Volunteers vs Interns – Getting it Right
When I posted my spittle flecked rant last week, I expected that the reaction would be negative. After all, volunteering is a sacrosanct element in our concept of charity (it even gets a shout out in the bible.) But the tweets, comments, and emails were all very supportive except for some cranky teachers (but frankly, in my experience, there is no other kind of teacher).
There was one point raised a few times, though, that bears addressing. Tom from the great A View From The Cave blog puts his finger on it when he makes the counterpoint: “I learned a lot in the experience and it has provided me with a much stronger understanding.” I’m sure this is true. Tom’s current constructive contribution to improving aid is directly a result of this. I get it. But then let’s make that clear from the beginning, that volunteer experience was more an internship for him and training for him. That was the reason he went. That was the value. The flow of benefit was to him, not from him. This is fine, and useful. Let’s just be honest about it.
Which brings me to the important clarification I should have included, which is that there is an important value in volunteering as training for the volunteer.
I am actually a latecomer to this and some very smart people have been thinking and debating the problem for a long time. One group in particular that deserves plaudits for their contribution to the issue is Engineers Without Borders. The founders Parker Mitchell and George Roter have often grappled with the problem that while sending volunteer engineering students overseas is critical for turning them into responsible global citizens, it can’t be done at the cost of creating an ineffective mess overseas. They are explicit about this, and in their work to refine EWB’s volunteering programs, they have actually led the industry on important innovations like the recently celebrated Failure Report phenomena.
George put it best himself in the comment section of last week’s blog:
In EWB we’ve been debating the value we bring since our early days, with many moments of “let’s just stop sending people.” This has led to a considerable evolution in how we operate, with the result that the ‘volunteers’ we hire are called African Program Staff and treated as such, and they have progression opportunities as standard staff would.
We had a good online discussion a few years ago spurred by Illich’s speech that I thought would be relevant: http://my.ewb.ca/posts/17216/
Another example that I like is the charity Canadian Lawyers Abroad (disclaimer: coincidentally c0-founded by my wife Catherine McKenna). They have a student internship program that sends law students overseas to assist legal clinics, human rights and development organizations. They, too, are aware of the limits of this model and are careful to tailor their programs in such a way that the students bring real value that would not otherwise be available locally. And they are also upfront about it being an internship program, not a volunteer program. It’s right there in the title. The program is about the interns, about getting them trained. It’s not about the kids.
There are a couple other points from the comments section of last week’s post which are worth noting:
- Ned Breslin, the CEO of the great charity Water for People, makes a good point, that volunteers are often expensive because there work actually creates problems. As he says “Truth is we spend an enormous amount of time fixing failed projects done by well meaning volunteers”.
- Shava Nerad argued there is a benefit if you send “volunteer trainers to teach people to train, organizers to teach people to organize”. I agree in theory, but for all the same reasons listed above, wouldn’t a paid professional trainer do a better job at this?
So, yes, it’s complicated. But I’m still scoring volunteers as the losers in this match.