Why can’t I volunteer around here?

Vung Tau

The challenges of free labour in Vietnam

If your social life currently revolves around food and drinks (raise your hands) and you’re looking to shake it up a bit, your thoughts might turn to volunteering. Or perhaps you’re a visitor wanting a different overseas experience. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

No one would dream of rocking up to a bank, marching in and announcing they were there to help. Yet you’d be surprised how often this happens at nonprofits. While NGOs are yes, chronically understaffed and yes, grossly under-resourced, they too are working professionals with bosses to answer to and staff to manage. Did you contact the nonprofit ahead of time or did you send an email saying you’d be in the city for three days starting tomorrow and you were looking to “do something”? Did you send a resume and and an outline of a modest project that you yourself could complete (beginning, middle and end) with little supervision (remember, there’s hardly any staff) that actually fits their mission? Do you even know what their mission is or were you just charmed by the pictures of the cute kids on their website?

For example, INGOs in Vietnam must obtain local authority permission before foreigners can go to field projects and this can take months. Mandatory criminal record checks and/or child protection screening also take time. My favourite story of the would-be volunteer is the one who turned up unannounced one morning and since he was a beach-attired foreigner, I was the one pulled out of the weekly team meeting to answer his questions. As I explained how I couldn’t accommodate him immediately (he had this week to spare); acquiring field-work permissions (since he didn’t want any “office work”) and how some nonprofits need to charge volunteers to participate in certain activities, he became increasingly angry, finally cutting me off at my “but here’s what I can do for you” spiel because nonprofits typically try not to alienate people, and yelled at me for “wasting” his time and perhaps I was too “stupid” to realize what a gift I was turning down.

It would seem to me that he approached volunteering incorrectly. His is the neocolonial approach and it announces, “Behold, I am here and I will save/help/teach you because I have good intentions and now when do I start?” I absolutely do want you to meet new people, gain experience, build your skills and network in a different culture, but don’t volunteer for the wrong reasons. It’s not about you and what an asset you are (neocolonial approach). It’s about thoughtfully probing the needs of an organization and helping it deliver its mission with limited resources (yup, non-neocolonial approach).

Give some real thought to what you want to do, for how long and for whom. Reflect on why you want to do this and your motives (bragging rights won’t cut it). Nonprofits adore collaborative approaches. Perhaps that guy in the swim trunks with the sombrero tied at his neck will do that too.


This article originally appeared in The Word Vietnam August 2013.

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