Tag Archives: help

J.K. Rowling speaks out against orphan tourism

This, in short, is why I will never retweet appeals that treat poor children as opportunities to enhance Westerners’ CVs. #Voluntourism

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, is no fan of voluntourism, particularly orphan tourism.

Below are screen captures of a series of Tweets she sent about this back in 2016, per someone asking her to retweet an appeal for such volunteers to “help” orphans in another country. It’s followed by the transcript of the tweets in the screen capture, and after that, there are a list of links to more information on the dangers of orphan tourism and where to find legitimate volunteering abroad programs (and how to recognize such).

And be sure to follow her via @jk_rowling:

Transcripts of tweets:

#Voluntourism is one of drivers of family break up in very poor countries. It incentivises ‘orphanages’ that are run as businesses.

The charity I have just been asked to support offers (doubtless well-intentioned) Westerners ‘volunteer experiences’ in child institutions.

One of the advantages listed for your orphanage volunteer experience is that it will give you a CV ‘distinguisher’. #voluntourism

The #voluntourism charity tells volunteers that they will be able to ‘play and interact’ with children ‘in desperate need of affection.

‘

Willingness to cling to strangers is a sign of the profound damage institutions do to children #voluntourism

Globally, poverty is the no. 1 reason that children are institutionalised. Well-intentioned Westerners supporting orphanages…

… perpetuates this highly damaging system and encourages the creation of more institutions as money magnets. #voluntourism

Never forget, 80% of institutionalised children worldwide have close family who want them back. They are not orphans. #Voluntourism

These children and these countries need social care and health systems that keep families together. #Voluntourism

This, in short, is why I will never retweet appeals that treat poor children as opportunities to enhance Westerners’ CVs. #Voluntourism

More resources:

The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science

Looks like an interesting read for those in the nonprofit sector and other mission-based organizations, and a great resource of quotes for various program and funding proposals – maybe even interviews with the press to explain why a nonprofit is doing whatever it is it is doing.

At $150, I’ll have to beg my way into an academic library in order to read it…

The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science

Edited by Emma M. Seppälä, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Stephanie L. Brown, Monica C. Worline, C. Daryl Cameron, and James R. Doty

How do we define compassion? Is it an emotional state, a motivation, a dispositional trait, or a cultivated attitude? How does it compare to altruism and empathy? Chapters in this Handbook present critical scientific evidence about compassion in numerous conceptions… and contribute importantly to understanding how we respond to others who are suffering… it explores the motivators of compassion, the effect on physiology, the co-occurrence of wellbeing, and compassion training interventions. Sectioned by thematic approaches, it pulls together basic and clinical research ranging across neurobiological, developmental, evolutionary, social, clinical, and applied areas in psychology such as business and education. In this sense, it comprises one of the first multidisciplinary and systematic approaches to examining compassion from multiple perspectives and frames of reference.

Here’s the table of contents:

Preface
James R. Doty

Part One: Introduction
Chapter 1: The Landscape of Compassion: Definitions and Scientific Approaches
Jennifer L. Goetz and Emiliana Simon-Thomas

Chapter 2: Compassion in Context: Tracing the Buddhist Roots of Secular, Compassion-Based Contemplative Programs
Brooke D. Lavelle

Chapter 3: The Empathy-Altruism Hypothesis: What and So What?
C. Daniel Batson

Chapter 4: Is Global Compassion Achievable?
Paul Ekman and Eve Ekman

Part Two: Developmental Approaches

Chapter 5: Compassion in Children
Tracy L. Spinrad and Nancy Eisenberg

Chapter 6: Parental Brain: The Crucible of Compassion
James E. Swain and S. Shaun Ho

Chapter 7: Adult Attachment and Compassion: Normative and Individual Difference Components
Mario Mikulincer and Phillip R. Shaver

Chapter 8: Compassion-Focused Parenting
James N. Kirby

Part Three: Psychophysiological and Biological Approaches

Chapter 9: The Compassionate Brain
Olga M. Klimecki and Tania Singer

Chapter 10: Two Factors that Fuel Compassion: The Oxytocin System and the Social Experience of Moral Elevation
Sarina Rodrigues Saturn
Chapter 11: The Impact of Compassion Meditation Training on the Brain and Prosocial Behavior
Helen Y. Weng, Brianna Schuyler, and Richard J. Davidson

