Ethical Considerations for Volunteering (Part II)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The most ethical volunteering you can do is to help the local community sustain your work for the long haul. That makes training and educating local community members paramount to building upon your progress. In an ideal world, this might even spur job growth within the areas volunteers visit. You aren’t working in these communities to take the place of an existing job, but instead, to potentially create a new one to be filled locally. The end goal is to transition yourself out of a position, so that residents can sustain themselves. This applies to both skills and financial resources. Sometimes – sometimes – having a consistent flow of donations prevents local organizations from finding their own means of sustaining themselves, and perpetuates their reliance solely on volunteers (like us) or donors. Instead, they should be working toward policy change, awareness, and fundraising within their communities which is ultimately more sustainable.

We also must consider a multitude of cultural components: An entirely different territory that warrants its own novel. In short, these involve building trust, being respectful, eradicating expectations, and being cognizant of your role and its boundaries.

You need to be wary of only pursuing what you are trained and confident to practice. A common question arises when volunteering: Do I follow “Option A”, which is nothing, or do I embrace “Option B”, which might be work I’m not fully trained to complete appropriately. Is the latter route better than nothing? This is a really tough one. You must carefully weigh the potential benefits against the potential risks, erring on the side of caution if your lack of training could compromise someone’s success. What level of care below the standard is acceptable; albeit, helpful? When does non-intervention become the most beneficial choice?


Above all, consider the needs of a community before your own, work directly with residents, train local people to continue work, and partner with each area’s organizations to conduct necessary follow-ups. Give more than you get. And take it from me, you will get a lot – Definitely not in a material or monetary sense, but your life will change. Compounding the possibility of you getting more from a volunteer experience than those you serve, people will undoubtedly compliment your choices and journey. I’ve been told I’m “a hero,” “a blessing,” and an “inspiration.” The list goes on.



Sure, that’s nice to hear, but listen: The real heroes are local caregivers and health care professionals who work tirelessly despite the innumerable cards stacked against them. These individuals live in societies that have failed people with disabilities; those marked by crooked politics and corrupt systems. I am, in no way, “an angel”. I drink, I cuss, I drive 5 to 10 miles per hour faster than posted speed limits, I don’t call my mother as often as I should, and I can cop a major attitude during an argument with my husband. What I am, is a passionate person who identified a significant need; a chasm-sized fissure in deserved services for people who need them most. And I found a way to fill it.



My intent is not to convey a negative tone here. I merely want to shed light on the fact that volunteering – if not carefully considered – could cause more harm than good. Most importantly, I want to bring awareness to these issues and encourage you to volunteer or donate to organizations committed to countering any aforementioned, potentially negative impacts. Doing so means that you really will make a difference rather than being part of a short-term “Band-Aid” fix.


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

  1. Ellen

    I’m happy go see you acknowledge that good intentions are not enough, and that organizations that send volunteers can result in locals being put out of jobs. So hopefully your organization will consider hiring the many local Kenyan therapists who are looking for paying jobs. Some of the first class of speech- langauge therapists trained in Kenya would greatly benefit from access to jobs. And when “western” volunteers come do jobs for free, it lets the government off the hook from developing those resources. So many ethical issues to consider in this work.

  2. Natalie Gomez

    Well written! I am so thankful that you stressed the importance of putting others first, being humble, thinking of others as better than ourselves and always putting their needs before our own. I also loved how you brought to light the importance of not being a “quick fix” trip, because sadly that is the model I’ve commonly seen. Your articles made me think of concepts from the book “The Big Truck That Went By” written by Jonathan M. Katz. Good read if you haven’t already checked it out! 😉 I’m so excited to see this organization bloom, I hope to volunteer one day. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I’ll be looking forward to more posts.

  3. Bea Staley

    You might also want to read “Toxic Charity” by Robert Lupton to inform your thinking. He says, “who would fault the motivation of compassionate people to help those in need? …It is not motivation, however, that we are questioning but rather the un-intended consequences of rightly motivated efforts” (p. 11).

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