Ethical Considerations for Volunteering (Part I)

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.

Continued here...


Comment on "Ethical Considerations for Volunteering (Part I)"

  1. Pamela Ruiz

    Dear Lauren,

    Yesterday I picked up your brochure at the APTA conference expo, with the idea to reach out to see how your organization may use Point of Care ultrasound, and therefore may be interested in our point of care ultrasound certificate program. Here I am, looking through your website, and I don’t think it’s the right business fit. So why am I leaving a comment? Because what you are doing, and how you are doing it, is right on. Thank you for your passion and method of care, with your focus on sustainability and ongoing care after a provider departs. It’s fantastic, and I wish you every success with your organization. Keep going!

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