Chapter 12: Cultural neuroscience of compassion and empathy
Joan Y. Chiao

Chapter 13: Compassionate Neurobiology and Health
Stephanie L. Brown and R. Michael Brown

Chapter 14: The Roots of Compassion: An Evolutionary and Neurobiological Perspective
C. Sue Carter, Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, and Eric C. Porges

Chapter 15: Vagal pathways: Portals to Compassion
Stephen W. Porges
Part Four: Compassion Interventions

Chapter 16: Empathy Building Interventions: A Review of Existing Work and Suggestions for Future Directions
Erika Weisz and Jamil Zaki

Chapter 17: Studies of Training Compassion: What Have We Learned, What Remains Unknown?
Alea C. Skwara, Brandon G. King, and Clifford D. Saron

Chapter 18: The Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) Program
Philippe R. Goldin and Hooria Jazaieri

Chapter 19: From Specific to General: The Biological Effects of Cognitively-Based Compassion Training
Jennifer Mascaro, Lobsang Tenzin Negi, and Charles L. Raison
Part Five: Social Psychological and Sociological Approaches

Chapter 20: Compassion Collapse: Why We Are Numb to Numbers
C. Daryl Cameron

Chapter 21: The Cultural Shaping of Compassion
Birgit Koopman-Holm and Jeanne L. Tsai

Chapter 22: Enhancing compassion: Social psychological perspectives
Paul Condon and David DeSteno

Chapter 23: Empathy, compassion, and social relationships
Mark H. Davis

Chapter 24: The Class-Compassion Gap: How Socioeconomic Factors Influence Compassion
Paul K. Piff and Jake P. Moskowitz

Chapter 25: Changes Over Time in Compassion-Related Variables in the United States
Sasha Zarins and Sara Konrath

Chapter 26: To Help or Not to Help: Goal Commitment and the Goodness of Compassion
Michael J. Poulin

Part Six: Clinical Approaches

Chapter 27: Self-Compassion and Psychological Well-being
Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer

Chapter 28: Compassion Fatigue Resilience
Charles R. Figley and Kathleen Regan Figley

Chapter 29: Compassion Fears, Blocks and Resistances: An Evolutionary Investigation
Paul Gilbert and Jennifer Mascaro

Part Seven: Applied Compassion

Chapter 30: Organizational Compassion: Manifestations Through Organizations
Kim Cameron

Chapter 31: How Leaders Shape Compassion Processes in Organizations
Monica C. Worline and Jane E. Dutton

Chapter 32: Compassion in Healthcare
Sue Shea and Christos Lionis

Chapter 33: A Call for Compassion and Care in Education: Toward a More Comprehensive ProSocial Framework for the Field
Brooke D. Lavelle, Lisa Flook, and Dara G. Ghahremani

Chapter 34: Heroism: Social Transformation Through Compassion in Action
Philip G. Zimbardo, Emma Seppälä, and Zeno Franco

Chapter 35: Social Dominance and Leadership: The mediational effect of Compassion
Daniel Martin and Yotam Heineberg

The harm of orphanage voluntourism (& wildlife voluntourism as well)

You see the posts on the subreddit regarding volunteerism, on Craigslist, on Quora, on LinkedIn groups, etc.:

Come provide care, love and attention to orphans! Help provide daily care to these orphans, help prepare meals, help watch over them, help with homework, participate in playtime activities, and be a child’s best friend in Africa… You’ll also be the shining light for the children and bring about a fresh and positive energy in the orphanage. You’ll also play the role of a friend and mentor to the children, turning them into confident individuals capable of believing in themselves. The love and attention that these children get from volunteers will uplift their spirits and put a smile on their faces.

Those are all actual statements combined from two different sites that sell volunteer trips to help orphans.

