Why do volunteers volunteer?

Every international volunteer to Jordan will have their own reasons and motivations for volunteering. This post challenges the perceived Western view. It is intended to offer volunteers and would-be volunteers an opportunity for reflection.

The transaction of volunteering

Some people consider volunteering as a selfless action, and a way of giving back to society. While society should benefit from the actions of volunteers, the desire to have their own needs met is what motivates people to volunteer. This desire can be at a conscious or unconscious level, and influences both the transaction and outcome of volunteering.

Volunteering is a transaction between the volunteer and the recipient (or recipients) of the voluntary action. Both parties must consider:

  • What they want and need from the transaction;
  • What they can reasonably give towards the transaction;
  • What can be achieved realistically within the agreed time scale.

At first glance, volunteering might appear to be a simple transaction, but it is in fact complex.

Responsible volunteering is a balance between the needs of both parties and requires commitment, trust, respect and clear communication.

Responsible volunteering is not about quick-fix solutions. Responsible volunteering is sustainable. It requires long-term work as part of a bigger plan to address real needs of communities.

International Citizen Service (ICS) https://www.volunteerics.org/responsible-volunteering

The Western concept of international volunteering

International volunteering is, of course, undertaken by non-Westerners too, but the Western viewpoint is the frame of reference here.

The Western volunteer is in a position of privilege. International volunteering is considered part of a self-development process. For some, it is a rite of passage from school or tertiary education into adulthood. Interestingly, an increasing number of older adults are taking time away from work and family responsibilities to volunteer.

International volunteering is seen as ‘giving to others’ while at the same time, the volunteer experiences a different culture, different language, and a different way of life. It is seen as developing the volunteer’s confidence, and building up resilience to life’s challenges. It either allows for the development of skills, or provides an opportunity to use existing skills and expertise in a different setting.

The experience of international volunteering can be disappointing. Volunteers can feel undervalued and underutilised. Recipients can feel patronised, and unheard. Poorly considered and badly constructed projects can be based around the ‘white saviour’ role, and be harmful to recipients in both the short term and the long term.

Add to this, the advent and success of the voluntourism industry. A business model in which a third party offers a holiday-type package of volunteering, at a considerable cost to the volunteer, and at a profit to the third party.

Volunteering – the bigger picture

Let’s step back and look at the bigger picture. But whose bigger picture? The volunteer’s? The host organisation’s? The local community’s? Where is the bigger picture and how can we influence it?

Specifically, let’s consider small, community based organisations in Jordan like the Dana Cooperative as the host organisations, and the members of the communities (including members within the host organisations) as the recipients. Much that is stated below is applicable to volunteering with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) too. Similarly, much will apply to volunteers who volunteer locally or nationally, rather than internationally.

A successful and effective international voluntary placement is a balancing act! The volunteer and the recipients must have their needs met to an acceptable extent, or the placement will fail. Success requires insight, reflection, honesty and team work.

Consider honesty of motives! It is important for a volunteer to know why they want to volunteer and decide the level of commitment they intend to give. A voluntary placement should never be something that the volunteer is half-heartedly settling for until a better opportunity comes along. An effective placement requires commitment from all parties.

Each volunteer needs to consider and value the amount of time, and other resources, that the host organisation (and its community) are using to support the placement. These precious resources are likely to be wasted if the volunteer is dishonest about their intentions, and does not have insight into their motivations.

To support the volunteer, the host organisation must set out clearly its expectations of the volunteer and the placement, and be honest and open in its approach.

The volunteer needs to research possible placements carefully. They need a clear understanding of why they want to volunteer, their own expectations of the placement, and what to them is a successful outcome. They need to understand the culture and organisational style of the host organisation, and its overall aims and objectives. They should be able to see how they can contribute, and how their contributions will benefit the recipients.

It is important that they work with the host organisation to set the parameters of the placement, including timescales, goals and outcomes. An honest and open feedback and review process is essential.

All of the above will facilitate a mutually respectful relationship between the parties, and should enable a successful outcome that meets the agreed needs and objectives.

Ideally, a volunteer should carry out an activity or series of activities that cannot be undertaken by a member of the local community i.e. each volunteer should bring something extra, and should enhance the work of the host organisation. This supports the members of the host organisation and the community to capacity build. The volunteer should never ‘take away’ from the local community i.e. there should be no negative impact.

The concept of no negative impact places a burden of responsibility on the volunteer. At times, this burden can be difficult to carry.

Here is a simple, personal example. The Dana and Qadisiyah local community (Dana Cooperative’s community) is a rural, conservative, Muslim community. Its international volunteers must be aware of the expected cultural norms, accept restrictions (especially female volunteers), and ensure that their behaviour does not breach these norms.

Whilst on placement in Dana, there have been times when I have felt this burden of responsibility fall heavily on me, and I have wished for a more equal balance of the cultural weight. This was especially so, when I was a new and inexperienced volunteer. It took time, and a deepening understanding of the local culture, for me to realise that my expectations of an equal cultural balance were naïve, especially considering that the Dana Cooperative’s work is about preserving its culture and natural heritage!

Important considerations for responsible volunteers:

  • Self knowledge;
  • Expectations of both parties;
  • Identified needs and priorities;
  • Realistic goal setting;
  • Honesty of motives;
  • Reflection on experiences;
  • Honest and open feedback;
  • Respect for the local culture, including local ways of working;
  • Expected benefits of the voluntary project for the recipients;
  • Ability and willingness to see the project or work schedule through to completion.

Further reading

This post is based on my experiences of volunteering internationally and supporting voluntary placements for other international volunteers.

The contents express my views and are not necessarily the views of the Dana Cooperative or the Dana Cooperative’s other international volunteers (current or previous).


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