The Ethical Aspect of Volunteering

As great of an endeavor as volunteering is, it is not as simple as “going somewhere and doing something good for people”. Contrary to popular belief volunteering can do more harm than good if not done ethically.

The main purpose of ethical volunteering is to make sure the deed is done with the right intention and mindset. That there is an impact of value, local communities are supported (not “saved”), and progress towards long-lasting change is established.

Understanding ethical volunteering

Doing volunteering this way means understanding that it should be done in a respectful, grounded way that puts the needs of the community first and acknowledges the fact that volunteers are not “saviors” nor “experts”.

Many volunteers assume the process is more about them than about others. They take it as a chance for travelling and doing something good in the meantime. This is often combined with subconscious (or not) ego-boosting motives and desire for social media fame.

While feeling a sense of accomplishment for contributing to the development of an important project is a normal phenomenon it is important to keep it as a side-effect of the experience, not the main goal. And the same goes for travelling – it comes with volunteering as a bonus but it is working together with communities to create positive development that is the most important part of the act.

Volunteering is a process of collaboration

Ethical volunteering has several key points that distinguish it for what it is.

The most important one of them, however, is that volunteering is done in cooperation with the local communities. The experts at projects are not the volunteers – they are simply visiting to contribute where extra help is needed. The real experts are the residents of the communities who have lived there all their lives and are perfectly familiar with the situation and the most pressing issues that need taking care of.

It is also important to remember that the community is the guiding force for volunteers showing them the ins and outs of the established traditions and ways of life.

Respect is not good to have, it is compulsory

When we talk about long-term volunteering training and preparation are crucial factors that can make or break the project. This applies to many aspects as well – volunteers need to be introduced to the cultural differences they will most likely experience, prepare for the work they will have to do, and understand their role clearly.

When visiting a different country with a culture significantly divergent from the one we are used to we need to remember something imperative. We are the guests there and we need to respect the people and their traditions – we are the ones who need to adjust. Pressing our beliefs and cultural traits to others is unacceptable.

Proper preparation means even more

Familiarizing with the culture and environment of a country is just one part of the process. Volunteers also need to know what to expect from the project and be aware of what tasks they will be involved with.

This sometimes means they will need extra training to be able to conduct a specific type of work. No one should be given a job he/she is not capable of completing – this will have serious negative effects on everyone involved and can dread the safety of the people around.

In the aspect of working there is another thing that needs to be acknowledged. That is that volunteers are present at the project in order to give a helping hand in areas that need it. They should be extra careful not to undertake tasks that the local population can be paid to do. In that way, they might negatively affect the local economy and take potential workplaces unnecessarily.

A good thing to consider when enrolling as a volunteer is the attitude of the organization and the attention they put to those matters.

It should be there to last

Last but not least – why would you go and spend time and energy working on something the effect of which will disappear after you leave?

Volunteering ethically also means projects should be approached in a sustainable manner. Going there and “getting the job done” will have little to no benefit. The way to make sure something valuable is left after volunteers are gone is to conduct the project in such a way that shows people they have the potential to change their situation and achieve a lot if they have the right approach and attitude.

We are all responsible

Doing volunteering in an ethical way is not only the responsibility of volunteers themselves. Organizations have to be transparent about their values and way of work and take the liability of conducting the projects the proper way.

The way many things have been done and portrayed for years have made us consider them as normal and accepted. It is not our fault we have been brainwashed but it is up to us to put an end to it and take action to change the status quo.

A structured gap year can be just what you need.


Lindersvold is an international learning center that facilitates courses in community development and certification in non-traditional pedagogy. Our Center provides an opportunity to learn about the big issues of our time while preparing to assist community-driven projects in Zambia, Malawi or Mozambique. We believe in combining hands-on training with theoretical knowledge, alongside community living, gives students the best foundation for working with sustainable development and vulnerable youth.

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