Thursday, January 20, 2011

The volunteer dilemma

Blue Dragon was founded by a handful of volunteers - myself included - back in early 2003. Since then, we've had dozens of volunteers, including Vietnamese and people from all around the world.

Volunteers are vitally important to us. So much so that I'll be speaking at a conference in Singapore next week on the topic of volunteerism.

Despite all that, I've had a letter published in an Australian newspaper this week raising a warning about volunteering. I was writing in response to this article, and my letter said this:

Jon Blackwell is right to encourage Australian companies to be ''socially responsible'' by offering support to charities (''Do good deeds because you can'', January 17). But the example he builds his argument on is fraught with problems which need to be at least acknowledged.

When groups travel to developing nations to undertake projects, it may be that the ''givers'' are benefiting more than the ''receivers''.

With practical tasks such as house building, there is the likelihood that local people are being displaced from jobs when foreigners fly in to volunteer. Meantime, the cost of each air ticket could have paid for another new house to be built by local labour.

Charities receiving such groups need to employ co-ordinators and translators to look after them. These resources and funds could well be spent on the needs of the program beneficiaries rather than on the volunteers.

Many charities around the world provide human services such as social work and trauma counselling. Such organisations rarely have the capacity to take groups of volunteers, who will visit for a short time, be unable to speak the language, and cannot possibly substitute for a local staff member.

When companies insist that their financial donations to charities must be tied with the sort of volunteer visits that Blackwell describes, then service organisations are forced to choose between much needed funds and the integrity of their programs.

By all means, companies and individuals should find ways to support the needy both in Australia and around the world. But please stop to consider whether the donor or the beneficiary is benefiting most.

The issue at stake here is not whether volunteering is good or bad, right or wrong. The issue is how people in developed countries can most fruitfully help people in Vietnam and other developing nations.

My letter appears to have struck a nerve with some. Yesterday morning I was interviewed by a Sydney radio station which will broadcast the discussion next Wednesday at 7pm. (I'll aim to have a link to the podcast as soon as it's available). And today a follow-up letter has been printed in the Sydney Morning Herald to rebut the views I've expressed.

The follow-up letter, printed here, starts off:

I was very disappointed to read Michael Brosowski’s letter (January 18), which seemed to discourage charitable giving if it is linked to a hands-on experience for the donor.

The writer goes on to make some perfectly reasonable points about the benefits of traveling to another country to build houses for charity, but doesn't address the shortcomings of this 'hands-on' model for charitable organisations such as orphanages and counselling programs.

In general, charities do a fairly poor job of self reflection; or at least, when we do, we like to keep our shortcomings to ourselves. So it's not surprising that this whole issue of volunteering hasn't been well discussed in the public domain. I think that many charities are afraid of saying anything that might 'disappoint' people - what if it results in fewer donations? What if someone reading my letter to the editor decides that they won't support me now?

It would certainly be easier to just stay quiet.

However, I think that this does deserve some discussion. I'm happy to see that others are starting to talk about the need for 'proper' volunteering, such as this article in The Guardian (and I see that the Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum has made the article a sticky).

My own view is that volunteers should mostly be playing roles that are in short supply in developing countries. For example, social work is a relatively new concept in Vietnam, and especially in Hanoi, so Blue Dragon has had several international social workers over the years help to train our staff and develop programs.

As an organisation, we've benefited enormously from that, and the net effect has been better services for the kids.

We've also had volunteers help us set up an accounting system. Some have helped with fundraising. One expat volunteer helped create the database we use for our sponsorship program. Many have taught English (and French) to our children.

Volunteers are invaluable - there's no questioning that. But charities, companies which send volunteers, and the volunteers themselves need to think carefully about all the 'grey areas'. I strongly believe that this needs to be an open discussion, without anger and emotion clouding good judgment.

The dilemma that I raised in my letter comes down to this: What should an orphanage do if it is offered a donation of, say, $10,000, but with the condition that 20 foreign volunteers come and stay for a month?

