Volunteering Questions

I’ve just spent some time independently volunteering abroad – 18 months in India and 12 months in Sri Lanka. I constantly wrestled with questions such as

  • am I doing more harm than good?
  • am I encouraging unhealthy dependency?
  • am I taking away someone else’s employment?
  • am I adding anything of value?
  • could someone local do this better?
  • who am I doing this for?
  • how much of this is selfishness?
  • am I a liability?
  • could I be doing this more effectively? Like staying at home, working and sending money?
  • am I just doing this to escape? What from?
  • are there hidden agendas with these organisations?
  • do I have a hidden agenda?
  • who do I trust?
  • what about the environmental impact of flights?
  • why do I feel I have to come here when there are problems enough at home?

I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I’m not sure I have any.

I certainly didn’t do it in for the glamour, for my CV, proselytising (religious or otherwise) or to travel. My simple motivation was to ‘do good,’ but it’s never quite that simple, nor is it enough.



  1. seburnt

    I can imagine the philosophical turmoil such an endeavour might cause. One question that comes to mind for me is how one affords to volunteer anywhere for 30 months.

    • clivesir

      Hi Tyson, Thank you for dropping by and leaving a comment!
      That one is relatively easy to answer: from savings and from not living extravagantly. I budgeted £5000 a year: £1000 for two return flights to UK, £1000 for expenses for the brief time in the UK and £3000 for living expenses in India. Sri Lanka was a bit more costly so £3,500pa for expenses. (Multiply by 10/6 for Canadian or US dollars, x 10/9 for Euro approx.) That was my budget and I came in under it. I didn’t do much sightseeing or touristy things – I was there for a purpose and actually I got huge pleasure from staying put and appreciating the things around me! I suppose it’s just personal priorities.

      • seburnt

        You’re more disciplined than me, I’m sure! I don’t think I could ever follow through with such a budgeted plan. You’re right. Priorities obviously dictate what you’re able to do. I applaud you.

        Have you come to any definitive conclusions about your more philosophical doubts?

  2. Cathy Beach

    I can so relate, Clive. My deepest question and concern… It would cost so much money for me to travel to Africa from Canada to simply visit the “foster” children and their families that I support in 4 Eastern African countries . Even if I volunteered while I was there, the money it would cost me could make so much difference, and could even save the lives of so many people. Who, what, why — don’t I use it for that instead? What is volunteering when the money spent could save lives instead? I don’t retire, I don’t go and volunteer, I continue to support the families of these children instead. No answers. Yet.

    • clivesir

      You hit the nail on the head there, Cathy. It’s not easy. But I do believe that if you are a self-starter and bring special skills to the mix then you can still add value. You need to answer why the desire to visit/help in the community you are already sponsoring. Do they really need you? I think it would be worth you exploring CUSO-VSO and VSO. And remember that there is always a lot you can do in your local community.

      Keep searching for those answers – I’m sure you’ll find them 🙂

  3. RuthHoward (@RuthHoward)

    Hi Clive I appreciate your self inquiry and without having your experience at all myself I find your questions prompt in me a desire to share from another series of questions. These questions are designed by Byron Katie. She calls them The Work, perhaps you’ve come across it? They pinpoint my beliefs and flip them (Turnarounds) so that I’m free from living them unconsciously and that basically means my unconsciousness doesnt bite me in the rear when I practice this inquiry process. What happens for me on a palpable level is that I drop out of my head mind (I wander around identifying with my head!) and drop effortlessly into my heart mind. It’s quite a different perspective. http://www.thework.com

    So the underlying beliefs that lead to these thoughts I’d only inquire any that were actually stressful and I completely get that none of them maybe! So in that case take my comment with a pinch of salt. But what comes up for me from reading the above is a belief in the possibility that you could harm others and for me that would be a ‘core belief’ from which others stem. I would ask then…”I can harm others”
    1.Is it true you could harm others?
    2.Can you really know it’s true? (Can you know more than those others/God/the Universal order of things? Just a yes/No answer
    3.How do you react when you believe this thought? (how do you treat the people you help in this context? How do you treat yourself?) Even if only in your mind.
    Close your eyes, drop into your heart and feel- 4.Who would you be without this thought? This belief that you could harm others?
    Just wait for the answer without knowing. Who are you sitting here right now and it would never occur to you to believe that thought?
    5.Turn the thought around to the direct opposite?
    “I cannot harm others” could that be just as true or truer? Give me 3 examples?
    Another opposite here could be what’s the opposite of ‘harm’ for you. I can help others, gift others, heal others use that instead. Give 3 examples if possible.
    Turnaround to the self ” I can harm myself” could that be just as true or truer?
    Give examples, I can think of one-especially when I think I can harm others I can harm myself with that thought. Popping in I can heal myself/help myself as another turnaround can come in here too, examples.
    A final turnaround can be to the ‘other’
    “Others can help me” Just as true? Give examples.
    6.The final Turnaround is just a simple statement “I am willing to think that I can harm others and I look forward to think thast I can harm others” Because its likely that you will have that thought again. Its reality its what we do! If there’s a big resistance to the statement by the end then there’s the next belief that “yeah but” at the end…

    Byron Katie’s Work is a type of active meditation that sit alongside any religious beliefs or non religious beliefs.

    • clivesir

      Hi Ruth,
      Thank you for dropping by and offering your perspective on things. No, I haven’t encountered any of Byron Katie’s work but it seems she’s quite popular in certain circles.

      My questions are ones every volunteer should ask him/herself, they’re not ones that have caused me any particular psychological issues as far as I know. They’re ones I asked myself before setting out, asked while volunteering and continue to ask. I think it’s healthy to keep them in mind, to do your best to address and answer, even if the answers can never be absolute.

      For me and for the people I was working with I believe the overall outcome was a positive one. It’s why I hope to do more in the future, having learnt from my experiences during my time in Asia and I’m planning on doing better next time.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • RuthHoward (@RuthHoward)

        Hi Clive thanks for prompt response somehow I hadnt got the subscription to your blog comments, yes I suspected as much! And I do find that this meditative inquiry can sit alongside and expand further any intellectual inquiry. I hear you tho! And I have no experience such as yours to compare. I hear you extending yourself at every turn and I guess thats how I use The Work. Im confined to be a householder with a child after many years travelling! It’s different and the inquiry helps me appreciate the ballast of being a homebody rather than roving and itinerant with a pulse on the serendipitous. My practice is to find that expansive openness to possibilities that travel brings in this moment and wherever I am and to offer that to my child too. But as you appreciate it’s the child who offers it to me!

        The gifts that are given to the volunteer are rich pickings! Who benefits? who is the one in need? It’s the same with parenting, especially solo parenting. Who is the one growing up?And I suspect it’s the same with being a teacher. Who’s learning from whom? We think we are travelling towards this inevitable self empowered intellectually coherent destination only to discover um I really dont know!

        And I have yet to learn how to ask questions regularly let alone the right questions. The drive to seek answers rather than questions is such a compulsive habit, a legacy of my own schooling.

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