Selfish Volunteering


My ex-flatmate Kaylan is writing her PhD about a pretty interesting topic: the expectations and experiences of Western students who volunteer in developing countries. Since I have volunteered a couple of times myself, her PhD made me reflect about my own experiences. I have basically participated in 3 bigger projects. The first one was a trip with Habitat for Humanity and M.A.D. to Mississippi, USA, the second was a summer camp for kids South England (with Kids Company London), and the third one involved supporting blind students at Niwant in Pune, India. 


One of my main concerns, especially when I was supposed to "build houses" in Mississippi, was whether my volunteering work is the best use of money for the charity. Because despite working for free, a volunteer is expensive. I had to raise around 800 USD to pay for flight, accommodation and food for the 2 week trip. I guess Habitat for Humanity could have made much more progress on their houses if they had just hired a worker for that amount of money. But then, I understood that the impact might not come from the actual volunteering work, but from the change of my own mindset. Spending time in Mississippi has definitely raised my awareness of social injustice and my wish to continue volunteering work. And since this project was organised by my business school, chances are high that some future leaders will run their companies in a more sustainable way.


My voluntary work with Kids Company had a similar impact. The actual project was just one week long. One week of looking after some tough, but really cool kids. I can tell you, that was one of the most intense weeks of my life. But again, the main impact did not happen in that one week, but afterwards. I see the UK (and Europe) with different eyes now. Most of the kids had an immigration background, so I have learned a lot about the struggles of immigrants. What is more, many of the other volunteers decided to become buddy of a kid and to commit to meet them once a week, for at least one year. I also took the decision to spend more time with kids on a regular basis and I joined Wellcome in Berlin. Working with kids has taught me so much about myself. I'm more aware of how self-centred my normal life actually is and how detached I am from some very basic human needs like playing, giggling, hugging and sometimes just wailing in somebodies arms.


In India, I tutored blind students, printed their study materials in Braille and joined them for leisure activities like chocolate making. First of all, I developed a much greater understanding of disabilities and how they influence a person's life. Other than expected, these kids were super jolly and motivated. On my first day, I saw them in their dancing class and I would have never thought that blind people can move around with such a pace and ease. Same with computers - they are probably faster at using the PC than I am...! And I have definitely lost any fear of contact with disabled people in that time. 


In the sum, I can say that volunteering never felt like a selfless act to me. On the contrary, I benefited so much from my volunteering experiences that it felt more as if volunteering was a very selfish thing - spending time outside my own world to broaden my horizon, question my attitudes and develop understanding for others. However, I hope that I also inspired the other people on my volunteering projects. Because the actual impact had certainly little to do with the walls I painted, the vocabulary I taught or the game I played.


Comments: 11 (Discussion closed)
  • #1

    Ravi (Saturday, 14 February 2015 16:30)

    Yes indeed, it helps open up the mind to base realities.

    I look forward to what other volunteers have to say. :)

  • #2

    Lena (Saturday, 14 February 2015 20:20)

    Hey Tanja:

    lovely reflections! It was one of the key-lessons for me when I volunteered at a school in Peru for half a year at the age of 19. And more so, when I, too, went with M.A.D. to Mississippi. I believe that volunteering might be more selfish than selfless because I feel that my life was enriched much more than the impact that I have left in the lives of the so-called needy people.

    I like your idea that just because these experiences have shaped my personality I might do business in a more sustainable way and influence others with my ideas. Additionally, I hope that at least the exchange with Western people and the fact that we showed e.g. people in the ghetto in Mississippi that we cared for them although we come from far away has enriched their lives, too.

    To some it up: I still believe that volunteering is a great thing and people who have the chance to participate in any project should definitely do it - however, not for the illusion of dedicating time and money to people who apparently need our help but for the lessons you won't forget in a lifetime!

  • #3

    Tanja (Wednesday, 18 February 2015 13:41)

    Hey Lena and Ravi,

    Thanks so much for your feedback!

    Lena, I think the aspect of showing other that we care is really important. In a way, volunteers do a big job of reducing any type of prejudice. I've encountered both people who thought (white) Westerners are exploiters and others who had an overly positive, idealised picture of us. I think volunteering reduces both views.


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