Think about it: these organizations are claiming that foreigners, who may or may not be appropriate to be around children, who may or may not have any experience working with children, who may not even speak the local language, should come interact with orphans, and that an ever-changing group of foreign volunteers, coming in for a few days or weeks at a time, can somehow transform the lives of vulnerable children. Or wildlife. The only thing those foreign volunteers need is the ability to pay all of their transportation, accommodation costs, and program fees to the trip organizer. No criminal background check, no verifiable, needed skills – just money and will.

There are so many Westerners ready to pay big bucks for these feel-good experiences and all the selfies they can take with third world children that many NGOs have popped up with fake orphanages: the children have parents, but the parents are given small fees by the NGOs for their kids to pretend to be orphans for foreigners.

Friends-International, with the backing of UNICEF, has launched this campaign to end what is known as orphanage tourism. This is from their web site:

Voluntourism can be a program that invites tourists (for a specific fee, or through an NGO directly recruiting), to volunteer at an organization. In most cases, these organizations do not require candidates to have relevant qualifications or previous work experience in social work or childcare. At worst, some organizations do not require or conduct proper background checks of volunteers before placing them in direct contact with children.

And then there is this incendiary report by South African and British academics that focuses on “orphan tourism” in southern Africa and reveals just how destructive these programs can be to local people, especially children. From the report:

The term ‘AIDS orphan tourism’, describes tourist activities consisting of short-term travel to facilities, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, that involve volunteering as caregivers for ‘AIDS orphans’. Well-to-do tourists enrol for several weeks at a time to build schools, clean and restore river banks, ring birds and other useful activities in mostly poor but exotic settings… Well-to-do tourists enrol for several weeks at a time to build schools, clean and restore river banks, ring birds and other useful activities in mostly poor but exotic settings. AIDS orphan tourism has become a niche market, contributing to the growth of the tourism industry…

As in other countries undergoing social or other changes, non-family residential group care (orphanages) in southern Africa has expanded, perversely driven by the availability of funds for such facilities, and the glamour that media personalities have brought to setting them up. However, many orphanages are not registered with welfare authorities as required by law, and most face funding uncertainties and high staff turnover, making them unstable rather than secure environments for children. Moreover, children taken in by orphanages are usually from desperately poor families rather than orphans – the case of David Banda in Malawi is a case in point.

There is also this May 16, 2016 report from The Guardian that volunteers from the west are fueling the growth of orphanages in Uganda. Voluntourism has been linked to damaging local economies and commodifying vulnerable children. It also can perpetuate harmful stereotypes about the so-called “third world”, while also promoting neo-colonialistic attitudes. There’s also this blog from a person who paid to volunteer in an orphanage, and realized just how unethical it was.

A legitimate NGO serving orphans would never solicit come-one-come-all-as-long-as-you-can-pay volunteers via a general web site like Quora. Rather, they would have a proper, detailed Terms of Reference posted to credible humanitarian recruitment sites, like ReliefWeb or DevelopEx. That post for volunteers would detail the education and experience the volunteer would need to have and details on how the volunteers’ credibility would be investigated. And for legitimate programs, not every applicant would be accepted just because they’ve got the money to pay to the program organizer; in fact, many applicants would be turned away because they lack the necessary skills.

In short: unless a program overseas is recruiting volunteers who have many years of experience working with children, certifications, references and criminal background checks, has a web site that details how its programs are evaluated to show impact of their programs, and has endorsements by well-known international organizations,  stay away from the program. And don’t be Savior Barbie.

As for supposed conservation volunteering in another country: why would legitimate wildlife sanctuaries allow untrained foreigners to work directly with wild(ish) animals for a few weeks? No credible zoo in the USA would ever do that. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee doesn’t let volunteers interact with the elephants! Before you rush off to an animal sanctuary in a foreign country, do a tremendous amount of research to make sure this is truly a sanctuary, not a place that goes out and captures baby animals so that tourists will pay to care for them and have photos with them.

Update: a voluntourism / orphan tourism company is trying to fight back via Reddit.

