Building Markets

Back to all blogs

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).

Thou Shalt Volunteer Wisely Or Risk the Holy Wrath of Chuck Heston (and various bloggers)

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:

EWB: Smart folks balancing volunteerism with impact

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.

Canadian Lawyers Abroad: Ditto

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.

Tags , , , , , ,


  1. Tom says:

    “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.”

    I openly admit that to be the case and I tell the volunteers I work with here in the US that every time I meet with them. You will get no argument from me that the benefit was almost entirely mine. That is privilege working at its’ best. I can easily claim ignorance, as that is the truth, but you are right in saying that it does not have to continue. Overall, I agree with you, but I would be hypocritical to discount the importance of my experience. As an alternative, I think there is a value in immersion programs that do not involve any doing and have a balance which does not just turn completely into slum tourism.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Scott Gilmore and Miki Noguchi, Peace Dividend Trust. Peace Dividend Trust said: Volunteers v interns PDT's @Scott_Gilmore has more to say about getting it right. […]

  3. Disclaimers: I’m cranky (at least my internet persona is), I’m not a teacher, I volunteered in 1996’s Zimbabwe, and I can’t claim ignorance since I never believed myself to be giving ‘development assistance’ but to the contrary got into heated debates with ‘well meaning volunteers’ when I said that the value of our efforts wouldn’t be of much difference had we been counting flocking birds. (and that wasn’t meant to discredit the value of our efforts – 40 old kids, 10 westerners, 25 Zimbabweans and 5 Zambians, renovating two school buildings in the bush)

    With the above in mind, I think you’re ignoring two points in your follow-up.

    1. Why is it that when two people meet only one learns from the experience? (We can always go into knock-on effects)

    2. All of your criticisms levelled against ‘voluntarism’ in your first post could easily be redirected towards ‘professionals’, and yet I haven’t seen you calling for scrapping ODA in general. After all, it takes quite a number of crummy volunteering handymen to match all the white elephants left behind by swanky professionals.

  4. I agree with many of your points, especially the idea that volunteers often gain far more than they give. That being said, I believe that there is a tipping point where both sides can benefit. We’re currently building a dorm for 40 girls to go to higher secondary school in rural Nepal. Could the community do it without our volunteer support? Sure. Could they do it without our funding? Absolutely not. I have heard the argument, then, that volunteers would be better served to send a check for $1,000 rather than spending $3,000 to volunteer for two weeks. It’s a matter of opinion but I disagree with that theory. I think that volunteers, after the life-changing experience of living in a rural area of a developing country, return as more powerful advocates for international development and social change. It’s a long-term investment.

    If we can create a mutually beneficial experience for the volunteers and community, it opens a lot of doors. It’s on us to responsibly do that.

  5. Tim Pearson says:

    Came to your blog through twitter – found you on twitter through your submission to CarneRoss. Although I have great respect for Carne Ross, I wouldn’t admit defeat in that debate. Carne had the upper hand because he was supporting the winning side….

    Anyway, that admission of defeat has lead me here and am reading through your articles which, so far, are terrific. On this subject, it is long overdue that some real passion is brought to the fore, because this is such an important issue that has been bastardised for the last 60 years – ever since the formation of the IMF etc. So many great intentions, so many failures for both the donators and the receivers.

    Contrary to many others, I actually believe that much foreign aid/assistance/volunteer work is intrusive, patronising, degrading and that western money and political structure overwhelms and destroys community and culture to find “the solution” and lead the poor dark people to the white mans light. I won’t clog up the comments section with explanations. Just to add another view to the entire process.

Rss Feed Tweeter button Facebook button Youtube button