Two years ago I was in Lima, Peru, enjoying the last days of one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life. For 3 months I volunteered as a photojournalist for the American non-profit Krochet Kids intl.
A personal story
I’ve always wanted to volunteer but I never knew where to start. Frustration pretty much summed up my searching endeavours. I either thought I didn’t have the adequate background to apply, or the opportunity seemed of low-impact, even impact-less, or the volunteer programme appeared to be poorly structured or unreliable. I have to admit that my standards were reasonably high, specially after having taken this course where I learned about poor economics and impact measurement and evaluation. As in anything in life, the last thing I wanted was to spend time and money in something that was going to add little if any value to my life and the life of others.
I wish I could reveal to you the hidden path to finding the perfect volunteer programme but unfortunately that’s not how it worked out for me. I came across the opportunity to volunteer with Krochet Kids Intl. completely by chance. A long story short, I saw on their Facebook page they were accepting applications for photographers to go to Uganda, Peru and California on an internship/volunteering basis, decided to apply, and was accepted. Since today is the International Volunteer Day, I just want to talk about volunteering but you can still read about my experience here.
At this point, I feel that it makes sense to share my favourite definition of what is volunteering:
It also makes sense to point out that, according with the Manual on the Measurement of Volunteer Work, issued by the International Labour Organisation, if you work for a company that provides incentives such as paid time off to volunteer, that doesn’t count as volunteering since there’s some kind of payment (in this case time-related) going on. Likewise, your own household tasks or acts of kindness and support towards your family are not considered to be volunteer work. Nonetheless, the reason that made me write this post is more of a qualitative nature than a quantitative one, and as the same manual points out “As with other forms of philanthropy, the rewards for individuals who volunteer are not monetary but rather social and psychological”.
The bitter-sweetness in volunteering
As I mentioned, in my own search for a volunteering opportunity I faced mainly two obstacles: lack of experience on my side and apparent poor organisation or appeal on the other side. Unfortunately, there are many other motives discouraging people from volunteering. Those could be lack of time, means of transportation and family support, and these are all common obstacles that follow from the lifestyle of many people nowadays. On a psychological view, many people may feel intimidated for doing something new with people they don't know, may wonder if they will be welcomed or how will they make a difference. They could have had a previous bad experience or no reply from an attempt to volunteer. All this has happened to me and I'm sure to many others.
In addition people who want to volunteer feel like they have something beautiful to offer that can change for the best the life of others and create a positive impact to the causes they believe in. Well, many times this feeling is hard to match with the reality. Many times you have the perfect vision of what you think others need and more often than we would like to admit, it simply doesn't work. Or to put it better, it does´t meet our expectations. So, in my opinion, and as far as any kind of volunteering goes, you should keep an open mind and most of all an open heart.
Some random inspiration
When you're able to accept all that volunteering involves, the good and the bad, it is one of the most rewarding and life-changing experiences you can have. It made me more humble and vulnerable than anything else. It made grow as a human being, it made me more empathetic, kind, calm, resourceful, aware. It expanded my view of the world.
If you want a bit more inspiration or need a little push, here are a few suggestions:
- Listen to the episode of the TED Radio Hour Haves And Have-Nots, about the world's inequalities;
- Let Dame Claire Bertschinger's interview for the amazing BBC radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs inspire you;
- Read this article from the New Yorker magazine;
- Check-out the United Nations Online volunteering opportunities;
- If you're in Portugal and love nature, why not give a hand to the organisation Plantar uma Árvore; they have frequent reforesting and conservation initiatives in and around Lisbon;
- If you want to take volunteering to a different level you can try Experteering with Moving Worlds, a social impact organisation that matches your talent with other social impact organisations.
I truly believe that volunteering is a powerful action and it should be a part of our lives, just as our family, our friends, our hobbies and our jobs.