On one hand, how could a local orphanage say no to such a donation? But on the other... an orphanage needs to be staffed by local social workers, and the kids need to feel safe in the same way that kids living in any family, in any country, need to feel safe at home. A big group of foreign strangers will be fun for a little while, but eventually they'll just be getting in the way of everyday life. Kids need stability, and a constant stream of visitors through your home is exactly the opposite of stability.

To raise much needed funds, an orphanage may feel pressed to accept such a deal. But to preserve its integrity as a safe place for children, it would have to decline such a deal.

Blue Dragon is here to serve street kids and trafficked children as best we can. We have to be sure that all parts of our organisation, volunteers included, are helping us reach that goal.

For those who made it to the end of this very long post, comments and feedback are welcome!


Steve Jackson said...

Nicely put and I entirely agree with your points. Sandwiching my time in Vietnam I spent a year as fundraiser at a AIDS NGO in Cameroon.

Nothing broke my heart more than spending months struggling to find funds in a bankrupt country only to go to the local, fairly sparse, supermarket and find 30 young American kids on a volunteer programme stripping the shelves for snacks.

It was hard not to make mental calculations of just what it cost to fly 30 kids all that way. I am absolutely sure it would have paid for my old employers to run for two or three years.

In most cases these kids also have to do their own fundraising. They go to their churches (this was a "mission trip) and they ask for contributions to "help Africans".

Of course what they are really looking for contributions for is, for their own airfare. No organisation can benefit from the assistance of kids still in their teens.

I can also recall working for a charity in Hanoi that had two weeks disrupted by a Korean work group who wanted to do the usual stuff (why is it always painting murals?) and generally hang out and spoil the kids. While there was also a cash donation it was a fraction of what they must have spent getting there.

However, we probably shouldn't draw the line at just voluntourism. Hanoi is still full of international government funded volunteers with very little to do.

When I worked at KOTO I was amazed when I'd be in the training restaurant and see a group of a dozen Australian government-funded volunteers having a leisurely breakfast mid morning on a work day. So many of them seemed to have very little to do and came and went from their employers as they wished.

Others seemed to be permanently travelling.

One colleague from a similar scheme asked, on her very first day, if she didn't have to work full time because "she was just a volunteer". This despite her stipend being several times the amount paid to local employees.

Volunteering is a hugely costly business whether self or government funded. On each occasion it has to be worked out how the employer will benefit. In addition the employer has to take responsibility for setting its own ground rules for volunteers and targets.

Frankly, if you are a long term employee, the arrival of voluntourists looking to fill up their Facebook pages with pictures of them group hugging streetkids, is just a distraction and an irritant.

In Cameroon one two week volunteer left with a new tattoo of Africa on his back. Obviously heading home to brag about his time there and how he had bonded with the continent. Others would turn up just long enough to get their hair braided. One even went as far as getting tribal scars to show to friends back home.

The other problem being that their tends to be a general attitude of them knowing best because they came from a "developed" country. If you are in a new country then you know very little at first and are a deadweight for some months.

As ever, there are good and bad volunteers just as their are well run and badly run NGOs. But most emerging NGOs soon realise that voluntourists bearing gifts should be treated with caution.

My attitude is increasingly, if you've just a couple of weeks and you want to help a country - then go and find a low environmental impact resort and just spend your money there and have a good time. It's far more honest and probably way more beneficial.

Michael Brosowski said...

Thanks Steve. I was hoping you'd make a comment, as I know you also have an extensive 'volunteer CV'.

I find that it's difficult to have an objective discussion on the limitations of volunteerism. If you go back to the original SMH article, the reader's comments are quite varied and often heated, as though this is a deeply personal issue.

It's a very complex issue, as with much in development; it's not as black and white as it seems.

I am increasingly of the same opinion as you with regards to voluntourism. If you want to go on holiday, then go on holiday. Keep your volunteering separate. All of the benefits of volunteering that are written about in the rebuttal letter to the Herald could equally have been achieved had the writer simply been on holidays anyway.

Colin said...

While it is a valid point that foreign volunteers may be more trouble than they're worth, so to speak, with the displacement of jobs from locals, it can't always be so clear-cut.

