Why I’m not Volunteering at an Orphanage (even though I really want to) – Giving U™

Cambodian_ChildrenOne of the volunteer activities I’ve been looking forward to the most is working in a Cambodian orphanage. That is, until I was brought up to speed on the current debate about the ill-effects of short-time volunteers on vulnerable groups like children. Crap.

As my friend Shawn Ahmed of www.uncultured.com kindly pointed out, many organizations are not being run in a “child-centric” way. (Not to overstate our camaraderie, we’re Facebook / Twitter “friends,” although I greatly admire his work inspiring individuals to help end poverty. Check out his excellent post on the Negative Attitudes to NGOs in Bangladesh.

I completely understand the arguments about the repercussions of unqualified volunteers harming the very communities they seek to help. This viewpoint is particularly salient as it pertains to orphanages in developing countries, which oftentimes:

  • • Don’t perform background checks on volunteers
    • Don’t require long-term (at least academic semester or academic year) commitments
    • Don’t have restrictions or rules on when and how much you can film their children

I agree, organizations with insufficient volunteer screening and preparation should not be supported nor encouraged. However some of the arguments that children are purposely kept in decrepit conditions and from being adopted to better solicit donations seem a bit extreme. But maybe I’m just naïve.

In fact, the debate that’s been heating up over the last few weeks is actually the first time I’ve heard arguments against “voluntourism.” This side of the debate holds that many NGOs and organizations are catering to voluntourists at the expense of properly helping those in need.

But I don’t know. Volunteers are important to organizations for their gifts of expertise, time, and yes – donations. In addition, people want to volunteer and in my view this philanthropic activity should be fostered.

I think the onus is on the organizations to provide program-appropriate volunteer opportunities that are also fulfilling to individuals. While the “safest” way to engage volunteers may be to keep them in the admin department filing, that often not what individuals giving up valuable time and knowledge want to contribute.

At several nonprofit organizations, I’ve overseen the management and development of robust volunteer departments and I can appreciate the balance of meeting both the volunteers’ needs as well as the organization’s needs. I just don’t think the balancing act should be so difficult. There are so many needs in running a nonprofit and it’s up to us (nonprofit professionals) to be both responsive and creative.

My position is that most people (although I’ll admit not all) seek to volunteer for the right reasons – to provide much needed assistance to nonprofit organizations doing good work. Let’s encourage these individuals in their altruism and provide them with the tools and opportunities that will benefit all sides of the equation.

For me, I’m now hunting for organizations in Southeast Asia where I can volunteer in a non-intrusive way, which probably means more environmental and community development work. Still all good and just causes to contribute my time to. But I’ll very much miss the children.

This entry was posted on Sunday, February 27th, 2011 and is filed under The Giving Guide.

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