Why be part of a volunteer program – The bigger Picture

By: Ninad Sharma,
Co-Founder of Idex and Founder of Make Travel Matter

This article is meant to provide an alternative and wider view of volunteering, its challenges and valid reasons to engage in it and to organize it. In our experience of hosting thousands of volunteers since year 2000, we have come across some areas that cause dissatisfaction to volunteers and some areas that cause dissatisfaction to the communities where they work.

Volunteers have sometimes complained that:

– There is no “sustainability” in the projects – volunteers feel that there would be little care for the project after they leave.
– The money that they spend on their program does not appear to go to the projects they work for.
– That the local workers do not seem engaged in the projects – and instead sometime it seems that they want the volunteers to do their work.

Communities on the other hand have complained that:

– Volunteers are irregular at their projects impacting the work that they do.
– Volunteers are behaving in culturally inappropriate manner.
– Many volunteers don’t have adequate skills, other than teaching, physical work or general care.

Pretty serious complaints. Right ? Well. Despite these imperfections – we still do volunteering programs – and volunteers continue to come on our programs and find their experience to be life altering and deeply satisfying and the communities continue to receive those volunteers.

The question that then arises after looking at these contradictions is “If volunteering is so imperfect, then why are more and more people still doing this? Why has it not stopped already?”

The answer to this questions lies in the fact that its better to do something that is imperfect, than to not do anything at all. Despite its imperfections, volunteering continues to be an immensely helpful type of travel – for the travellers and for the community.

For you, the volunteer – this is an opportunity to have an unmatched cultural experience, a great travel experience and make a difference in the lives of others.

For the community, the mere presence of the volunteers means a whole lot of attention on their projects – which means that there is attention from the otherwise apathetic authorities. Additionally, the company of volunteers means development of the kids and other people in many different ways, that cant always be measured – but are very valuable.

By sharing this brief insight, what we are inviting you to see the larger picture. We have been taught by our schools, society and others to “either do something perfectly or not do it at all”. This perfectionist streak often scares people to just do what is familiar because they are often worried that if they do not do  something “perfectly” ( whatever that means) then they must only do it when they can get it right. Unfortunately, this stops many people from trying new things and making their and others’ lives better.

There is also an “all or nothing” mentality that is promoted by media, including for volunteering, where (most) journalists sit in their comfortable office in cities and pass judgments on whether people should go out to help charity projects or not go at all. And like always, we tend to believe what we read in the media. (Our apology to any journalist reading this who may be hurt with this observation. It may not apply to you, but it does apply to many others.)

And this brings us to why we at Idex do volunteering. To answer that, in light of all that is shared above, we do volunteering because :

– We believe that to do some good is better than not do any good at all.
– Volunteering brings immense benefits to our volunteers in terms of their personal development.
– Out of experience since year 2000, volunteering is by far the best and most value for money travel to truly experience a local culture. More so, than any other, expensive travel program.

What this means for us in terms of our responsibility?

So. Having chosen to do this type of programs, it brings us to our responsibilities as a “go-between” or link between international volunteers and community projects. Responsibilities such as :

– That the projects that we select are serving an actual need.
– That our volunteers are well trained for behaving and acting responsibly.
– That we balance the volunteers’ and community’s expectations from each other.
– That we develop tools to maximize the positive impact of our volunteers on the community and keep improving those.

What this means for you in terms of your ( the volunteers’) responsibility?

– That you attend your project placements regularly .
– That you adhere to the agreed code of conduct.
– That you develop the ability to see the larger picture of how your work supports a good cause and “deprogram” yourself from the “all or nothing” style perfectionist thinking.
– That you engage fully in whatever you are doing- whether its your project, interacting with other volunteers or having responsible fun during your program.

Where would we be successful and where would we (intentionally) fail?

Every organisation, whether small or big, has areas that it excels at and has to consciously choose areas that it will not put its efforts on. After much thought and deliberation, many years ago, we had to make those decisions as well. Our decision was that we were an organization for facilitating volunteers to be able safely and comfortably work with grassroots projects and our prime concern and expertise was going to be in taking care of our volunteers and not confuse ourselves with being a social development organization. As a result there are certain things that we are doing and things that we are intentionally not doing. These are :

Things we do:

– Take care of our volunteers, food, accommodation, travel, transportation, training, support, organizing, cultural experiences, medical emergencies – and all the work that is required to be done.
– We promote volunteering, create marketing content, go to events to meet organisations who can partner with us and such.
– Create technologies, systems and methods to continually improve our service to volunteers and our partners who send those volunteers.
– Select projects, align them and the communities around them for the work being done by volunteers. Troubleshoot whenever there are any issues between volunteers and the community.

Things that we choose not to do ( simply because of the compulsion of choosing where to strengthen ourselves):

– Be a social organization, responsible for the running of the project, training and accountability of the staff at those projects.
– Manage any funding or donations to projects.

Areas where you will and will not be successful.

Similar to us, Idex, there will be areas where you will be successful in producing results and area where you will not be effective. This is simply because of the realities of your duration of the program, cultural reality and your skills.

Areas you will impact and be effective:

– Creating excitement for the work being done at the project amongst the community members.
– Make sure that the project gets more attention that it would have, if there were no volunteers.
– Teach, renovate, conserve, fix, empower wherever and for whoever/whatever it is required.
– Be part of an ongoing change effort for the lives and facilities for the people of the community.

Areas where you will not be effective or may not see your individual impact :

– See a visible impact on the people that you work with. There is impact, but not all of that would be visible to you. Its there, but you may not be able to see it.
– Ensure that the work done by you is carried out by equal quality and passion by future volunteers or by the local people. It will be done, but due to short span of time that you spend at the projects, you will not be able to guarantee it.

So. Finally. After all these gloomy facts, why should we (Idex) run these programs and why should you ( the volunteer) do all that we are doing? Aren’t we better off doing something else?

For us, as stated earlier in this article the reasons are that this is the most effective way we have found that allows volunteers to get a truly authentic cultural experience, develop themselves individually, create themselves as better leaders and make a small but significant difference to the lives of those in need of support.

We believe that the same could be reasons for you. Just stay away from the illusion of “all or nothing mentality” when it comes to your work’s impact – what you do at a project – no matter how small, short or hard to notice is a whole world different than if you were to not do and experience volunteering.

And therefore what we would finally invite you to begin to consider is – do your best, gain satisfaction from what you are able to do and then take what you learn to move on further in life. Later you can choose volunteer somewhere again and can perhaps keep doing it for the rest of your lives for a life of meaning, purpose and contribution to others.


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