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.

Different Cultures

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.

Volunteering in Nepal

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.

Other comments

12 Comments on "Volunteering: You Will Be Disappointed"

  1. Lynn Nill on Mon, 28th Mar 2011 10:52 am 

    Sherry and Friends,

    Here is a volunteer opportunity in Cambodia that might be different. We met Ponheary and her brother Dara when we visited Siem Reep. They are amazing and the work they do will have a long-lasting impact on the future of Cambodia.


    xxoo Lynn

  2. Scott Burke on Tue, 29th Mar 2011 7:19 am 

    Very well said, Sherry. As someone who sends volunteers abroad, I’ve always felt that setting (low) expectations is one of my main jobs. And you’re so right – you might never even find out about the positive impact you’ve had. Last year I had a volunteer go to a far-flung placement in Nepal, the same one I was in 10 years ago. He said that a local teen there in the village totally remembered my being there (I remember him well too). He was a neighborhood farm kid who hung around my host family a lot — and he had a ball everyday getting to know me. Anyway, keep up the good writing.

  3. MeetPlanGo on Fri, 1st Apr 2011 7:52 am 

    What a great story! I love it!

  4. jill- Jack and Jill Travel The World on Tue, 29th Mar 2011 3:25 pm 

    Very interesting way to look at volunteering internationally. I can see how many people will be disappointed by not ‘doing’ enough by their own standard, but it’s a good point that you can never measure the impact you have on other people but you can always ensure that the impact is a positive one.

  5. Christy @ Technosyncratic on Tue, 29th Mar 2011 11:07 pm 

    I think an issue is also that most people volunteer for themselves, not for other people…. so they get cranky when they don’t get enough out of it. I know I’m really cynical when it comes to this topic, but I feel that very rarely do people volunteer selflessly… which in and of itself isn’t an awful thing, but it certainly affects how they approach the experience.

  6. MeetPlanGo on Fri, 1st Apr 2011 7:52 am 

    Interesting perspective. I think there’s certainly a large part of self fulfillment to volunteering and you are right – it also plays into that disappointment if people don’t think like they’ve done enough. I think volunteering goals should be balanced – there is of course some self fulfillment that goes with volunteering – but it’s really important to be equally there for the cause or other people.

  7. islandmomma on Wed, 30th Mar 2011 5:09 pm 

    I would go a step further and apply similar rules to working abroad, not everywhere granted, the UK can be pretty efficient these days, and I imagine that Australia is too, but here in Spain, for instance, although the country is now a real player in the world economy, the mañana syndrome is still alive and well. It can be extremely frustrating. Even after many years of living here it can still wind me up. Other times I think it’s great for instance that on the week of Carnival all the banks close their doors around 12pm. It seems great there is a culture which values enjoyment……unless you have business to conduct, of course!

  8. Daniel Roy on Thu, 31st Mar 2011 5:43 pm 

    ” 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.”

    I strongly disagree with this statement. I don’t find Westerners to be particularly “extreme” in their work ethics as a group. I understand that Americans see themselves as hard-working, but I submit this is the case of Japanese, Koreans, Germans, Indians, etc.

    Rather, what you describe is more a question of circumstances, IMO. You’re coming in as a volunteer with a lot of energy and the desire to do good – and this contrasts with people on the ground who may have spent that energy years ago. Plus, there are other questions to consider – are you comparing people in similar situations? If you’re comparing self-made American volunteers who are there from a position of international empathy, and probably having received an education and a cozy life, it’s unfair to compare them to locals who may live in disempowering situations of poverty and lack of resources.

    I’m writing this not to be overtly critical of your post – I like the rest of it, I swear. 🙂 But I want to counter the general neo-colonial attitude that short-term volunteering seems to breed – that we are somehow “better” than “them”, and that we have reached our position of advancement through better work ethics.

    Thanks for the post, and I hope my reply isn’t too confrontational!

  9. MeetPlanGo on Thu, 31st Mar 2011 9:43 pm 

    Thanks for your comments. I certainly am no expert on American work ethic – but most people I know or worked with worked 50+ hours plus had a calendar packed full of committments – most people I know didn’t know how to slow down; they thought they always had to be doing something. I worked in 5 different states in many different industries – and this is what I encountered. I’m not saying that Americans are better or more correct than the people they are volunteering for – I’m simply trying to point out that we look at things differently and that seems to be where the disconnect is many times. Sorry if that didn’t come across in that way.

    I do agree – volunteers do come into their assignments with a lot of energy and expectations – which is also some of the culprit in my opinion.

    Thanks for reading and hope you continue to follow along!

  10. Daniel Roy on Fri, 1st Apr 2011 3:17 pm 

    Hi Sherri,

    I’ve worked with people from a lot of different countries, including a lot of Chinese, Americans, Canadians and Europeans, as well as some Koreans. My own experience is that North Americans and Europeans are really not very high on the work ethics scale.

    Again, there are enough individual differences that they make all these categories overlap, so perhaps typing by country doesn’t mean much… But I’ve yet to encounter people who work as hard and with such dedication to success than Chinese, whether from the mainland or from Hong Kong. Whereas Americans and Canadians tended to expect a lot out of a lesser amount of work, and got discouraged when they didn’t feel pampered to or if their ego wasn’t properly stroked.

    Again, I’ve met lazy Chinese and brilliant Westerners, so YMMV. But I came away from three years of working in China thinking ‘These guys are gonna beat the crap out of us as a society with these work ethics.’ And yet I met Westerners who came to China and couldn’t stop complaining about the ‘sloppy work ethics’ of the Chinese. So I don’t have an easy answer there. 🙂


  11. Adam Pervez on Tue, 26th Apr 2011 10:01 am 

    Hi Sherri,

    Thanks for the candid advice. It can be frustrating when expectations don’t match reality, so having the right perspective from the beginning can probably allow you to focus more in making an impact while you’re there instead of focusing on who to be angry at since the brochure doesn’t match the reality.

  12. Kristin on Mon, 16th May 2011 1:12 am 

    This article is so spot on! I remember showing up at my first day at Mother Theresa Charities in Kolkata and feeling frustration that I wasn’t doing or helping enough – they had tea breaks in the middle the time! ? And the thing was, I was not alone – my Western co-volunteers were feeling the same amount of exasperation. Thankfully, the experience and several others like it in India helped me surrender and let go a little of this need to “do,” so I could “be” with the experience and the people who let me help them. It felt a lot better and probably made me more pleasant to be around.

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