The topic of volunteering can sometimes be a controversial one. Does that surprise you? There are more factors to consider than most people realize. There can be a right way and a potentially wrong way to volunteer. What? A wrong way to do good? Yep, it’s a tricky topic.
I’ll start with one of my biggest pet peeves: People often reach out to tell me they want to take a “mission trip” with us. I detest associating the term “mission trip” with this type of work, despite that it’s become commonplace when people reference humanitarian service abroad. For one, it has a religious connotation; missionaries act to spread their faith to others, or perform services that align with it. There’s a plethora of faith-based organizations that consider their ventures “mission trips” because religion plays a significant role. While I fully respect that some are motivated by their faith to do this work, that is not a goal of Therapists Without Borders. Our organization is centered on therapy and therapy only. It is an international, all-accepting group comprised of individuals from all religions and faiths, whether volunteers or patients, and we vow to keep it that way.
Religious connotations aside, the primary reason I dislike the term “mission trip” is because it suggests that a volunteer is seeking to fulfill a mission of his or her own. Ethical volunteering means that your mission should be to fulfill that of the site you are going to, not one of your own. There’s a difference between a community’s perceived needs, and those that are factually based in an assessment that involves that local community first. What do these community members need? What is their mission?
Following a personal agenda or basing your trip off of assumed needs can result in you gaining more from a volunteer experience than those at the assigned site. This calls into question the local value and long-term impact of work that you undoubtedly intended to be positive.
That brings me to my next point: Sustainability. While I truly believe that you can impact change in one day with one person, making a long-term difference is much harder, and much more important. I struggled with the therapy volunteer trips I’d taken in the past because there was no system in place to ensure that the work I did would continue after I left, nor a way to measure outcomes. This led me to create Therapists Without Borders – an organization rooted in a documentation system that all volunteers must follow, while working together with on-site, local caregivers and local therapists to enable them to continue care. It allows new visiting therapists to pick up where the last ones left off; update progress based on formulated care plans and goals; and educate and train on-site caregivers or therapists to maximize success.