I love volunteering. I love giving my time to those who need it the most. I love seeing them smile with gratitude. But I especially love how content I feel when I experience that gratitude. And then I would wonder: “Would this feeling be any different if I were to volunteer abroad?”
The answer is 100% NO! I have served in numerous communities in various states and feeling of content is always consistent; it is always unbelievably satisfying. Of course, this feeling wouldn’t change if I were to volunteer in another country. So then why do so many people, especially those who don’t volunteer much, feel the need to go serve in another country? There are plenty of communities throughout the United States that need extra support. And there are many programs through churches, schools, and universities whose goal is to serve communities in need.
Don’t get me wrong, there are great aspects of volunteering. You receive a glimpse into the lives of the less fortunate through simple observation and conversation. You give back to the community. But when volunteering, no one should get anything except feelings of contentment and accomplishment in return. Volunteering should not be about the social clout, personal gain, or resume building.
Furthermore, there is an assumption in the West that volunteering is inherently “good”. This idea is perpetuated in part, by social media. The number of “likes” someone gets on their Instagram post of them in front of an underprivileged community is absolutely NOT ethical or respectful.
Unfortunately, “likes” have become one of the foremost ways by which we evaluate our social worth; therefore, when people see posts on Instagram of someone volunteering abroad, their first reaction might be “OMG that’s so cool! You’re such a giving person!”. Well, Claire, did you exploit the community you served when you posted that picture? Did you post that picture of you surrounded by little brown or black children to boost your own social worth? Is the praise with which you will be showered in the “comments” only going to boost your ego? If your answer is yes to any of these questions, you need to re-evaluate your reasons for volunteering and check your privilege.
The other aspect of volunteering abroad is the fact that you are volunteering abroad. While volunteering in another country is a great opportunity to see phenomenal sites, there are a couple questions that need to be asked. Are you volunteering abroad strictly to see these sites? Are you volunteering abroad to experience a new and developing community? Do you think you might make derogatory or backhanded remarks (even if they seem innocent) about the communities you are serving? If your answer is yes to any of these questions, you also need to reevaluate your reasons for volunteering and check your privilege.
Now of course, of course, there are people out there who are into volunteering abroad for all the right reasons. They have been serving in their own community at home and want to take it to the next level. They want to help those who struggle to help themselves. They want to expand their cultural knowledge. They want to be more involved in these communities in the future. The United States Peace Corps is a perfect example of volunteering abroad while remaining ethically conscious in the communities. The Peace Corps sends college graduates to various countries across the world to live in and take on generational challenges with local leaders for two years. Only those who are truly motivated to change the world would likely be bold enough to make such a journey.
I would like to make it abundantly clear that I am not saying that it isn’t okay to share your community service experiences on social media. Social media is one of the most effective ways by which awareness about great volunteer programs, issues, and underserved communities is spread! However, if your posting is in any way exploitative, disrespectful, counterproductive, et cetera; reevaluate your reasons for posting that photo, check your privilege, and don’t do it again.