July 17, 2017 update: Charities and voluntourism fuelling ‘orphanage crisis’ in Haiti, says NGO. At least 30,000 children live in privately-run orphanages in Haiti, but an estimated 80% of the children living in these facilities are not actually orphaned: they have one or more living parent, and almost all have other relatives, according to the Haitian government.

Also see:

Virtual volunteering: it’s oh-so-personal

logoThe 20th anniversary of the launch of the Virtual Volunteering Project is approaching! I count it as December 1, 1996, actually, though I could be off by a few days. It was probably summertime 20 years ago that the project was funded, actually.

All that was on my mind when I read that World Pulse, a global nonprofit organization, put out a call for stories that explore the role of technology in our lives and its potential to bring positive change:

At World Pulse, we see so many signs of the good. Every day, women and men creatively embrace tech tools to solve the pressing problems facing our communities and our world. From mobile apps designed to track incidents of violence against women to crowdfunding platforms that put money in the hands of social entrepreneurs, technology is making so much possible for women everywhere.

What technologies have the most potential to make a difference in your community? Do you have a story about using communication technology to form meaningful relationships or bridge a geographical divide? Maybe you are part of a group using technology to mobilize for change.

I submitted my own story for this challenge, noting:

I’ve been researching virtual volunteering for more than 20 years now, and the biggest shock for most people that aren’t familiar with the practice and hear me talk about it at length is just how close I feel to so many of the volunteers and volunteer-involving agencies all over the world. They are my friends and colleagues, just as real as people I work with onsite, face-to-face. These are all real people with hopes and fears and challenging ideas and humor and talents. So many of these online relationships, established through email and Twitter and online communities, are so very, very personal to me.

I mean that from the bottom of my heart.

By the time I left the Virtual Volunteering Project, I had worked with  more than 300 online volunteers. I could tell you so many things about many of them: their career goals, their music tastes, what they enjoyed doing as online volunteers, what they DIDN’T enjoy, and on and on. No, I didn’t know them all that intimately – not all of them wanted to be known that intimately, and there just isn’t enough time in the day to get to know 300 people that well, online or off. At least one of my online volunteers had mental disabilities, and his doctor was one of his references; I got to talk with that doctor once on the phone, and he told me what a huge impact virtual volunteering had had on this particular volunteer. I hung up the phone and cried – I’d had no idea.

I kept working with online volunteers when I took over the UN’s Online Volunteering service, then also a part of NetAid, in February 2001, and a year later, one of the online volunteers died that I had been working with since joining the UN Volunteers program headquarters. She was very young, killed in an accident. I was shattered. We had often IM’d each other, just chatting over this and that. She’d formed a nonprofit with other online volunteers she met through volunteering online with UNV. I was also heartened that, when I sent an email to the entire UNV organization announcing her death, something any program manager did for a volunteer killed in the field, the head of the organization then, Sharon Capeling-Alakija, immediately directed her staff to write the online volunteer’s parents a letter of condolence, just as UNV does when a UN Volunteer dies.

That’s why I get so weary of explaining over and over to people new to virtual volunteering, or skeptical of the practice without reading anything about it, that this volunteering is not impersonal. As I said in an email to someone that blogged disparagingly about virtual volunteering, saying that, as a result of it, “volunteering has the potential to lose its social and community-building benefits”:

Your blog assumes onsite volunteers work in groups and have lots of interaction. This is often not the case. MANY onsite volunteers work in isolation: they arrive, they receive an orientation and training, and then spend their time alone in a room stuffing envelopes, or sorting in-kind donations, or checking inventory, or cleaning something, etc. You cannot assume that onsite volunteering automatically means lots of personal interactions.

I’ve studied virtual volunteering since the mid 1990s, and what I’ve found is just as much or as little social and community-building benefits as any other volunteering. It all depends on the culture of management: is the manager of online volunteers one who provides lots of personal interactions, or one that gives a task and then interacts only at the request of the volunteer? Whether or not any kind of volunteering has social or community-building benefits depends on the manager and the culture of the organization, not necessarily the task being done onsite or online.

