This article might make you mad— at least, if you’re looking for a sweet and gushing tale of swooping into a faraway village to save poor people and see the world in new ways. This is not one of those articles. Volunteering abroad did make me see the world differently, maybe more than anything I’ve ever done. It changed my perspective and worldview in vitally important ways, and I am a better person for it. But, before it could change my worldview, it had to destroy it. You know that quote, often attributed to Gloria Steinem, that the truth will set you free, but first it will make you angry? That’s what volunteering abroad was like for me.
So, what can you learn from volunteering? How to shatter your worldview.
When I first volunteered abroad in 2010 in Latin America, an astute trip leader handed out the famous essay “To Hell With Good Intentions” and I was pretty annoyed. Why give us something questioning volunteering abroad when we had just flown a few thousand miles to volunteer? But, it was the best thing anyone could have done for me. What I really learned from volunteering abroad the first time was to question volunteering abroad. Not the good intentions of it, because volunteers are some of the most selfless, brave, gung-ho people you’ll meet, but the sustainability, the efficiency, the dignity, and the unknown side effects of volunteering abroad— those I learned to question.
What do you get out of volunteering? Maybe some of the same lessons I did...
What I Really Learned From Volunteering Abroad
1. How to ask questions.
When I saw the opportunity to volunteer in Peru with a student group from my university, I was so excited to go that I was practically bouncing. I signed up immediately, without even knowing what our task would be or where the money would be coming from. The team was full of smart, caring people who truly wanted to help others and have an adventure, but when I look back on my behavior, I cringe. I didn’t ask one single question before signing up. I had no idea if what we were going to do would be actually helpful, if the money we spent was being put to its best use, or if anyone in the community we were being sent to had requested our presence.
I should have asked the organization: What do you get out of volunteering with your organization? At first glance, our time volunteering allowed us to bond and work our muscles, and our time off let us explore and connect with our host families and each other. Yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that what we were doing didn’t seem….well, like anything. It didn’t seem helpful. We were doing work that a local person could have done much better and in half the time. We could have sent money down and provided a community member with a job, instead of flying us down to satiate our own sense of generosity. If I had asked questions before volunteering abroad, I would have realized this, and I might have made a different choice— a different program, a different organization, a different cause.
2. The HOW matters.
What can you learn from volunteering abroad? That how you help people matters. Not all volunteering is created equal. While I wasn’t happy with our work on that Peru trip, the experience profoundly changed me, though likely in ways the volunteer coordinators did not intend.
It led me to study abroad in Peru, and while taking classes at a university in Lima, I volunteered weekly at a locally run nonprofit in a poor neighborhood. I was amazed by the model of this nonprofit – training and grants given to community members for them to run their own projects. I was so fascinated by how they ran things that I decided to learn more about nonprofits and community development. I returned to D.C. to intern at a nonprofit community center. After I graduated, I worked for a nonprofit in the Dominican Republic, and then one in New Orleans, and then went to London to study international development.
That one week long trip to volunteer abroad changed the entire trajectory of my life.
Not because it sparked in me a desire to help— that I already had, but because it made me question HOW we help. And my life has been dedicated ever since to finding that answer. I continue to ask myself: How do we help others well? How do we create positive, respectful, lasting community change?
3. It’s not about YOU.
What makes me so angry about many unskilled, short term volunteer trips is that if you lay everything out – the long term goal, the resources available, the people involved – it’s often more helpful to NOT send anyone. But, we still do. Because sometimes we value the experience of the volunteering above and beyond the experience of the local community.
Here’s a hypothetical: If we wanted to build a well in a town in Rwanda and we had a budget of $20,000, a town population of 300 people, and 15 volunteers who were not trained in well construction or water sanitation, what is the best way to help that town? Use the money to hire a contractor with experience building wells, local if possible, send the contractor and the money to the town, hire and train local people, and build the well. But, if we put the needs of the volunteers first, what happens? We spend the majority of the $20,000 on their plane tickets, and no locals get a paycheck and they don’t get trained in a useful skill.
Nah. Not here for that. Find a responsible volunteer project and organization that is still making efficient use of resources. Volunteer when you are already abroad. Volunteer where you have the training and skills they need. Volunteer in a long-term program, where you can truly make an investment.
What do you get out of volunteering? Substantial life experiences, but that should be secondary to helping people.
4. There is a bigger picture.
It can be easy to focus on the task at hand when volunteering – the class to be taught or the roof to be patched. And that’s important, but what happens when the class ends or the roof is fixed? Do the kids have somewhere to go? Do they have food at home? Will the roof just fall apart again? Are there emergency services to call when it does?
Bigger systems – government and infrastructure, food and agriculture, education, and public health – they are all playing a part to allow people to improve their lives or not. We can’t solve those big systems in one volunteer trip, but we can learn about them and where our small tasks fit into those bigger pictures. And your small tasks do fit in.
5. Be careful what stories you tell.
Have you heard the term “poverty porn?” It’s the idea that people are exploiting the condition of the poor, telling a one dimensional story, to gather sympathy and make money. You’ve probably seen it in graphic pictures of hungry children. And those pictures have their place, but it’s not the whole story. Putting a person or a group of people or a country into one box – poor, needy, hungry – serves no one well.
We are especially in danger of this when we visit somewhere for a short time, not long enough to build deep relationships or see multiple perspectives. I learned to always be aware that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. That I could not tell someone else’s story fully, or pack it into stereotypes about rich and poor, savior and saved, because it was always more complex than that. I was careful where and how I took photos and where I posted them. I was careful in telling my own story and tried to remember to always be honest and humble.
So, Ultimately, What Do You Get Out of Volunteering?
Volunteering abroad can do real good, for both the volunteers and the local communities. But, if you haven’t noticed, I believe that our framing of volunteering abroad is fundamentally broken. What do YOU get out of volunteering abroad? I don’t care. What does the community in need get? That’s the real question. And if the answer isn’t a good one, then we need to rethink our strategy.
Why do people volunteer? To help others (emphasis on the others). It isn’t about us, it’s about who we help. The lessons we learn and the skills we gain are awesome side effects, but they aren’t the goal. If you want to volunteer abroad, first ask yourself: are you ready to volunteer abroad? Look long and hard at your goals, and if they center around yourself, consider finding an internship or working abroad instead, both which are amazing options!