Volunteering – is it always a good thing?

I’m a pretty big fan of volunteering. I truly believe that volunteers have a huge impact on societies in terms of wellbeing, community health and the economy. Free labour is of course much cheaper than paying someone under the right circumstances. That being said, over the past few years I’ve been watching a new volunteering trend that I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with:


I’m sure you’ve heard the word before and probably know people who’ve been voluntourists themselves. The stereotype of a voluntourist is a middle-class Westerner with a high level of education who pays a company to head over to a developing nation or a remote Indigenous community and help out by building a house/working in an orphanage/teaching English for a short period of time. Essentially wealthy do-gooders who want to get a more “authentic”  and feel-good experience out of their overseas holiday.

17a7338a-6733-4bd6-b75f-26ad6ec16fd5-620x372Voluntourism is summed up pretty well in this video by the campaign End Humanitarian Douchery, which aims to end irresponsible voluntourism.

Unfortunately, this idea that Westerners can always help out those in “less fortunate” nations no matter what our skills and as long as we can pay our way is not only wrong, but incredibly harmful to the very communities we are trying to help. It sees us fall back into the trap of colonial missionaries who felt it their duty to tame the savages and educate them in the ways of the civilised world, without considering the beliefs and culture of the community they were entering. In particular, by young foreigners paying to come and complete tasks such as building mud houses, they are unwittingly taking these jobs away from locals who may well be more qualified to complete them and who would benefit from the employment.

This also creates an unequal power dynamic between the volunteer and the host community, in which the volunteer has a large amount of power over the locals because the locals must be grateful for the “sacrifice” the volunteer is making for them.

Another key issue with voluntourism is the lack of checks and balances in place for volunteers with some agencies.

In Australia we place a huge emphasis on responsible volunteering, which often includes police and working with children checks and codes of conduct (including rules for social media) for volunteers. Yet, it’s pretty common to see photos of a voluntourist hugging a smiling African kid on facebook accompanied by pages of comments stating “omg soooo cute, ur such a good person!!”

If a stranger came into a preschool in Australia and starting hugging and taking photos of kids we’d probably call the cops. Why is it ok just because we’re overseas volunteering?

At the heart of the matter, I personally don’t want to be idolised by a young child in Africa, Asia or South America. And I don’t want them to idolise any other young Western guy who rides in as a two-week white knight.  I want them to look up to people from their own community, with their own values. I want them to see the fantastic things leaders in their own communities are achieving and think “I want to grow up to be like them”.

So does this all mean we can’t volunteer overseas or in remote Indigenous communities? Not at all!

But it does mean that we need to get smarter about HOW we volunteer overseas. We need to make sure that what we’re doing is good for everybody involved and not just ourselves.

To do this, End Humanitarian Douchery has compiled a checklist of 8 things to keep in mind when looking to volunteer overseas:

  1. Ensure that you won’t be taking/displacing jobs that could be valuable to the locals of the community.
  2. Assess the impact of the organization you’ll be working with
  3. Ensure goals are LOCALLY driven.
  4. Consider the sustainability of what the organization does.
  5. Question and be wary of organizations accepting un-vetted/unqualified volunteers (& and don’t let that be YOU!)
  6. Research management and transparency of the organization
  7. Consider implications of your presence in the community (and your departure)
  8. Question organizations that are spending disproportionate amounts of resources on catering to the volunteers

So volunteer away! But make sure you do it responsibly.


What are your thoughts on volunteering overseas?

Have you had any experiences with voluntourism and its positives/negatives?

– Claire.


Micro-volunteering – Become a Volunteer Hero, 16.4 minutes at a time…

(image via zazzle.co.uk)

At FedUni, as part of our Leadership and Volunteering Awards Program, each year we recognise students who are ‘Volunteer Heroes’ – those who contribute over 100 hours of volunteer work to their communities, and attend at least 3 Leadership Development workshops on campus. For many people, 100 hours seems an unachievable amount of time, especially when it has to be balanced with course requirements, paid work, family and ‘me’ time. Spread over the course of a whole year, however it works out at approximately 16.4 minutes per day, or just over quarter of an hour.