For example, it's fair enough to refuse an offer when a relatively small donation is tied to taking on large numbers of short-term foreign volunteers, but that's not to say charities should not accept foreign volunteers who may be in for the long haul and need a place to start. As Blue Dragon helps its wards to grow, they have to remember not to neglect those of their volunteers and staff, who are people too.

Steve Jackson does raise a very good point about teenagers who volunteer, for a few weeks at most, and benefit more than the charity from donations. But there are those who do go home, tell others about their experiences, getting them involved and start even more fund raising activities. Of course, they are few and far between, but they are there. I'm of the opinion that those Mr. Jackson describes should start with helping their local communities instead of going so far away for such little positive impact while asking others to make donations for it, when they could be helping others locally.

And while Christine Cupitt from the SMH editorial may say that more money will go into the economy instead of being "spent on a weekend in Paris", it seems she doesn't understand that most of that money just goes into airlines and hotels, who pay out most of their profits as dividends, often to foreign investors, and the percentage going to actual causes remains dismal at best in those circumstances. Sure they pay local employees and taxes, but is does that really trickle down? Why would that money for Paris do more good as an airfare to and a hotel room in a poorer country than as a flat out charitable donation and raising awareness at home?

Perhaps an informal "contract" of sorts with foreign volunteers, like BDCF already does with its children, to stay for at least a few months and contribute positively? It would hopefully discourage those who are just there "going through the motions", but it wouldn't mean charities losing out on valuable help and skills from qualified volunteers who are there to stay, or those who are committed to making a real difference.

Michael Brosowski said...

Colin, you are 'spot on' to say that it's not clear cut. In fact, I started this whole discussion with the letter to the newspaper to make precisely that point.

Volunteering as a form of corporate social responsibility or as 'voluntourism' has pros and cons. It bothers me when ONLY the pros are put forward, encouraging well meaning folk to embark on something that ultimately might not result in the good that they hope for.

You have a great suggestion there in the 'contract' idea. Blue Dragon now asks volunteers (whether full time or part time) to commit to at least 6 months, to minimise the comings and goings.

There are significant exceptions to this - for example, we recently had an IT expert come and review how we teach computing to the kids and run our IT lab. He was here for about 6 weeks, which was all he needed for that task, and he left us with a report detailing all the things we could do to improve our services. He even implemented a few of those changes while he was here, but he has left the rest to our local staff. Perfect.

I know of other charities here in Vietnam which have formal contracts with volunteers to help them see themselves as having equal status to employees. The rationale is that sometimes (as Steve says) volunteers might think they can come in late, or leave their assignment, because they are 'only volunteers'. In fact, if a charity has a volunteer, that person is hugely important and the tasks that they are set should be genuinely needed.

auto donation said...

It is good to volunteer yourself specially if the purpose is for the empowerment of other people. In volunteering we could influenced people to follow us. More power!

Christine said...

Hi Michael

Thanks for acknowledging my letter to the SMH in your post. Despite getting my feathers ruffled I think we are largely in agreement.

I can articulate it better now but I have an answer to your question below:
Why would that money for Paris do more good as an airfare to and a hotel room in a poorer country than as a flat out charitable donation and raising awareness at home?

In addition to the local spend on local hotels, restaurants etc we got a first hand experience of the kind of poverty experienced by those we worked with. This meant that we raised further funds on our return and spread the word among our friends and family. Our actual attendance also triggered a payment by our employer, AMP matching our own donations. Right or not, there is no way so much money would have been donated if we had not physically attended.

I wish you the best of luck with your endeavours in Vietnam.

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Kim said...

Thanks very much for raising your critiques of 'voluntourism'. I agree that it is a grey area, but the 'cons' seem to get so little coverage, perhaps because as you say, so many NGOs benefit financially from having volunteers. More and more, it is becoming one of the most popular fundraising tools. I manage an NGO in Uganda, and we rarely take volunteers, except for specific skills we need, in capacity building roles. This decision is often met with incredulous indignation from donors, especially if we refuse much needed funds from groups due to volunteering conditions attached to donations. I hope there is more discussion of this in the future in our media, so that people can start to see that the 'volunteer experience', for many, is much more about the individual than the community they are apparently helping. Please keep writing about this!