10 Commandments of Volunteering
Thou Shall Not Do Things You Don’t Know How to Do
Look, I speak fairly good English. I did my Masters in English; I live in an English speaking country and am confident speaking publicly and writing professional articles. And yet, it would never ever cross my mind to go and teach English as a second language. This is a popular volunteering option at a lot of volunteering sites, with English teaching positions available in Africa, Asia and South America. The same goes for building houses or schools. General rule of thumb is if you would not get paid doing the same thing in your home country, do not attempt doing it as a volunteer. I went to Malawi to volunteer with Sparkle last year, but even though they are a school for underprivileged children I did not go to work with the children- I went to do capacity training for the staff. I know I am good at it, know it inside and out and I know my impact is maximized that way. Me doing anything else would be just to make myself feel better, not to make the lives of the children better.
Thou Shall Not Use People as Props
Are you signing up for volunteer work thinking how awesome your Instagram profile is going to look like with all of the pictures of you making a difference in people’s lives? Think twice about that please. We have seen people using pictures of them holding babies (the poorer the better) as Tinder profile pictures and it always makes me seriously doubt the motives behind the trip. Truth is, children mostly love having their pictures taken, but make sure you are respectful of them as individuals and not just props for your amazing photos. My first time working on the ground I jumped at some girls playing in the village in Indonesia to get a photo with them and when you look at it you can see how terrified they were of a red-haired woman smiling like a maniac next to them. Don’t be me.
Thou Shall Do Your Research
How much of your volunteer fee is going towards the project and how much is going towards the overhead fees or agency fees? When you build that school in the village, does it get to stay on or do they take it down for the next batch of starry-eyed volunteers (true story)? Impact work is work and it is an industry that has its share of corruption and issues. Your good intentions mean nothing if there is no impact. Then you are just taking a holiday.
Thou Shall Not Fundraise For Your Flight (unless you are the only expert in the world that can help your organization of choice)
Speaking of holidays- please do not fundraise for your personal expenses. By all means, fundraise for the supplies you have been asked to bring, for money for the organization you are supporting etc. but fundraising for your flight is not a good look. There are plenty of local opportunities where you can make a lot of impact.
Thou Shall Not Overpromise
So, I am here for ten days. In those ten days I will cure malaria in your village, set up a microfinance center for female entrepreneurs and train all of your staff on budget planning. While we all want to maximize our time, be realistic about your timelines. I always come back from a volunteering trip with a fever and have to spend three days in bed because I burn out. That is not fair to me and it is not fair to the organization that assumed I will do so much and then I am out of energy by day five and need to reexamine my plans. Same rules of professionalism still apply when you are volunteering: punctuality, accountability and ownership of your part of the project are paramount to your impact maximization.
Thou Shall Not Become the White Savior
There was a photo doing rounds on some of the activist profiles I follow recently of a woman holding a baby in Kenya during her volunteering trip with a caption that went something like this: Dear baby, this has probably been the best moment of your life (because me, a white woman, is holding you). It’s a shame your life from now will be nothing but misery (because no one in Africa has a decent life). You will probably marry a man who will beat you (because all Black men are abusers and all Black women are victims and not badass fighters) and get HIV (I can’t even).
Comments in brackets by your truly, the rest is a very close approximation of her actual caption.
This is an extreme example of white savior complex, but it is by no means a rarity to develop it. I get it, you are doing something that is universally praised by your peers and the image the media has build of these places is one in desperate need of your help and support. Your friends are telling you how brave and inspirational you are, the media is telling you how dangerous your country of choice is, of course you are feeling a bit smug. Well, don’t. You are a guest in a new place, not a beacon of light. Change needs to be systemic and long term and while your presence has an impact (if you follow these commands) it is hardly enough to make or break a life.
Thou Shall Educate Yourself
This ties in with the previous point. All of the information in the world is at your fingertips. Google is your friend. Good intentions are worth close to 0 if you have no understanding of the context you will be working in. What is the local culture like? Will you be expected to cover your shoulders, legs and maybe even your hair as a woman? Are you comfortable with that? What are the main issues the organization you chose is facing? The more you understand your context, the better your impact. Those two weeks are probably not the best time to cause a scene because in your village the women eat outside of the house while the men eat inside. Sure, it is the kind of injustice we are fighting, but if you know you have an issue with that, think carefully how much impact you can realistically have in the short amount of time.
Thou Shall be Honest About Your Capabilities and Needs
If you have never been without water or electricity, if you know you have an issue with lack of sanitation, please be honest about it with yourself. The last thing your organization needs is to deal with you freaking out because you saw a bug in your room (not me) or because you hid under the bed the whole night thinking the sounds from the generator is bombs falling on Gaza Strip (definitely me). Food might not be to your taste, hygiene might be below what you are used to and that is all part of the experience. But it is okay if it that’s not for you! If you are serious about making an impact and not just taking an “exotic” trip, there are plenty of great opportunities all around you- in you local school, retirement home or animal shelter. You don’t have to travel to do good and no one wants the burden of a difficult volunteer.
Thou Shall Ask the People What They Need
Often, in impact work, the conversation goes something like this: A: We are going to give you a new well outside of the village. B: Oh, thanks, but we don’t need a new well, we’d much rather just have a new pump at this well. A: So the well will be installed tomorrow. B: But we don’t… A: Shhh. Here is your new well. B:...
I never understood why impact driven organizations don’t trust their own stakeholders enough to actually ask them what they want. Going back to our previous research point, make sure the organization of your choice actually has a stakeholder management plan in place. Otherwise you are already a step closer to contracting white savior complex.
Thou Shall Have a Life-Changing Experience
After all of these rules (sorry not sorry), I do have to admit you will have a life-changing experience. It is a unique opportunity to step outside of your comfort zone and to see the world with brand new eyes. You will make best friends, you will fall in love with a new place and you will learn so much about yourself. There is nothing quite like the post- volunteering high, which is why so many of us get hooked for life. Enjoy every bit of it.