On our decision to volunteer

You’ll notice a change on this blog in the next few weeks. Though there will be some travel interludes, for the most part we’re swapping paragliding and pretty colonial towns for volunteering with Fundacion Mariposas Amarillas (The Yellow Butterfly Foundation) in Santa Marta. Mariposas is a local, grass roots organisation that provides basic education for kids who would otherwise go undereducated.

There’s a lot written about the usefulness and ethics of volunteering overseas. There’s a significant discussion about whether it’s useful for development and global welfare, or mostly about giving the privileged few who get to travel another experience that they want (and are often prepared to pay for).

We’ve both had some exposure to this debate so we wanted to take this chance to set out our thinking about our decision to volunteer.

Volunteering mixes personal and global benefits

There are a wide range of things we could do with our time. Each creates a different combination of benefits for us personally, and for the community. If the community you’re wanting to help is a global community – and that’s certainly the case for us –  you can probably plot the activities on a continuum. Depending on your perspective at the community benefit end of the continuum might be:

  • Staying working in New Zealand, or seeking the highest paid work we could, and then donating a larger part of our salary to international development work, or
  • Working for a government or non-government agency to try and influence  policy that frames development (and still donating lots of our salaries).

And at the personal benefit end of the continuum might be:

  • Indefinite airplane spotting while overindulging in stolen but authentic Italian pizza (Joe).
  • Reading in a hammock with a selection of juices, being fanned by slave children (Fiona).

The reason for setting this out is to acknowledge that volunteering for Mariposas falls somewhere between the two ends of the continuum. We’re probably not undertaking the activity that will generate the most good for humanity. We’re not complete saints.

But neither are we doing something just for ourselves. Importantly, we think we’re likely to be making a meaningful contribution that is a greater service to our community than travel alone. And arguably more useful than the work we might have been doing at home.

Narrowing our choices

It’s also true that the mix of personal and community benefits largely defined the volunteer experience we choose:

  • Location – We wanted to be somewhere were Fi could speak Spanish, and Joe could learn. So, apologies Sub-Saharan Africa, but Latin America was basically going to be it. From there, google searching found an organisation that seemed to fit.
  • Duration – We weren’t convinced we’d be much use if we only volunteered for a week or two. It seemed like a few months would be more likely to provide genuine benefit to others.
  • Money: we didn’t want to pay much (and here we’ll pay a small admin fee). We like to be independent when we travel so would prefer to organise things for ourselves rather than pay an organisation to do it for us. And programmes where organisations’ primary interest is in your money, not your time, seem more susceptible to the unintended consequences we outline below.
  • Capability – We were worried about what we would actually do, and whether we could do it. We considered a programme in Medellin, Colombia, which looked after severely disadvantaged youth who were victims of abuse. But we weren’t convinced we had the skills to do this work. Not this time anyway. Instead we’ll be teaching in schools for kids that aren’t in full time care.

What of unintended consequences?

So far we’ve got a volunteering experience that seems to meet our needs, and still makes a meaningful contribution for others. But most volunteers would probably say that of their plans, and they doesn’t always come to pass. Sometimes there are unintended consequences and we considered these.

Creating a market for volunteering

When tourists’ demand for volunteering increases, so does the supply of volunteer opportunities (just as for, say, skydiving). The problem is, while there is an almost limitless amount of sky in which to skydive, there is only a limited real need for volunteers. Best case scenario you’re doing volunteer work that isn’t really needed. Worst case, you may actually be creating a demand for destitution. See these harrowing examples of ‘orphans’ being bought from impoverished parents so volunteers can tend to them in Cambodian orphanages.

Our understanding is that the students we teach at Mariposas will only be receiving education from the foundation. They’d go without if it didn’t exist because their families can’t afford other schooling. So there is a genuine need that we’re meeting, not creating.

Absolving government of responsibility

When a need is being taken care of by volunteers for charity organisations the need for government to provide is diluted. This is similar to the situation at home where hospices that are highly successful fundraisers receive less government funding than they otherwise might. As a consequence the problems communities face don’t get government attention. And the hospices, or charity schools, in different areas, might provide different levels of service depending on their communities’ ability to support them (or their ability to attract international volunteers).

We’re interested to learn more about exactly what is stopping the children Mariposas serves from accessing government services. It isn’t entirely clear at this point. From what we understand, it isn’t clear that the government here feels responsibility to provide for all communities equally anyway. And, when faced with an immediate need, it would seem tough to forgo a chance to help a community which needs support because it might decrease the chance of government getting on board.

Displacing local jobs

A classic criticism of volunteering is that it removes paid employment opportunities for local workers. Travelers swoop in and provide their labour at no cost (or pay for the pleasure) making low cost local labour less attractive.

With Mariposas there are two local staff who are paid something. The foundation can’t afford to pay others so volunteers are what there is.

Poorer quality of services

There’s a concern that services provided by volunteers will be sub-optimal because they’re not trained, the service they provide is inconsistent, and they might prioritise the stuff that is easy and more fun. So volunteer teachers might offer lots of ‘hangman’ but less long division. And then the next batch of volunteers starting the next month might go back to the two times table so nobody ever gets to the sevens.

This is  a concern with Mariposas and we’ll be interested to see what, if anything, is done to guard against these problems. The reality is though, it isn’t a choice between volunteer teachers or professional teachers. It is a choice between volunteers or nothing.


So, hopefully you can see this is something we’ve considered in some detail. And it’s important to us to up front about the way we think about it. Our best assessment is that the work we do here will be good for us, but also good for others. We’d be interested in discussing your thoughts. And we’ll let you know how we get on and whether our views change.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *