Last Updated on April 29, 2021
That’s right. I said it. I know that I should want to give back and volunteer, and yet I just can’t make myself add it to my To-Do list.
This bothers me down to my very core, but I am pretty sure it won’t change.
Why so sure? Because if I were going to volunteer, I would have by now. I have been traveling for over 2.5 years through places like Cambodia, Laos and India, not to mention I spent my early 20s living in Central America, younger and more naive than I am now.
And yet I never volunteer.
That’s not entirely true. I actually have volunteered, like when I taught English in Costa Rica to a group of local businesswomen in a small mountain town called Grecia when I was 20. I enjoyed the experience and in the end I think I got more out of it than they did, since I was in the middle of completing a BA in language teaching and this was my first experience teaching.
Although intellectually I know I should want to, I just can’t figure out why I have no urge to sign up for a few weeks somewhere.
Part of me keeps telling myself that I am at a point in my life where we are building a business and I don’t have the time to volunteer. Sure, Dani and I are free to, but we are making a go at creating something really sustainable with GlobetrotterGirls.com, and as a bootstrapping start-up that is time rich and financially poor, the only asset I have to continue to build this is my time. See – so I just caaaaan’t volunteer. Right?
On a lot of levels, that is a legitimate thought process, and I think this is one reason that the majority of people out there who could volunteer, don’t volunteer. With work, or kids, or life in general, we can all find some semi-legitimate excuse as to why we passively decide not to help others in need.
But that means that like most people, my understanding of volunteerism is that the only way to make a difference is to choose volunteering as a career path, or at least dedicate a period of my life to it.
Which is entirely untrue, and I know it.
I could easily dedicate a few weeks a year to helping a community in some way, especially because my location independence allows me to travel through just the kinds of places where people volunteer – you know (and please read sarcasm into this next part) third world countries filled with our socially constructed versions of ‘the other’, the poor other who needs our European/American assistance to survive.
One thing that has always kept me from volunteering is that I have a fundamental disagreement with many of the organizations out there which, in my eyes, patronize the groups of people they set out to help. The whole attitude of ‘let us show you how to do that’, ‘we know better’ attitude that I have heard so much about through my friends who volunteer. Because, the thing is, I have loads of friends who volunteered in their 20s and now that we are in our 30s, run NGOs and lead organizations around the world.
And don’t even get me started the concept of ‘voluntourism’, when those organizations out there make volunteers pay huge sums for the privilege of volunteering under the guise that the money goes to the community, but really just feeds back into the organization and lines pockets.
But those are weak excuses for someone who doesn’t want to do the research to locate and work with a legitimate, positive organization. I realize that now, after reading our very good friend Shannon’s recently published The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. I read it from start to finish, and to be honest, the book inspired me so much that I really, almost, really, wanted to start volunteering more.
Ugh, but I still don’t put it on my plan for 2013. Why?! I have the time, the freedom but more importantly, I have face-to-face personal experience with people around the world. I am not sheltered. I travel full time and have been living abroad my entire adult life. So what is holding me back from volunteering my time to causes I have personally experienced?
One good excuse I have managed to think up is that much of volunteering takes place in rural environments (right?), and I have a pretty huge fear of insects. I seriously freak out about spiders, plus there are those urban (or should I say rural) legends about bugs taking root inside of ear canals or giving fatal bites. The thing is, no matter how irrational that all sounds, bugs love me and feed on me like a buffet – especially mosquitos, which is why I was unlucky enough to experience Dengue Fever first hand when we traveled through Belize and Guatemala in 2010 and never, ever want to experience the ‘bone crushing’ fever again.
Okay, so I here is where I admit that I am more of an intellectual, urban type. This makes me feel like a wimpy a**hole of the grandest proportions, especially because we all know that there is plenty of volunteering to be done in cities, too. There was a good part of a year I dedicated to working on a then-budding, now massively awesome project called Spirit of Football and it felt incredible to be a part of the organization which sought to bring awareness to issues of multiculturalism and integration in the former East Germany through sport, specifically, through football. That was an amazing experience for me, and one that I regretted ending my work with when I moved to England in 2006.
I also am fully aware that I can volunteer from the comfort of my own Macbook Air, even. In fact, back in 2004-2005 (from my Dell)I also did some online volunteering writing copy for NGOs. I am fully aware that I could use skills like writing, blogging and social media to help organizations now. But when Dani and I went through our 2012 annual review and plans and goals for 2013, volunteering was not on the agenda at all, again because of the excuse that I want to focus on growing our business and also self-indulgently travel the world and have an awesome life.
