Think twice about volunteerism

So you want to travel, but you also want to feel like you’re doing something good right? Like you’re contributing to the world. Like you’re the kind of person who cares about other people. You saw someone’s new profile picture of them surrounded by adorable little poor children from Ghana/El Salvador/Vietnam. The kids looked so sweet, and the photo got so many likes! That could be me! you think.

Well, it could, but it shouldn’t.

You can find a plethora of information about why volunteerism often does more harm than good if you care to look. There are articles written with far more finesse or facts than I have, but I will try to contribute two personal stories (yep, I’m calling myself out for being problematic) and I hope you will thinking before going to a “poor” country to help with something no one asked you to help with.

Hogar de las Niñas

When I studied abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2009, I was mostly focused on  my studies. (And drinking as much mezcal as possible, and dancing to a lot of reggaeton. I’m just being real.) My program had some volunteer opportunities which were mainly focused on students not doing a full course load, but all of us wanted to volunteer in some way. Our first foray into volunteering was at a local orphanage called Hogar de las Niñas.

The five of us in the program thought we could organize some nice lessons for the girls, teaching them English or art and having a chance to play with them, to have a good time. The nuns running the orphanage were not particularly keen on this idea. They mostly just wanted donations of food and money and were dismissive of us spending time with the children, which we thought was a bit rude. We convinced them to let us do our “lesson” anyway, saying we would take pictures and put them on a charity website, which would get them more donations. So they reluctantly agreed.

But do you see what we did there? The people actually tasked with running this project told us what they needed, and we ignored it so we could do something that fit the picture we had of volunteering in an orphanage.

Why did we think we knew better? Because we assume that good intentions and a good heart are all you need to make a difference. But that’s not the case. Volunteering to do things that are not needed, or that you are not qualified to do is useless at best, and actively harmful at worst. Do these girls really need some white people to come in, play with them for an hour, only to never be seen again? No, they need food, and clothes, and money to buy supplies. If you are not listening to the people you are trying to help, or you do not have the skills to do the things they need help with, then it’s better that you just stay away.

VOSH International

My next volunteering experience in Oaxaca could not have been more different. While I was shopping one day, I struck up a conversation with a shop owner who was surprised at how good my Spanish was for a gringa. (My Spanish was not that great. It was passable. He was just being nice.) He told me that he worked with the local Rotary Club to help various charities, and that Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity would be operating a clinic in a few weeks in a small town about an hour away, and many of the American optometrists did not speak Spanish and needed translators. We would each be assigned to an optometrist who did vision tests and gave out everything from plain sunglasses to prescription glasses to cataract surgery.


So here was an organization that was actually responding to people’s needs (thousands of people were lined up every day, as many rural Mexicans can’t afford to go to a doctor or buy glasses) with a staff of people who were qualified to give the help that was needed. And I was tagging along, but not to just sit there and do nothing; this time, I had an actual skill that was helping everyone get what they needed.

Yeah, I did get to take some photos with cute kids (which I am properly embarassed about now) but I didn’t barrel in this time demanding the people in charge let me help them, but on my own terms. I wasn’t trying to fulfill my own selfish fantasy of what selflessness looks like.

If you’re going to volunteer abroad, don’t be that person who tries to build a well even though you can’t even put together an IKEA table. I guarantee you they have carpenters in Africa. Maybe you can even stay in your home country or your home city and try to fix the problems there, rather than inserting yourself into a place you don’t fully understand. It might not be as exotic, but other people’s problems shouldn’t be fodder to make you feel good about yourself.

6 Replies to “Think twice about volunteerism”

  1. Great topic. About ten years ago I did one of those projects where you pay to volunteer for a month. Most of the time I was there I couldn’t help thinking I would have been better of donating the money, so that locals with more suitable skills (and who needed to make a living) could be employed to do the work. I think this is often the case. Your second experience sounds really worthwhile though – it just takes a bit of thought to find ways to genuinely help.


  2. I totally agree with you. I’ve worked in the non-profit sector for 10yrs and wish more well intentioned people would understand this. Thanks for this.


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