Volunteering 101 Series:
An Orientation on Grassroots Volunteer Work
Volunteering Motives: Who Helps Whom and Why?
Can volunteering be selfless and whom does it actually help?
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.
I can trace back my interest in volunteering abroad to a conversation in late 2008. A young woman told me about her volunteering experience in a tiny Peruvian village, so off the map that only a donkey could get you there; showers were buckets and every mundane task an adventure. Her narration was intriguing, both from a personal and a social angle, and in 2012 I commenced my own volunteering journey through South America. The idea was to travel from Colombia to Argentina within a year and to volunteer with grassroots nonprofits without the facilitation of intermediary voluntourism agencies. Now, almost six years later, my ongoing journey has given me the chance to volunteer with nonprofit organizations in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
That conversation ten years ago was the trigger, sending the first eager train of thought towards a volunteering experience far from home. I guess back then it was the adventure-altruism blend that intrigued me and maybe in parts my motives were self-centered. But my fundamental motivation resided deeper. I feel it had slumbered in me all along, just waiting for the right inspirational lift to surface. Doing something social runs in my family – my sister is a physiotherapist, often working with terminally ill patients to literally accompany them through their last steps; my mom helps elderly people instead of retiring; and my dad uses his pension time and money to establish a charitable foundation, supporting nonprofit organizations around the world.
Kamhlushwa / South Africa students at Imagine Scholar, a unique community-enrichment program
Only I had never done anything social in my entire life. I say “social” as this word is less prone to be contested than “selfless,” and whether doing something social is a selfless act depends on the judge. Because a case can be made for both sides. If you assume that people take pleasure in helping others, which they always do in my experience, the act doesn’t seem entirely selfless. Do we mostly help ourselves then to feel good when we engage socially, even if that driver might steer us subconsciously? Maybe the mind disguises an egotistical motive as altruism? Continuing down that thought gets us into philosophical quicksand pretty quickly and there is no room for measurability and heroes in that pit. To not get any happiness out of doing good deeds seems unnatural and might very well be impossible.
Tamil Nadu / India visiting an elementary school in the Indian countryside while volunteering with AID India
Arguably, the more meaningful question asks: what is the initial, underlying motivation? I’ve encountered hundreds of people (locals and internationals, volunteers, facilitators, project leaders and founders) who temporarily or permanently work in the nonprofit sector and I hardly ever had the impression any of them were foremost in it for the recognition (which is often sparse) or other personal benefits. Many of them I consider unsung heroes, and the fact that they have a smile on their face while doing their jobs doesn’t make their actions less selfless. But let’s put the spotlight back on grassroots volunteers in particular: maybe some volunteers post likable pictures on Facebook, look to spice up their CVs, or want an adventure off the beaten path. Be that as it may, I can hardly think of any volunteer off the top of my head, who gave me the impression they harnessed a social cause merely as a means to a selfish end. Instead, I have seen many volunteers that went to great lengths to make a change in a world of disparities and social injustices – far beyond what was expected of them, or what would have sufficed to make them look like good Samaritans on paper – for no other obvious reason but a desire to be useful. I saw some leave after a couple of days because grassroots volunteering wasn’t for them; but many volunteers I met, stayed much longer than planned or than narcistic motives would have demanded.
This is certainly not a statistic, but I have met a good sample size to base my observations on. Sure, I couldn’t see into their heads and people can lie about their motives, yet this is the impression I have intercepted between the lines. This is not to say, however, that the self-centered volunteer doesn’t exist. Maybe the ones who primarily want to enrich their own lives and feel better about themselves are more common in the voluntourism sector, as I elaborate here.
East London / South Africa kids at Greensleeves Children's Trust
There is something volunteers get out of the experience beyond the warm feeling of altruistic engagement though: humanitarian work is not a one-way street, but a cultural exchange. Both volunteers and local communities share their respective cultures, knowledge and wisdom and these lessons are of importance to either side, shaping perspectives and lives. Westerners like to consider themselves living in the more developed parts of the world; yet rural countries harbor precious wisdom and values that we have long forgotten. In our realm of ever-increasing decadence and indulgence we can certainly use a reminder of the difference between “To Have or to Be” as Erich Fromm called it.
As for myself, volunteering has certainly always made me very happy. I remember the very first day at my first project vividly: I was the only volunteer at the time and the kids of Escuela Katitawa in Ecuador were all over me, dragging me up the hill to show me their improvised tree houses – tree huts really – among pines. A constant smile on my face that morning spoke to the fact that I had arrived to the right place and time. Even though the first stringent schedule for my South America journey had only allocated two months to the project, I wouldn’t leave for a year. And from day one I knew that “career-wise” I was finally on the right path and that there was no going back to any corporate world for me. Here I was, not earning a penny, yet working 12h days gladly; not because I had to, but because I wanted to. For the first time in my life I was passionate about the work I was doing and the experience was indeed life-changing, maybe for me more so than for the people I worked with (even though I drew my happiness in large parts from the feeling of being useful to their lives in one way or the other).