(image via action.sierraclub.org)
(image via action.sierraclub.org)

As one of my New Year’s resolutions, I’m taking on the challenge of giving 100 hours back this year, and although some of that will be taken up with projects/fundraising etc, (I’m completing the Oxfam Melbourne Trailwalker this year for example), I’m definitely going to need some activities I can fit into my lunch break. Volunteering doesn’t have to be a major commitment; here are some micro-volunteering ideas to get you started…

Online Micro-Volunteering: This is one of the major emerging volunteer trends of the past few years – several websites have popped up allowing you to ‘donate’ a small amount of time for the benefit of others. asku_logoIt could be task-based – translating a press release, proof-reading, raising awareness through your social media channels for example, or virtual – answering questions, clicking links etc, which convert to charitable donations. Here are some of the websites which allow you to volunteer at your desk, or even on your phone:


Small Acts of Kindness: ‘Do a good deed every day’ is a bit of a cliché, but it works – pick up some litter around your neighbourhood or workplace, donate some old clothing to an op-shop or donate some blood! www.volunteerguide.org/minutes has some great ideas on how to make a difference in a short amount of time.

Help a mateHelp a Mate: You might not think of it as volunteering, but helping out someone in need is important, whether you know them or not! Use your specialist skills – if you know about computers, car maintenance, or cookery, why not use it to help out a friend? Alternatively, you could offer to take their children out for the afternoon so they can enjoy some free time or even just pop round for a chat and a cake with an elderly neighbour.

These are just some of the ways in which you could make a big difference in a small amount of time. If you have any other ideas or websites to add to this list, or want to share some of the things you do to help others, please don’t be shy – comment below!

– Luke

After LeadOn: Lead on!

LeadOnOn Friday, LeadOn Ballarat announced the sad news that they are closing down at the end of the year.

LeadOn have worked tirelessly for 8 years to engage the young people of Ballarat in community-based projects, and skills development. Amongst others, they have run the L2P program, enabling young people to gain Lead-On-Logo-NEW-2008-357x250hours of supervised driving for free and several public arts projects, which not only have breathed new life into neglected spaces, but have given budding street artists a legal outlet for their creativity. They have also run film projects, built websites for community groups and developed a youth-led magazine, and much more.

The closure of LeadOn could leave a bit of a hole in youth provision in the Ballarat area. So what other organisations provide opportunities for young people to engage with their community and develop leadership skills?

Byou_LogoBYOU: Ballarat Youth, run by the City of Ballarat, has a vision “…for young people in Ballarat to be actively engaged, valued and respected citizens, realising their potential”. They run a variety of programs, including the Youth Council, Zaque (a social support group for Ballarat’s GLBTIQ youth, planning and coordinating community awareness activities) and the Urban Diversity Choir. Head to http://www.youthservicesballarat.com.au/ to see how you can get involved.

hllen logoHLLEN: Highlands Local Learning and Employment Network,
works with young people, employer, training providers and community groups to provide a range of learning opportunities for young people, aiding transition between school and the workplace. For more info, go to: http://www.highlandsllen.org

The YMCA is a great opportunity to develop leadership skills, whether through their dedicated Leadership Workshops, or through volunteering to run their after school or holiday activities. www.ballarat.ymca.org.au




Centre for Multicultural Youth provides services and advocacy for young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds. They connect with vulnerable young people, offering mentoring, sports and recreation activities and access to other local services, in order to foster better community integration. http://www.cmy.net.au/

These are just some of the awesome youth-focused community groups that we are privileged to have in Ballarat. They are always looking for motivated individuals to help them out, so get in touch! If you would like to suggest other similar groups that are not on this list, please post some details in the comments section, including a weblink!

– Luke