Volunteering – Managing Your Expectations

Volunteering – Managing Your Expectations

Imagine this. A traveller, let’s call them Robin (a suitably androgynous name), has been to a fair few places across the globe, including countries that could be classified as ‘third world’. Having witnessed startling poverty first hand – street kids eating from bins in India, a destitute and elderly lady lying ignored and forgotten in rags on a roadside in Ecuador – Robin resolves to give something back on their next trip.

Robin fires up the Internet and scours organisations that offer overseas voluntary placements. Taken in by a particularly impressive-looking website, with glowing testimonials on the organisation from past volunteers, a comprehensive FAQ section that does much to assuage their natural anxieties and doubts, and beautiful photos of volunteers doing amazing things in their chosen line of work, Robin signs up for a placement in a country they’ve always wanted to visit, doing work that matches well with their skill set.

The time for their trip arrives and Robin could not be more excited. But when they arrive, things unravel pretty quickly. The work is tedious, unrewarding, frustrating…makes them angry and upset, even. All their plans to make a meaningful difference fritter away as insurmountable barriers such as red tape, cultural differences and clashing agendas ultimately make them feel like they’ve achieved nothing. Thoroughly dispirited, Robin quits the placement early, and never thinks of doing something like this again.

Now, there’s a reason I’ve kept this description generic and free of specifics, such as what line of work Robin was doing, or the country (s)he was in, or how long the placement was. That may seem odd at first, because it’s true that all those factors and others can have a bearing on your volunteering experience.

Because what I’m trying to tell you – no matter how many steps you take to ensure the placement is ethical, or how prepared you may be for culture shock, or any of the other things I’ve talked about previously – is that, like it or not, volunteering overseas ultimately benefits the person volunteering more than it does those who they are helping.

That’s not meant to denigrate the volunteering experience at all. After all, I’ve volunteered extensively, so it would be daft of me to run it down. Nor is it a case of me being bitten by cynicism off the back of my experiences; far from it, many of my fondest travel memories come from humanitarian work. And unless you actually do inflict damage to the local community through your actions, you aren’t taking anything away from that community*.

No, what I’m saying is that, first up, a little awareness of the limitations of your contribution will go a long way. And second, that if you position yourself and what you gain from the experience at the centre – what you learn, how you develop, how your values and insights change – then you will appreciate the volunteering process a lot more.

Again, it’s not so black and white that we can simply conclude volunteering is only good for the volunteerer (is that a word?!). Of course the work you do will benefit other people. Of course that class of 60+ rural Kenyan children you taught who had never seen a non-African face will remember you and your funny way of explaining line graphs. If you were just looking to do things for yourself, you wouldn’t – or at least shouldn’t – even consider volunteering in the first place.

Instead, I think the healthiest way to frame it is in terms of altruistic selfishness. Because – and I’m going to upset some people now – travel is, at least partly, a selfish thing to do. Yes, of course it is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness”, as Mark Twain once said. And if you are lucky enough to be able to do it, you absolutely should. Not that you need me to tell you that!

But there are many people who are simply unable to travel (“vegetating in one little corner of the Earth”, to quote Twain again, although to be fair he was saying this in a different time and world to the one we live in now) who are not necessarily prejudiced, bigoted and narrow-minded. And here’s the rub: the people you’re helping will most likely be those who are unable to travel.

People often compliment me on the work I’ve done and continue to do in Tanzania. It’s immensely flattering, and I truly do appreciate people’s support and generous words. But you have to understand that, whilst the desire to get involved in this project does come from a place of kindness and compassion, and for all that it benefits young people in both the UK and Tanzania, it hugely benefits me as well. In fact, I would say that it is probably the biggest motivational factor of all. It’s no use pretending otherwise – I mean, I’m blogging about it aren’t I?!

So to sum up – rather than see yourself as being on some sort of transformative crusade, see it more as a chance for you to learn more about yourself and the world, with the very important and added bonus that you will make tangible and intangible differences – no matter how small and fleeting – to the lives of those you are working for.

And you know what? That’s good enough.

*Side note – Some quarters associate volunteering overseas with colonial exploitation, likening it to historical (and even present-day) examples of ‘civilised’ cultures imposing their will/societal norms on ‘noble savages’; thinly-veiled imperialism if you will. Needless to say, this is a far-fetched association to make, and does nothing but add layers of cynicism on to an already cynical world…how depressing.

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18 Comments

  • Christine K

    February 27, 2017 at 7:50 pm Reply

    You make some very good points here. When someone is motivated and thinking they are doing good for the sake of others, it is difficult to find resolution that they may be the only one who benefits in the end. I had never thought about this much but have read a lot about it lately. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    • Joe

      February 27, 2017 at 11:14 pm Reply

      Thanks Christine. I think there’s a natural, and perfectly understandable, tendency to assume volunteering will invariably be a wonderful experience for all concerned. But it is rarely ever that simple.

  • Sabs

    February 28, 2017 at 5:57 am Reply

    As someone living in a developing country and who has volunteered in my own country, I can totally understand the points you make. And I agree with your statement that it mostly changes/benefits us and not necessarily those we tried to help.