I could grow my business AND volunteer, but that might take away from the time we spent doing amazing photography tours, drinking coffee in stylish cafes, hiking volcanoes. I mean, in the next six months, I am going to visit Patagonia, the salt flats of Bolivia, hike Machu Picchu, and balancing that with growing a business is already too much to have on my plate.
So whatever the excuse is, can I really live with the idea that I just don’t WANT to volunteer?
I suppose that is what almost all of us do, just live with the awareness of people, animals, entire ecosystems in need and just continue on with our own agendas.
Donations are an option, but when I think about donating money, however, it makes me think of this quote I read on Facebook the other day.
(That’s right, on Facebook, where I spent extra hours every week not volunteering. Oh, smack me, will you?)
The quote said: “You can’t tell by what I am wearing, but I have excellent fashion sense. I just can’t afford the clothes.”
I feel the same way about donating. You can’t tell by my lack of action, but I have a huge heart and would love to donate. I just don’t make enough money. Which of course isn’t entirely true either. I know that if everyone donated $10 to a cause it would completely fund it. I know that.
The problem is, I really do have a big heart, and have a genuine interest in helping people. I made the decision to quit teaching in 2006 to get a Master’s Degree under the misguided assumption that I needed to ‘grow up’, ‘jump on a career path’ and be more ‘financially secure’. At the time, it wasn’t clear to me how fulfilling it was to walk in to a group of people everyday and help them accomplish their goals, and there has been a distinct hole in my life ever since. Working entirely for myself now, that specific type of rewarding feeling is gone.
Could it be argued that I enjoy helping people, as long as it is in exchange for money? How awful.
I do not regret the decision to go in another direction, because Dani and I say to each other on almost a daily basis how incredibly happy we are. But I suppose there is an increasing awareness of how little I do for others compared to how much energy I have to give.
That’s not to say that I am not fulfilled with what I am doing now. Almost every single day we receive an email from a reader who is grateful for the advice and assistance we put out there related to travel.The connection we have with our community here feels amazing, especially knowing we built GlobetrotterGirls.com from scratch. In fact, we’ve even inspired a few people to volunteer right here.
My friend Angie runs Community Connection International in the Dominican Republic and after we did a profile on CCI in 2011, one of our readers not only went down to volunteer short term, but is leading a fundraiser to return for six months and implement a much wider-reaching program there through CCI. (You can donate to Michele’s project here).
Even just playing that role of connecting those two people and the way it will affect that area of the Dominican Republic feels fulfilling to me. And yet here I am, going on about how I don’t want to volunteer. Am I just narcissistic and over-privileged, whining about my #firstworldproblems?
I am writing this today, I suppose, for two reasons. First, I don’t know exactly how I feel but I am sure that having to defend myself from the onslaught of negative comments bound to come my way will help to clarify for me how I really feel.
But also, I want to know how other people feel about this. Do you volunteer? Does it drive you crazy that people like me don’t? And if you don’t volunteer – why not? Are you willing to go on record to say what it is that keeps you from volunteering?
Saturday 16th of February 2013
For me in my travels, the important thing is to give back - there are many ways to do this - volunteering is just one. I try to give back through my time, through my wallet, and through my heart. I consider networking - putting people who are doing great things together with other people and resources to strengthen all their efforts - a very very valuable way to give back. You are already doing that. Awareness of others' work and good causes (spreading the word) is like throwing a pebble in a pond - it creates ripples and grows. Keep up the good work!
Monday 18th of February 2013
I always really like that analogy about the ripples, Linda, it's a shame I don't think of it more often on my own. But you're really right about ripple effects of everything we do! Thanks for commenting!
Thursday 14th of February 2013
I don't think it is bad to not have the desire to volunteer. You have your purpose of running this blog. I'm sure many readers would be interested in reading your volunteer experience, but I wouldn't force yourself if your heart is not into it. As readers, I think we appreciate your honesty ;)
Also, trying to find the right program may be difficult. I'm sure you will meet many people on the road who have volunteered that will recommend programs. But to find something that fits in with your purpose may be a challenge. I wanted to know more about farming so did some WWOOFing in Japan. Unfortunately I had a terrible time. We only weeded for 2 whole weeks, 6 days a week , 6 hours a day and never got to the farming ;( Since then, I have been "traumatized" of volunteering. I guess I got an unlucky host. Since time was limited, I sorta forced myself as well.
