JK Rowling: Putting Volunteering in Perspective, by Greg Bows (African Impact Founder and Director)
Voluntourism can be a powerful force for good!
As someone who has been involved in volunteering for over a decade, I feel a responsibility to push back against the current criticism of the sector and bring balance to this debate. While I can’t and wouldn’t want to defend all volunteering companies, and acknowledge that there are issues that need to be exposed and addressed, volunteering also does a lot of good; something that doesn’t get highlighted or even taken into account with these debates. I have seen volunteering generate positive and sustainable change in innovative and inspiring ways, and this amazing potential gets badly damaged by the one-sided slamming of the concept as a whole. A common generalisation of the international volunteer sector has to end.
JK Rowling’s tweets are completely valid. There are problems with how volunteering is regulated, particularly when dealing with vulnerable children (not just orphans). However, this does not apply to all volunteering initiatives, nor is it an issue restricted to the volunteer sector. Discrediting the concept of volunteering entirely is unwarranted and, we believe, even irresponsible.
At its core, we believe that volunteering is driven by the right motives. The right volunteer project can bring ideas, knowledge and skills to people and places that need it. To me, volunteering represents the next generation of holistic community involvement – this industry is an exciting place to be and I want to see it grow into a far bigger movement than it is today. I want people around the world to realise the phenomenal opportunities volunteering generates for everyone involved.
This becomes a hard message to deliver when volunteering gets discredited in its entirety, when no room for debate is left. Over the past years, I have seen many articles that criticize volunteering based on very limited information and single non-representative experiences. There is often little, to no, nuance and a clear lack of serious investigative journalism. With every such piece, potential volunteers are discouraged to give their time, and the potential for positive change is hugely diminished.
By all means, let’s talk about the problems that exist within volunteering and let’s challenge irresponsible organisations who take advantage of the human desire to make a difference. But let’s finally stop approaching the issue in such a one-sided way. Let’s look at all the incredible impact volunteering has made, is making, and has the potential to make in the future.
I believe that many of the misconceptions of volunteering can be summarised by the following 10 points:
1. Volunteers should not be discredited. They are honourable — careless organisations should be
I have noticed too many times that volunteers themselves are highly criticised for ‘thinking they will make an impact’, acting as the new colonialists and encouraged to feel guilty about any involvement. It is remarkable that many people are now choosing to put their time, energy and money to support their chosen causes directly — they have a lot of choice to do something entirely for themselves, but they don’t. Respect them. High impact and ethical community involvement is the responsibility of the volunteer organisation facilitating the programmes they have joined. Volunteers, feel very proud about your efforts.
2. You do not need specific skills to volunteer abroad
You may have heard “don’t volunteer abroad if you’re not qualified to do it at home” or just advised to stay at home — this indicates a serious lack of creativity and understanding around the potential of people. Obviously you should not treat sick patients if you are not a qualified medic, but if you select the right organisation, your personal abilities can be matched to relevant projects roles. You can bring fresh perspectives to real challenges and can usually share invaluable knowledge, whatever your experience. Don’t be put off by blinkered comments like these.
Don’t be intimidated. It is surprising how people discover which relevant and transferrable skills they have. There are a vast range of roles that you can add value to. This comes down to understanding and managing an individual to draw the best out of them, the willingness of the individual to transfer their energy to a new context and a strong understanding about local needs.
3. Volunteering is about human impact, not short-term financial impact — shift the focus
A cash injection into projects from volunteers is not the point of them joining — a participation fee simply makes the human impact possible and sustainable. The volunteer sector is heavily criticised for the cost of involvement for volunteers, but the reasons behind varying fees are rarely even commented upon. The “cheaper the better” according to some. This is just misinformed and wrong. Please be careful. As I said, there are many aspects of volunteering. The set-up of the organisation, whether they fully facilitate the programme on the ground, the actual scale of the organisation, day-to-day volunteer support, levels of R&D, financial model and so much more, all affect the programme cost.
Volunteering is primarily about the impact of collective human resource. How much or in what way that cash is spent achieving that impact is secondary. People need to be asking very different questions to get a clear picture of what they want to support. If cash is being given to the local community or project directly, it does not mean it is sustainable and therefore the one to choose. In fact, it can mean the total opposite. This continued dominant focus on money and models gives the sector a misleading reputation and confuses volunteers. The focus should be the ultimate impact that the volunteer programme produces.
