Whose Volunteer Experience Is This Anyway?

2010 ushered in do-goodism 2.0. The opportunities to check-in, check-out, or slack-out “for good” have never been greater. Voluntourism is on the rise, as people want to see and feel more of their vacation destination than a five-star resort may offer. But there are downsides, as I recently discovered at a cocktail party fundraiser.

The otherwise delightful woman to whom I was speaking was explaining how she and her husband had recently traveled to Cambodia with their kids in order to give the teenagers an understanding of poverty and their responsibility to help others less fortunate than themselves. I was interested.

When planning the trip, she explained, her kids had immediately dismissed Habitat for Humanity and other “traditional” groups because they wanted an authentic, personal experience. Prior to the trip, they’d gone online and researched places they could go and things they could do.  They’d found a small village that was building a library and some houses and that needed materials and books. “Perfect,” she thought. Emails were exchanged, arrangements were made.

But, she then went on to explain, the trip had all but been ruined by the fact that when they arrived the locals took the books and materials they’d brought and proceeded to build the structures themselves. Her kids, who had planned what they wanted to do and how they would direct the building process, were sidelined by locals who took over and did all the work themselves. Her kids were invited to participate, but they weren’t allowed to lead “their” projects. The goal of the trip, she complained, had been for her kids to feel how they could make a difference and this experience hadn’t provided that at all. “Overall, it left a bad taste in their mouths for future volunteer work,” she concluded.

It was then that I yelled, “It’s not about you!”

In my head.

Aloud, I asked her politely, “Whose volunteer experience is this anyway?”

Nick Kristoff’s recent New York Times piece on Do It Yourself Aid raised similar feelings. While it is great to get out and feel like “I’ve made a difference,” shouldn’t the emphasis in that sentence be on “made a difference” and not “I?” When the primary purpose of volunteerism or aid work becomes our own experience of self-fulfillment, we’ve crossed a line. And unfortunately, sometimes the term social entrepreneur with its emphasis on one person, is synonymous with a “me” orientation that is antithetical to strategies that have been effective in creating lasting social change. Similarly, some social enterprises may be praised for taking a bold approach that makes perfect sense to donors, but which might not be highly prioritized by those receiving. Recent criticisms of TOMS Shoes and other “buy one, give one” programs raise important issues. If TOMS Shoes are being sourced and made locally, then that is sustainable change. If they are shipped in, then it’s mostly plain vanilla charity with excellent marketing. Almost by definition, these donor- or giver-centered approaches can leave out indigenous/local groups that are working to help themselves, but keep getting left out of others “solutions.”

So that begs the question, how much should one’s own need for achievement, media, or notoriety influence decisions about giving? Volunteering? When, as funders, do our demands for metrics and causality shift from necessary rigor and become instead attempts to assign egotistical ownership? When is our desire to develop a strategy that is “unlike other foundations” truly innovative, and when is it merely chest thumping?

For foundations, I think strategic philanthropy, as outlined by many of CEPs studies and reports, gives a great framework for allowing impact — not ego —  to drive action. And personally? Well I love feeling that I’m making a difference, whether it is buying green products or volunteering or contributing to organizations I love. By doing these things I create a sense of community, connection, and empathy that benefits me as well as those on the other end of that support. The act of giving is mutually beneficial. But at the end of the day, it’s not only about me. Giving, volunteering, and the work done to support nonprofits becomes transformative when the goal is something much larger than just one person’s pride or fame or even self-actualization.

Do you have strategies for keeping your ego in check?

This piece was originally posted on the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s blog which can be found at http://www.effectivephilanthropy.org. I am a member of CEPs board of directors.


  1. Anne

    In many ways, I think the development strategies of universities, museums, performing arts venues, and other institutional nonprofits feeds egoism; they stroke egotists with naming opportunities, giving recognition circles, even bricks. While initially I suppose these efforts were supposed to help create a buzz around giving (“hey if he’s giving, then I should too”) but in fact, they make giving all about “I.”

    The other aspect of voluntourism that bugs me is that the amount people spend to take the trip (the cost of their own transportation, lodging, etc.) often exceeds the size of their gift. How about staying home and sending the resources, or finding someway to contribute closer to home?

  2. crystalhayling

    Excellent additions to the question, Anne. Family philanthropy is naturally a mix of doing good and legacy creation. So what’s the right mix? And donor trips that lead to increased commitment and funding for the organization, great. But what if it doesn’t?

  3. dennymack

    It’s important to keep one’s eye on the purpose of aid and development work. This means being aware of motives and incentives, but not focussing on them as the purpose of aid or the determinant of its worth.

    If people are not helping those in need even though they have the resources, finding a way to induce them to do so is a worthwhile effort. If it uses the fulfillment that people get from philanthropy, does that poison the work they do?

    University endowments long ago discovered the power of ego in generating philanthropy. We may find this cynical, and prefer that the new college of arts was constructed using anonymous donations, but the college just wants the new building. They may build the building with self serving, cynically named bricks, but it gets built.

    If we have strong misgivings about this, does that mean we are less pure in our desire to achieve the stated outcome? Are we afraid of being contaminated in the purity of our pursuit? Is our purpose to give aid rightly, or to help people?

    Perhaps we should be less sensitive to the weight of feelings and intentions when we try to do development, whether they are misguided do-gooderism or self aggrandizing but effective philanthropy.

    • crystalhayling

      Dennis, ah you open up some excellent points. Intentions matter, but how much? And can we trip ourselves up in our ultimate goals if we are seeking purity above all else? I would agree that a university may be able to care less about the name on the building as long as the building gets built (though some might not now want a business school named after Madoff, no?) but that is quite different from the personal experience of voluntourism. I believe that social change and development can sometimes be as much about listening, respecting, supporting and amplifying the voices of others as it is about “assisting.” No one has ever risen from poverty by having their dignity shattered at the outset. I appreciate your call not to seek purity for its own sake, but still maintain that we owe it to the work to question our own motives because the drive for personal fulfillment may get in the way of helping someone else meet their own needs.

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