Salasaka / Ecuador indigenous children at Escuela Katitawa
And I wasn’t the only happy face around; I have yet to meet a person in the humanitarian sector, who feels like going to work every morning is a complete drag, let alone torture, who lives from weekend to weekend and vacation to vacation, dreading the working-week in-between, who’s caught up in the rat race for success, recognition and money. That’s not to say we should all step out of the for-profit and into the nonprofit world. This would certainly not be feasible, necessary or desirable, and to each his own. Undoubtedly, happy employees are not exclusive to the humanitarian sector and other fields of social engagement. My point simply being: it might be harder to find a profound sentiment of fulfillment in a realm where you’re merely a little cog driving somebody else’s money-machine as opposed to participating in change that affects lives with a certain immediacy (or at least engaging in the attempt).
Luang Prabang / Laos an English student sharing her culture; working as a volunteer with Big Brother Mouse in Laos
So there you have it – I have always been happy working with nonprofits as a volunteer and so have others. But people could be happy in different and perhaps much easier ways. My underlying motivation is another, and I don’t think I’m just speaking for myself here: disparity.
There are tremendous global and local disparities when it comes to the accessibility of resources (food, shelter, education, healthcare etc.) and the circumstances we’re born into are mere chance. For me this inequity is a two-dimensional motivation to work as a volunteer at the grassroots: the engagement itself and the awareness that comes with it.
I believe that if those who drew an easier lot would consider the life lottery’s runner ups and work together with them to even out things, this world could be more just. I was born towards the more fortunate end of the scale and I feel a responsibility that comes along with that. Not least because the circumstances I was born into were forged by my forefathers, who looted resources and subdued the very same local populations during eras of colonialism and imperialism; moreover, my society continues this sinister tradition until today by means of capitalism.
I have learned that having less doesn’t equal having less happiness. More often than not, the opposite is the case; but to get access to the same opportunities and resources seems only fair and is not a given unfortunately. I don’t think we should all have the same, but have the same opportunities in life. If I can be of help in that process, not by being a White Savior, but by assisting local communities in whatever way they see fit, I’ll participate in the change gladly. Ideally, volunteering is not about foreigners helping locals, but about locals empowering themselves from within, merely assisted by an outside labor force with additional perspectives, ideas and hands. Volunteering, then, also seems less of a selfless and heroic act that merits laudation and more of a collaborative effort, in which the life lottery winners join forces with the runner ups in a world of random lots.
Chennai / India kids in Chennai's V-Triplicane Slum
To see the horrendous disparities around the globe and within countries makes me sad, angry and, quite frankly, feel disgusted with our indifference and inertia. Some on top might have worked hard to get where they are and some at the bottom might be too lazy to change their situation. But in the end, where we end up mostly comes down to our circumstantial starting positions, to chance and access to education, and there is often little merit in people of my socio-economic layer being where they are. It is this false sense of entitlement that soothes a guilty conscience and makes it easy to switch the channel from suffering to something more digestible.
That’s why the awareness that comes with the engagement on the ground is so important: to witness inequities and suffering with your own eyes is a lot more impactful than any read, news report or documentary that is fast forgotten. Compared to life back home, where most people live without an existential worry in the world, the necessity of change suddenly becomes glaring. Hence, international collaboration within the framework of humanitarian grassroots efforts (e.g. through volunteering programs) might not only be directly beneficial on the ground, but can also cultivate the awareness needed to change mindsets and implement systemic policy change on a broader level (e.g. better fair trade deals to empower local economies).
Critics of volunteering, who think donations would do local communities more good than volunteers, often overlook this important dynamic, while making volunteering seem like a pretentious act driven by self-centered motives: true, the costs for flight tickets could pay for a local workforce that might do a better job at that, but the awareness necessary for a larger-scale change in mentalities and policies would be diminished. Donations are without a doubt desperately needed, but so is activism. Besides, volunteering experiences often happen within the context of longer journeys or gap years so that the flight ticket argument is generally more valid for short-term voluntourism experiences, which also impede the aforementioned awareness dynamic.
In the absence of proof, we should frisk ourselves for any hidden motives behind our social engagement and do our best to contribute to the empowerment of communities and the transformation of adverse global structures that call for these humanitarian efforts in the first place.
along these lines
Volunteering 101 Series:
An Orientation on Grassroots Volunteer Work
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 and What It Is: Volunteering Outlook and 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
Who Is That White Savior With the Complex?
Are Westerners trying to save the world on their terms?
...development assistance can be vital. However, it should never feed into an individual or systemic White Savior Complex that results in a mindset of one side helping the other and distracts from the underlying issues and inequities. read more
How to Find Free Volunteering Opportunities around the World
avoiding costly and dubious voluntourism agencies
...rev the search engine, skip over the voluntourism industry and dig all the way down to the grassrootss... read more
Reality Check: Volunteering Benefits & Pitfalls
Are volunteering programs more helpful or harmful?
If implemented right, volunteering programs employed by nonprofits can add value to grassroots projects along various dimensions. However, there are cultural and ethical pitfalls that should be considered when chalking up the benefits... read more