Working with virtual volunteering? It’s personal. At least it is for me.

vvbooklittleThere is lots more information about what it’s like to work with online volunteers in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, available both as a traditional printed book and as a digital book. The advice is based on both extensive research of virtual volunteering practices at a variety of organizations all over the world and my own experience working with online volunteers – I’ve now worked with more than 1000, some of whom I’m still friends with online, some of whom have become friends offline as well. And if you are about to write about virtual volunteering, but you don’t want to read the guidebook, then PLEASE, at least, first read these Myths About Virtual Volunteering.

How to help Baltimore

I’ve written about how to help Nepal. So… what about Baltimore, site of so much violence, civil unrest, economic injustice, mistrust and lack of opportunity ?

Just like with Nepal, my first comment is going to be: do not go to Baltimore to help. Not yet. Not without a formal affiliation with a LOCAL nonprofit. If you want to help any of these nonprofits, FIRST, you must contact them and tell them what you want to do as a volunteer, onsite in Baltimore or online and offer references that can confirm your abilities and character. If you want to travel to Baltimore,  you need to say when you will be in Baltimore, and state that you will pay for your own transportation, housing, food and all other needs, that you are not, in any way, expecting the nonprofit to provide you any funding or support for your travel or accommodations. And you need to be ready for rejection: most of these nonprofits are completely overwhelmed and may not have the resources and funding to involve an influx of outside volunteers.

Here are some credible nonprofit organizations that are based in Baltimore and are focused on economic empowerment, helping economically disadvantaged people, and/or building stronger, more empathetic, compassionate environments.  I haven’t fully vetted them beyond knowing they exist and are appropriately registered – I haven’t typed the name of each nonprofit into Google or Bing with words like “complaint” and “fraud” and “sued,” to see if anything came up, for instance. But if I had a lot of money to give, I wouldn’t hesitate to give to each of them:

Enoch Pratt Free Library
Serves the residents of Baltimore with locations throughout the city. In addition to being a traditional lending library, it also provides accessibility services, online tutors,
Internet access, classes and events, and kids and teens services.

Community College of Baltimore County
Provide undergraduate education, workforce development, technology training, and lifelong learning/life enrichment in the Baltimore Metropolitan area.

Maryland New Directions, Inc.
Mission: To provide comphrensive career counseling, employment assistance, and post-employment support to people who are in life and career transition. Since 1973, Maryland New Directions has served over 130,000 individuals looking to become self-sustaining through employment.

Public Justice Center, Inc.
Nonprofit legal advocacy organization. We work with people and communities to confront the laws, practices, and institutions that cause injustice, poverty, and discrimination. We advocate in the courts, legislatures, and government agencies, educate the public, and build coalitions, all to advance our mission of “pursuing systemic change to build a just society.”

The Baltimore Station, Inc.
Concentrates on helping veterans that have fallen on hard times. We know that they suffer a special kind of hell, returning to society with the effects of combat (including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), often turning to drugs to silence the trauma. We know the cycle that can spin out of control, leading to poverty, estrangement and homelessness. We know what it takes to break that cycle – a highly structured environment – because most of our staff is in recovery themselves and half are veterans. Recovery is not a “quick fix” battle. It’s a long tough war.

Baltimore Cash Campaign
Connects clients to asset building resources, including financial education classes, one-on-one financial coaching, mainstream banking opportunities (instead of for-profit cash-advance and check-cashing companies), and credit counseling (debt is a major challenge to severely economically disadvantaged people), conducts marketing and outreach about the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and other relevant tax credits for low-income workers, provides free volunteer income tax assistance (VITA), and advocates for issues impacting working families

Win Family Services
Target demographics: at-risk youth and their families. Programs: treatment foster care, community mental health, therapy, and a talent development after-school program

Baltimore Humane Society
I believe with all my heart that encouraging compassion and care for animals cultivates compassion and care for humans.

