many nonprofit organizations aim at community-enrichment and their vision is to employ projects and volunteering programs that assist communities with their empowerment from within. By creating sustainable change, the community won't need development aid in the future.
pitfall Nonprofits whose approach resembles more of a handout, might be putting out little fires rather than creating lasting impact. The worst case scenario is that they do more harm than good, e.g. when local populations become dependent on external monetary handouts, instead of implementing sustainable alternatives such as micro businesses. A handout approach might also distract volunteers participating in these programs from the bigger picture, which shows that global policy change is required to alter unjust conditions calling for development aid in the first place.
Kamhlushwa / South Africa · 2017 a student following her passion for fashion design
benefit If nonprofits and their projects have effective organizational structures in place to govern volunteering programs, results can be very fruitful thanks to the additional hands and skills. Important organizational dimensions include: marketing (attract volunteers), finance (funding as a mix of donations and sustainable alternatives), management and coordination (establish an effective transition process between volunteers to keep track of progress).
pitfall If the organizational culture is too loose and uncoordinated, volunteering programs can become less effective or, even worse, a waste of time for everybody. This could happen, for example, when projects are started but never finished or when classroom transitions between volunteers are not properly documented, so that every new volunteer starts from scratch. If there is no evaluation of volunteering programs, they might be run ineffectively without anybody noticing.
Salasaka / Ecuador · 2012 constructing a plant nursery to generate sustainable income, helping to become independent of donations.
benefit Locals and volunteers often form strong bonds and friendships, especially during long-term stays. It goes without saying that social ties are happy ties, but within the volunteering context they can also help along the joining of forces against xenophobia and bigotry.
pitfall Volunteering critics argue that the vacuum left behind by volunteers after their departure can be especially tough on kids, e.g. at schools or orphanages. Children might become emotionally attached to their new friends and have a hard time coping with the frequent goodbyes. While there is some truth to that, kids move on to the next (volunteer) friend pretty quickly in my experience and nowadays it’s possible to stay in touch thanks to the internet.
East London / South Africa · 2017 volunteer helping out at an orphanage
Ultimately, when pitfalls can be circumvented, volunteering programs have a great beneficial potential. In my opinion and personal experience this is the case more often than not. Of course, the actual grassroots reality is more complex and less black and white than can be portrayed within the scope of this article. Benefits and downsides often blend seamlessly into one another and are difficult to evaluate, so that good-or-bad verdicts come down to personal perspectives and opinions.
along these lines
Volunteering 101 Series:
An Orientation on Grassroots Volunteer Work
Volunteering Motives - Who Helps Whom and Why
Can volunteering abroad truly be selfless and whom does it actually help?
...we can all just go on a quest for our own motives to do something social (might that be altruistic or not) and do our best to actually contribute to the empowerment of local communities and the alteration of disadvantageous global structures... read more
Who Is That White Savior With the Complex?
Are Westerners trying to save the world on their terms?
...development assistance can be viable; unless it feeds into an individual or systemic White Savior Complex that results in the idea of one side helping the other and distracts people from the underlying issues and inequities. read more
How to Find Free Volunteering Opportunities around the World
avoiding costly and ethically precarious voluntourism agencies
...rev the search engine, skip over the voluntourism industry and dig all the way down to the grassrootss... read more
Volunteering vs. Voluntourism
self-organized engagement vs. vacation packages – structures, results and ethics
...organizing your grassroots engagement independently, might not only help your own experience and wallet, but also the community you work with. read more
What You Perceive & What It Is: Volunteering Outlook vs. Actual Impact
subjective vs. objective evaluations of volunteering results
...it could be a little step on an individual level, like a kid having its first aha moment while learning simple math; or it could be the large scale implementation of a project that brings about systemic and sustainable empowerment of a community. read more