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!