The cheapest options are not always the best, nor are the most expensive. The importance of volunteers lies not in cash, but rather in their direct contribution as a human being. The goal should be measurable outputs.
4. Profit vs Non-Profit volunteer organizations? This is not the question
Don’t even consider it. The credibility of profit vs. non-profit volunteer organisations is not a clear basis on which to judge the ethics or impact of an operation. We should be more aware that the sector of traditional development aid is not always as ethical or sustainable as you may think. Social enterprises are growing because they are successfully combining business efficiency with social impact, and often making more impact than those branded as traditional charities — no one should be made to feel guilty about that. I believe it is the way to move forwards.
5. Volunteer organisations can ensure individual volunteers make a sustainable impact (in Africa)
Ignore sweeping statements that volunteering is just “unsustainable acts of service”. We are definitely not perfect, and we continue to research, innovate and learn, but we have a focused approach around sustainable impacts and without our volunteers, this would not be possible at all.
It’s a great shame that some in the volunteer sector are fuelling dependency and unsustainable acts of service, but there are also amazing operations that always put the community first. This is the responsibility of the volunteer organisation, not the volunteer. Whilst volunteers should do as much research as possible, it's not realistic that they know the in-depth history and strategies of sustainable development before they arrive to a project - they should be thanked for doing their best to help. If you are with the right organisation, you will contribute to sustainable activities.
Don’t listen to the people that are unable to see the potential role of short term volunteers in sustainable projects. Good projects will often need to run for years and will require hundreds of passionate volunteers.
6. Volunteers can help reduce the dependency on external support in rural communities for the long-term
Questions should be asked about the long-term impact of volunteer contributions, but to say that volunteering as a whole just creates a “dependency on foreign aid” and that volunteers “cannot make lasting impacts on communities” is simply incorrect. African Impact volunteers have proved them wrong over and over again. We are proud of the innumerable contributions that continue to improve communities every day.
7. Don’t feel guilty — it is absolutely fine for the volunteering experience to impact you personally as well as the community. It wouln’t be real if it didn’t.
Volunteering should change you! We believe that being a volunteer can produce global citizens that are more worldly, empathetic and generous. What a great shame if this is ignored or trivialised.
8. You do not have to choose between “serving” or “touring” — we say do both, or one – it’s up to you
You may have read — “serve or tour, pick one”. Why can’t you do both? The opportunities that come from combining responsible travel and life experiences can be exceptionally productive and enlightening.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with tourism being an enabling element of bringing this human resource together - in fact, it is often what makes it possible. Being too concerned with how people label themselves is irrelevant. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone chose to do some good while exploring the world? Whether people identify themselves as volunteers or tourists simply doesn’t matter. We think the reward of volunteering is, in part, a very unique and in-depth travel experience.
9. It is completely ok to use volunteering as a professional development platform too
Some people have criticised volunteers for saying how good volunteering is for their CV. This type of argument wastes the potential win-win of volunteering in less developed parts of the world and the impacts to the global community as a whole. Why should we not meet both the ambitions of the volunteers and local projects? Why should each volunteer involved be so selfless as to not have goals themselves? That is not only unrealistic but a wasted opportunity. To encourage people to gain work experience in a way that will not only grow them personally and professionally, but also contributes to the betterment of people or places is exceptionally powerful.
10. Volunteers are not a generic breed of people and certainly not dominated by naive college or university kids
It is wrong to say that volunteers out there are mainly naive college students drawn by images and do-good messaging. The savviness of African Impact volunteers contrasts that entirely and clarifies my belief that human beings dotted across the globe follow solid philosophies, want to support a new approach to development in Africa, understand that they can bring their transferable skills to a positive cause and want to grow as a person too. Age certainly also has nothing to do with either it as we host volunteers of all ages – all who are eager to make a difference.
In closing, voluntourism means different things to different people, but it is important to realise the positive differences that well-run and sustainable projects can make. There are certainly some bad operators in the industry, but they shouldn’t be allowed to taint the entire volunteer experience. There are hundreds of amazing programmes that use the passion of volunteers to improve the lives of thousands.