Volunteering: You Will Be Disappointed
I’m going to make a statement that is rather controversial but I firmly believe. When you volunteer internationally – you will be disappointed.
Things will not be as plain and simple as you expect them to be. It won’t run smoothly, you’ll be confused, frustrated and unhappy. And at some point you’ll probably be left wondering if anyone from the volunteering organization is even talking to the people ‘on the ground’ at your volunteering location.
This is inevitable when you have two or more organizations from different cultures working together to organize a volunteer experience. This is generally how the majority of volunteer opportunities are set up; a local US company does the marketing and promotion, and a local company from the volunteering country sets up and runs the actual volunteering experiences. I am confident in saying things will get lost in translation and cultural differences. It’s like the telephone game: the more people in the line that you have to repeat the message to, the more it gets messed up. Then the last person, the volunteer, is left wondering what the hell is going on.
But is this the fault of the company or the volunteer? Truth be told – probably a little of both. However, since I can only control my own actions as the volunteer, I choose to focus on what I’m doing and can change.
I find that the big problem with international volunteering is the way we (Americans) define words. How is this a problem?
Americans sign up for volunteering because the want to ‘DO’ something. However, the definition of ‘DO’ can be different from country to country, and culture to culture. It comes down to how we view work and work ethics. Western cultures are on one side of the scale, with Americans probably being the extreme. So when you show up somewhere and are ready to ‘do’ using the definition of how we work in America, then you’ll probably be frustrated that you aren’t doing things at the speed at which you are used to. You may mess around for days simply trying to figure out what it is they want you to do. You may be doing something for only an hour a day when you were expecting a full day of ‘doing’. Plus, drinking tea or taking a siesta may be part of their definition of ‘do’ in their country.
There’s also a factor of time for Americans – we normally have very little of it (our vacations are normally a week or two maximum) and we therefore want to ‘hit the ground running’ and be productive and efficient in our volunteer quests. But it doesn’t work like that; I’ve never had an experience like that. I’ve done various types of volunteering – high end and budget, but rarely is it very organized in the beginning. It has never been efficient. I’m convinced that the word ‘efficient’ is a word we invented in America which has very little meaning in the rest of the world.
We are normally volunteering because we have the desire to make an impact. Make people’s lives better in the countries in which we visit. We want to educate kids, mothers, save animals, build homes for families; we ultimately want to see the end-product of our work – the impact. But many times we can’t see anything tangible, due to time constraints or simple cultural differences of how people react to our volunteering work. They may not actually come and express thanks, in fact they may just stare.
So how do you combat this inevitable disappointment you’ll feel?
The easy answer is to change your definitions of ‘Do’ and ‘Efficiency’. Soften them at least 50%; make them less American.
When it comes to ‘Impact’, value the things that you can barely see; impact may remain invisible to you as a volunteer – but it is there. By simply meeting someone and being yourself you are involving the other person and culture in something new. You may not ever know how long that child, teacher, or mother who seemed to not care about what you were there for actually remembers you once you are long gone. How they will look at future volunteers and people of other cultures. By simply showing up at your volunteer placement, you are forming their opinions and ideas of your culture deep inside their psyche – and you will never know the impact you have made; but I tell you – there is an impact.
So be prepared to modify and change your definitions when you start your international volunteer placement. It may be difficult and you will go through some growing pains, but you will adapt. Sometimes I look at volunteering sort of like a boot camp…it tears down your initial expectations by not really meeting them, it changes your definitions, and provides you with a new vocabulary. Then you eventually redefine, accept, and move forward mentally to finally get some ‘work’ done!
Sherry spent two months in the Middle East volunteering with Geovisions. You can read more about her experiences her Volunteer Chronicles.