Is Volunteering Sustainable?

This article was first published in the newsletter Towards Sustainability #2, August 2020.

We could argue all day about whether volunteering is good or bad and for sure there are many sides to it. Most of the time we talk about a helpful, positive, and bright idea of volunteering, especially when talking about activities in developing countries.

But let’s begin with a question. Do you know when the term volunteering was mentioned for the first time? 

It was recorded in 1755, used for soldiers who volunteered to go to the battle, but the noun volunteer was already mentioned back in 1630 in a similar military context. During the US Civil War, it’s use changed slightly as women started to sew supplies and to give first aid on the battlefield. By 1881 ‘volunteers’ started to help in disaster relief operations, which is more how we think of it now. So, it’s not a new term, but the definition has changed over time:

‘Volunteering is generally considered an altruistic activity where an individual or group freely gives time to benefit another person, group or organization without receiving payment – for free.’

Notice that this is not the same as voluntourism, which we will come to later. In most cases volunteering is a social interaction for different reasons. A willingness to share your time without expecting benefits, quite often taking on great responsibilities as well. In modern times of social distance and alienation, social relationships and togetherness are important, and volunteering can provide them.

There are many benefits that come together with volunteering. Connections with communities, making them better places to live, networking, friendships, skill development, a better understanding, generosity, and many others. The possibility to make changes together is higher than alone.

There are a wide range of ways to volunteer. Some activities are for one concrete project for example a tree planting day, some can last all of your life, as long as you want or agree. Examples might be: Community service programs, skills based volunteering, social, welfare, educational, sports or cultural events, environmental or development projects. 

You don’t need to travel to the other side of the world to become a volunteer, just look around you. I love the saying ‘think globally, act locally’. Whether you live in the richest or poorest country on earth, support will always be needed for the elderly, kids centers, community activities. Nowadays there are probably no big events which don’t involve volunteers. It saves costs and resources and involves people who are truly interested in action. 

On the other hand volunteering is not always just positive. Sometimes there are great challenges and problems. For example some organisations rely on volunteers, but if they don’t take personal responsibility it might endanger an event or person in need. Another problem might be that volunteers are used for activities they are not trained for or allowed to do, or just used without consideration generally, as free manpower.

In addition, sometimes volunteers are left on their own, without communication or management and expected to achieve great goals. Then there is the issue of reliability and stability of ongoing projects and actions, constantly changing volunteers means the stop and start of activities. 

Getting back to the article title, is volunteering sustainable?

I would say yes with some ifs. Of course this is a wide discussion, and experiences will be different in different volunteer programs and roles, but I will try to put my points together shortly.

Firstly, volunteering is not just about you, and sustainable volunteering is a great responsibility and commitment of giving something to a community without leaving a destructive footprint. 

Secondly, sustainable volunteering is possible if there is respect for a group, community, and traditions without being judgmental. It is not a problem to ask if you need to understand better. 

Thirdly, volunteering and voluntourism quite often have different intentions. It’s much better to focus on either volunteering activities or being a tourist, mixing them often means that neither gets done so well. Before signing up for a program, check the intentions of the organisation and how serious they are about it. 

Additionally, how much time you can spare is really important, especially in development volunteering programs. To achieve real results takes time. For example if you start to teach English and leave halfway through a course or term, with nobody to continue afer you, it’s almost the same as never starting. 

There is a real need for continuation and stability, so long term programs will always be more beneficial. It’s also worth thinking about the environmental sustainability of flying halfway around the world and back to volunteer at something for just a few weeks or months. 

And before choosing where to volunteer or what it is that you could be useful doing, it is important to educate yourself and make sure that you are a good fit, for both you and the project. Then be sure that you want to commit and share your time, skills, knowledge,and ideas! 

Last but definitely not least, the values and expectations of volunteers and organisations should fit together and they should all be aiming for the same goals. 

“The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.”

Oscar Wilde

Leave a comment