  • Eulanda

    February 28, 2017 at 8:06 am Reply

    ” Rather than see yourself as being on some sort of transformative crusade, see it more as a chance for you to learn more about yourself and the world…” Joe, this is a powerfully transparent piece on the nuances of volunteerism. So often I come across articles on how volunteering transformed said person’s life, and the how they changed the lives of those they helped. I tend to shake my head at these articles. It’s refreshing to read your thoughts on the matter. You’ve managed to shine the light on a topic that needs to ‘wake up!” Well done!

    • Joe

      February 28, 2017 at 2:21 pm Reply

      Thanks for your very kind words Eulanda! 🙂 Yes, I just thought it’s important to shine a light in to the less glamorous corners of the subject matter, as it’s not just a case of it being just this wonderful thing that is always a great experience. It certainly can be, but only if done in the right and responsible way!

  • Ali May

    February 28, 2017 at 11:25 am Reply

    A very interesting post. It is something I have not really understood before, about the motivation of volunteers and what they might get out of the experience Vs what the people they are helping receive. Thanks for sharing this!
    Ali May recently posted…February 2017 in ReviewMy Profile

  • Mike Cotton

    March 3, 2017 at 12:47 pm Reply

    It’s a difficult situation. Those who volunteer are predominately driven by the desire to help others. It’s often the way we go about trying to help that can often cause more harm than good. I agree with you when you say that travelling is ultimately a selfish pursuit, I travel for no-one but myself.

  • Tiffany

    March 4, 2017 at 5:34 pm Reply

    Wow. Yes, I love the points you make above. You can really learn a lot about the world and yourself by doing these kinds of things.

  • Only By Land

    March 4, 2017 at 7:35 pm Reply

    I learnt the word volunteerer today! This was obviously a life changing experience for you guys and the Kenyans probably learnt a lot more than we can imagine. It changed my life when I visited Africa and I wasn’t there as long as you guys so I understand how much your lives must have changed.
    Only By Land recently posted…Bruges to RotterdamMy Profile

    • Joe

      March 6, 2017 at 6:47 pm Reply

      It was a real honour to see how it influenced the girls, and humbling to see how it had an impact on the Tanzanian children as well 🙂

  • shayne

    March 6, 2017 at 3:06 am Reply

    I try to do voluntouring every chance I get. You have valid points here. Me, coming from a developing country myself, know how much it means to give yourself to others. KUDOS to you for doing this! Bless your heart!

    • Joe

      March 6, 2017 at 6:44 pm Reply

      Thanks, and hey, kudos to you as well for doing it every chance you can! Me, I wish I could find the time/energy to do it more often…

  • Jitaditya Narzary

    March 6, 2017 at 7:28 am Reply

    Interesting perspective. Managing expectations is the key to being happy, not only in volunteering but in every aspect of life. I guess excessive glamourization and media narratve also forces people to have excessive expectations. Better informed people always do well.
    Jitaditya Narzary recently posted…Grandest sale on travel by Thomas Cook IndiaMy Profile

    • Joe

      March 6, 2017 at 6:45 pm Reply

      Very well put. Perfect preparation prevents p**s-poor performance, as they say! 😉

  • Eric || The Bucket List Project

    March 6, 2017 at 7:15 pm Reply

    Cant the crushing of expectations be a positive thing though? I agree many people have no idea what goes into missionary work, volunteer work or etc. and many I assume jump into it with a dream of changing the world and for self gratifiying desires.
    However, the humbling factor can also help people learn and grown and shouldn’t be dissuaded. I think some of my better stories I have ever shared started out with, “Yeah, it was totally not what I expected…” and this has helped me see the world better.
    Eric || The Bucket List Project recently posted…Win a Visit Cuba Coloring BookMy Profile

    • Joe

      March 6, 2017 at 10:53 pm Reply

      Interesting point. I think that there certainly is a lot to be said from learning from one’s mistakes, and yes, experiences that develop your resilience can only be a good thing. However, I think that it would be irresponsible to recommend someone with limited or no experience wilfully throw themselves in to a disillusioning placement. To me, you can be humbled even if you undertake a placement where your tangible impact is actually small. But I do get what you’re saying 🙂

  • Anna

    March 6, 2017 at 8:20 pm Reply

    You are bringing up a very interesting and thought-provoking idea, Joe. The notion of altruistic selfishness sounds pretty spot-on as travel is essentially something one does for their own pleasure, be it a volunteering trip or a weekend getaway… The volunteerer is still in charge of the process that they can withdraw themselves from at any point if the experience does not meet the expectations. whereas those they are attempting to help will have to stay there. I’ve volunteered abroad before and I have to say, your post is making me think about who actually benefited from it more – myself or the people I worked for (and I’m afraid the answer is me).

    • Joe

      March 6, 2017 at 10:55 pm Reply

      But that’s no bad thing Anna, so it’s nothing to be ashamed of or feel guilty about in any way. As long as what you did had a positive impact on those you helped, no matter how small, you can look back on your time volunteering as a job well done 🙂

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