St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center
Works to create and maintain equal housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income people, primarily in Baltimore City, and to encourage and support strong and diverse neighborhoods. (this was added after the blog’s original publication – thanks, Kate Bladow, for the rec)

Maryland New Directions
a non-profit dedicated to improving lives in Baltimore through employment. (this was added after the blog’s original publication)

Don’t stop there: look for nonprofits in Baltimore that are focused on giving all people access to the arts, such as dance and theatre, or that are focused on sports, or senior services, or whatever activity you think could help the people of the city. Look at Volunteer Central Baltimore and VolunteerMatch as well for nonprofits seeking volunteers in Baltimore.

It was a beautiful thing to see all of those local people in Baltimore spontaneously volunteering in their community, starting to clean up even DURING the riots. So many people, so many photos. Just go to Twitter and search for Baltimore and volunteers, and you will see what I mean. Wouldn’t it be great if all of those people, as well as those that were rioting, volunteered with even one of these nonprofits? And wouldn’t it be great if those nonprofits had the training and resources to involve that influx of volunteers?

Also see:

When ICT help goes wrong: warning for aid workers going to Nepal

Here is a comment I read on one of the many online discussion groups I follow, and I think it is really important for aid workers to keep in mind when going to developing countries to help, particularly in post-disaster situations. I’ve removed any specific identifying information, and any emphasis is mine:

One issue we’ve observed many times when doing relief work, perhaps worst in the 2004 tsunami, the 2003 conflict in the Congo, and 2010 in Haiti, is that areas with modest ICT infrastructure that was adequate to the sustainable needs of their market, are swamped by aid workers with immodest expectations. i.e. a desire to video-chat with their families every day, play WoW, and download video porn. So they all show up, and declare “repairing the Internet infrastructure” (to levels never before seen) to be their first priority. They run rough-shod over the local infrastructure operators, step on carefully-regulated or carefully-negotiated frequency allocations, etc.

I very much hope we won’t have to deal with that in this case. Nepal’s ICT environment is mature, its professionals are expert, and its community is well connected. If and when they need help, they’re perfectly capable of indicating what help they need, and anyone from the outside who believes they know better is WRONG. So, if you’re interested in helping, by all means, make your availability known to any of the many other ICT professionals in-country, but please don’t assume that you know what’s needed, or worse, that they don’t.

The Swedish-Finnish telco TeliaSonera operates in Nepal and is engaged in relief efforts, and is urging everyone in Nepal to communicate whenever possible by SMS rather than voice in order to minimize the strain of the network.

Also see: How to help Nepal

How to help Nepal

I’m already seeing these posts online:

How can I go to Nepal and help regarding the earthquake?!

Unless you have specific areas of expertise regarding post-disaster situations, speak Nepalese, and can go under the auspices of a respected non-governmental organization or your own government, DO NOT GO. And please don’t start collecting things to send to Nepal either.

When a disaster strikes, thousands of people start contacting various organizations and posting to online groups in an effort to try to volunteer onsite at the disaster site. If the disaster happens in the USA, some people jump in their cars and drive to the area.

But what most of these people don’t realize is that spontaneous volunteers without specific training and no affiliation can cause far more problems than they alleviate in a disaster situation, particularly regarding disaster locations far from their home. Consider this:

  • In many post-disaster situations, there is NO food, shelter, services or gas to spare for volunteers. Many volunteers going into the Philippines, Pakistan, Haiti, Japan, even the Gulf Coast states in the USA after Katrina or states affected by Sandy, had to be absolutely self-sustaining for many, many days, even many  weeks. No shelter or safety measures could be provided to these volunteers by the government. Those volunteers who weren’t self-sustaining created big problems and diverted attention from local people in need.
  • Just because you have some equipment does not mean you are ready to volunteer: inexperienced people have been killed using chainsaws after hurricanes and other disasters, by falling limbs and live electrical wires, during their DIY clean up efforts. Responding to these people when they get themselves into a jam takes away from the needs of local people.
  • In disaster situations, you are going to be encountering disaster victims. They are going to be stressed, maybe desperate, and maybe angry. As a trained volunteer or paid staff member working with a credible organization, you are going to know how to comfort these people and direct them to where they can get assistance, and how to convince them that you have to save this person over here instead of their relative over there. If you are untrained and unaffiliated, you may become a target of their anger, because you cannot provide them with appropriate assistance, or because you provide them with incorrect information.
  • What will you do when you are accused of stealing from someone? Of harming someone? Of making a situation worse? What do you know about local customs and cultural taboos that, if you violate them, could taint all outside volunteer efforts? Aid workers have been arrested, even killed, because of cultural missteps. Who will navigate local bureaucracies to save YOU in such situations?

