There has been much in the media over the past few years with regards to the debate about volunteer work. Is it really helpful? Is it harmful? How best can we donate our time to help others? While reading Doing Good Better, the book by William MacAskill which is providing me with a seemingly endless number of blog ideas, I came across an unusual way of approaching volunteering. Do it for you. Now, hear me out, or rather, hear MacAskill out. Instead of seeing volunteering as something which makes a life changing impact on those you’re working with because, let’s face it, that doesn’t happen, think of it as something which will provide you with skills and experiences to make an even bigger impact later in life. Let’s explain further.
MacAskill pioneered the concept of effective altruism, something I’ll write more about in the future. It’s basically a movement which encourages people to think about how they can best help charities and other groups which seek to make the world a better place. Sometimes this is by working for them, sometimes this is by entering politics, conducting research and sometimes this is by working to give: earning a high salary and then donation a portion of it to a charity every month. MacAskill also encourages people to think about where they donate the money. Some charities are far more effective and money-efficient than others as well as offering more or less impactful programs. The book and Effective Altruism website provide frameworks to help you decide which charities are using their funds productively and could make best use of your donation. You can visit Giving What We Can and take the pledge to donate 10% of your salary every month to effective organisations. Basically, this book is a game changer when it comes to the way people think about philanthropic gestures: it uses a pragmatic, scientific approach to make informed decision about how individuals can make the biggest and best difference in their lifetimes. I highly recommend it.
Now onto what MacAskill thinks about volunteering. He agrees that volunteering in an area in which we are not trained limits our capability to help. Some volunteers also use up the management capacity of organisations in an unproductive way. He further acknowledges that there are many volunteer programs which have little to no impact on the community it is allegedly helping. This is a common criticism of the recent trend towards volunteering, particularly voluntourism which sees people volunteering as they travel around the world. The media has recently gone after voluntourism, citing it as doing more harm than good when privileged westerners swan into an impoverished community, flounder around for a couple of weeks to ‘build’ a medical centre or ‘teach’ English or participate in some other buzz-word task, before promptly disappearing. There has been evidence of schools constructed but left with no funds for teachers and therefore useless along with ‘orphanages’ which collect children from impoverished families simply to provide a spectacle for these ‘voluntourists’. Yes, there is no doubt that we must be very careful where we choose to volunteer our time but that doesn’t mean all volunteering is bad.
MacAskill recommends volunteering in ways which cost the charity you are trying to help very little. This reduces their financial input into work which, let’s face it, may not be all that beneficial. But that’s not the point of volunteering in many cases, Doing Good Better argues. By thinking about how we as individuals will gain skills and experience through our volunteer work, we can take a whole new approach to volunteering. These skills and experiences can then be applied to your chosen career and vastly increase your future impact. MacAskill himself cites how he travelled to Ethiopia as an undergrad and it was his first-hand experience of such extreme poverty which led him into his chosen career path. He says:
“as long as one is thinking of volunteering as the first step towards generally moving your life in the direction of making a difference, there’s nothing problematic about this.”
I run a volunteer program as part of my charity and host people who want to teach English in rural Cambodia. Unsurprisingly, I am yet to receive a volunteer who is a fully qualified teacher. But that doesn’t mean the people who do come to me are doing bad work. Firstly, it costs my charity nothing to support the volunteers. The volunteers cover the cost of their transport out to the province ($3.25 per person) and then pay $1 per day per person for two cooked meals, money which goes directly to the woman who cooks it in the tiny, rural village and massively increases her net income. My volunteers aren’t teachers but they are native English speakers who can help both the students and local teachers improve their English during their stay. More to the point, most donate supplies to the school during their time, a key reason many charities accept volunteers. And who knows, maybe the experience will inspire some of them to change careers or earn to give and begin to make a longer-lasting, further-reaching difference.
I started volunteering for a charity when I was 18. I now run my own charity. Case in point?
Go, do, experience. More Good Deeds.