I think when you are ready, the right opportunity will show up for you ;)
I noticed both of you guys have the same computer. Looks travel-lovable and small. What model is it?
Monday 11th of February 2013
Hi Jess, first of all, respect for your courage of tackling the TABU topic of “Why one doesn´t volunteer” and you also tackled it courageously in a personal way. Although I am on another side of the discussion, probably being able to give hundreds of reasons for volunteering, since if done properly, volunteering “workforce” can do change and support comunities, and also it is beneficial for volunteers (yes, volunteers benefit a lot from doing their jobs for free, and many times no other experience can replace it). However, I totally agree that volunteering IS NOT FOR EVERYONE. I saw one comment above mentioning the sad reality of unreliable NGOs and their projects. I can add to that businesses that charge loads for matching volunteers with the projects abroad. The volunteer work has become a global MARKET, where you can both find GOOD and BAD-DOERS. So, being cautious is highly recommended. Being a life-volunteer myself and an idealist, I have started my own NGO (funded from Chilean governmental programme) called VOFAIR.ORG (stands for VOlunteer FAIRly) that verifies and certifies good volunteer projects. I have to be honest, I am at the begining of a long and difficult path. Therefore, via this forum, I´d like to call for people who would like to help me on the mission – to bring transparency to the world of volunteering. Many thanks for this article again. It definitely broke the tabu Paulina at vofair.org
Monday 11th of February 2013
first of all, respect for your courage of tacklyng the TABU topic of "Why I don´t one volunteers" and you also tackled it courageously in a personal way. Although I am on another side of the discussion, probably being able to give hundreds of reasons for volunteering, since if done properly, volunteering "workforce" can do change and support comunities, and also it is beneficial for volunteers (yes, volunteers benefit a lot from doing their jobs for free, and many times no other experience can replace it). However, I totally agree that volunteering IS NOT FOR EVERYONE. I saw one comment above mentioning the sad reality of unreliable NGOs and their projects. I can add to that businesses that charge loads for matching volunteers with the projects abroad. The volunteer work has become a global MARKET, where you can both find GOOD and BAD-DOERS. So, being cautious is highly recommended. Being a life-volunteer myself and an idealist, I have started my own NGO (funded from Chilean governmental programme) called VOFAIR.ORG (stands for VOlunteer FAIRly) that verifies and certifies good volunteer projects. I have to be honest, I am at the begining of a long and difficult path. Therefore, via this forum, I´d like to call for people who would like to help me on the mission - to bring transparency to the world of volunteering. Many thanks for this article again. It definitely broke the tabu :)
Paulina at vofair.org
Monday 4th of February 2013
Hi, You don't need to reply to this, or post it, for that matter ... but I have been thinking about this article since you first posted it.
I tried to read it but it is just too lame. So long, so self-involved. All that is needed is to get up off your rear end and do something for someone else.
You come across as a spoiled white girl who gets to travel and lounge and write things ... and loud and clear, that you don't have much feeling for those less fortunate.
That you feel fine taking up people's time reading a long post about it just shows how your mind works. Sorry to be blunt, but my suggestion is to get up & do something or just be quiet.
Tuesday 5th of February 2013
Hi Carolyn, honestly I can't believe you're the only one to react this way! I thought there would be many more, and then I got used to so many people actually somehow supporting what I was saying. At first when I read your comment I felt pretty embarrassed because essentially, you're right. It's an assy, over-privileged thing to navel-gaze about. The question is, why talk about it? Why waste your time making you read about it and think about it and get mad about it and comment about it. And the truth is, I wrote it because in the grand scheme of things, 99.9 per cent of people are either like me or worse than me in terms of not giving a cr*p about the rest of the world. The point of the piece is to use myself as an example for a wider question about people who travel and don't ever volunteer or help out in any way. It's not about not caring about other people, that's really not the case with me at all. I was a teacher for a long time and I feel a deep sense of emptiness taking and not giving back. But that doesn't matter to you. You would prefer I don't say anything about it at all. THe thing about that is, people have sent through some really interesting emails and a couple have even been pushed over the edge to volunteer because of it. Am I taking credit for their decision? Not at all. But what's the point of having a website like this, and living these experiences, and not discussing things like this, even at the risk of coming off like a 'spoiled white girl who gets to travel and lounge and write things' if not to honestly express genuine feelings - especially when so many think the same way. If you never talk about it, nobody thinks about it and nothing changes.