Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Whose Volunteer Experience is this Anyway?

Crystal Hayling, a member of the Board of Directors for the Center for Effective Philanthropy, recently published an article on the Center for Effective Philanthropy's blog entitled, "Whose Volunteer Experience is this Anyway?" in which she considers who really benefits from service projects, and how much of the focus of service projects should be on "making a difference" and how much should be on personal growth.

Hayling writes:
“I love feeling that I’m making a difference, whether it is buying green products or volunteering or contributing to organizations I love. By doing these things I create a sense of community, connection, and empathy that benefits me as well as those on the other end of that support. The act of giving is mutually beneficial. But at the end of the day, it’s not only about me. Giving, volunteering, and the work done to support nonprofits becomes transformative when the goal is something much larger than just one person’s pride or fame or even self-actualization.”

This is a dichotomy that I have considered at length over the past year, as I have investigated global poverty and poverty alleviation methods, and as I prepare for my summer experience as a Nest Fellow in Guatemala. In recent years, work in international development has become increasingly “mainstream.” Celebrities like Bono and Brangelina are partnering with non-profits and NGOs, donating millions to development, and encouraging world citizens to get involved. Each year, thousands of students travel abroad to participate in cultural immersion, community service, and international internship programs – many of which involve paying hundreds – if not thousands – of dollars to a third-party organization to facilitate an experience that will not only allow the students to “give back,” but will also be fun and exciting. But who really benefits from these experiences? How beneficial is it for a group of students to travel to a developing country, complete a brief service project – lasting just weeks or months– and then spend the rest of the trip travelling, exploring or adventuring?

Certainly, my primary goal as a Nest Fellow is to facilitate positive change in the communities where I will be working, and to work with Nest in utilizing microbarter to do so. But naturally I also have personal goals, from improving my Spanish language skills to learning about microfinance to simply stepping out of my comfort zone and throw myself into a hands-on field experience in international development.

I know that my individual work – and the work of a single organization like Nest, or even a single initiative like microfinance – is not enough to “end” poverty. Thus, what I will strive to do as a Nest Fellow is to connect personally with the individuals and communities with whom I will be working, take into account their perspectives and localized contexts, and try to bring passion and humility into my work, rather than assuming an air of superiority or expertise. I am motivated by the hope that, by immersing myself into the culture and community where I am working for the entirety of the summer, I will not only be able to make a difference in the lives of those who I will be working with but I will also be able to gain experience, insight, and reflection into work in development and poverty alleviation, and will benefit from the individuals and communities whom I will be working with in the same way that they will be able to benefit from what I will be able to share with them as a Nest Fellow.

Ultimately, what most excites me about my rapidly approaching Nest Fellowship is the ability to take on a job that's not limited to a 9-5 workday, sitting behind a desk in an air-conditioned office, with a complete separation between work-life and home-life.  By living and immersing myself in the community where I will be working, I will have the incredible opportunity to constantly learn, reflect, and build upon the work that I will be doing, and to build strong relationships with people and communities with whom I will be working. This, as Hayling explains, is what makes giving back "mutually beneficial."

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