I could go on and on – and I do, on this web page about how to help people affected by a huge disasterDisasters are incredibly complicated situations that require people with a very high degree of qualifications and long-term commitment, not just good will, a sense of urgency and short-term availability.

Also, more and more agencies are hiring local people, even immediately after a disaster, to clean rubble, remove dead bodies, build temporary housing, rebuild homes and essential buildings, and prepare and distribute food. Hiring local people to do these activities, rather than bringing people in from the outside, helps stabilize local people’s lives much more quickly!

If you want to help the people of Nepal, donate to CARE International’s efforts in Nepal and/or UNICEF’s efforts in Nepal and/or Save the Children’s efforts in Nepal (all of these organizations serve all people, not just children).

Here’s more about donating Things Instead of Cash or Time (In-Kind Contributions).

If you want to go abroad to help after a disaster, then here is advice on how to start pursuing the training and experience you need to be in a position to do that – it will take you about 24 months (two years) to get the minimum of what you will need to apply to volunteer for such scenarios.

Also see:

Extreme poverty is not beautiful

(a version of this blog first appeared in March 2009)

I was in a convoy heading to the Pansjir Valley in Afghanistan once upon a time, when a non-Afghan man in the back seat, a fellow aid/development worker, started talking to a colleague about how beautiful and simply the people lived in Afghanistan, how idillic it was, how it was a shame to bring them aid and development if it meant they would have to give up their beautiful, simple life.

I wanted to stop the SUV, throw him out of it, and let him see how he liked living “simply” for a few weeks.

Being poor is NOT the same as living in extreme poverty.

Dolly Parton and my grandmother grew up poor in Tennessee and Kentucky, respectively: there was no money to buy new clothes when they were children and, often, their mothers made clothes from whatever they could find (such as used potato sacks), their families had to grow most of their food, their families didn’t have a car, etc. But they were resource rich: they could grow and raise their own food, they had access to free, clean drinking water, they had access to doctors for emergency medical care (though a long walk to such), the fathers lived at home most of the time rather than having to live far away for most of the year to send money home, the families never went hungry or suffered from extreme cold, and they had access to wood for the stoves in winter. They never had to sell any of their children in order to feed the rest of the family. There was no danger of a rival tribe or religious zealots or a mafia looking for money or revenge breaking down the door and killing everyone or taking all their animals. Yes, there were hardships: many babies died in infancy, many women died in childbirth, diseases and injuries that are curable/treatable now were deadly back then, many children had to work rather than go to school, people died young compared to today, etc. But often, there was freedom and time for children to play safely around their homes. The whole family could read by the time they were teens. Talk to people who grew up like this, and they will tell you stories of hardship, but also of laughter and family and dreams.

By contrast, there’s nothing at all beautiful about extreme poverty, especially in Afghanistan. Extreme poverty means a family that has no means to grow its own food and, therefore, starves without the means to purchase food or attain food aid. It means women who die in childbirth, and babies that die in infancy, at rates that far exceed most other places on Earth. It means children sold as child brides or slaves in order to raise money to feed the rest of the family for a few weeks. It means a life expectancy of around 40. It means having no resources to build a fire or cook food — if there was food to cook. It means few people, if anyone, in the family being able to read, which means less of a chance of accessing health care and food assistance that MAY be available. It means people dying by the thousands regularly from preventable diseases. It means being a repeated victim of criminals and having no protection or justice because there’s no money for the bribes the police or the militias require. It means absolutely no way, on one’s own, to ever improve life for the family. It means no freedom, no time and no safety to play or dream or plan. It means no control over your life at all.

I’ve never forgotten that guy’s comments. And what’s sad is that I heard it again just recently in a video by someone I consider a dear friend . That there can be any confusion between living off-the-grid and living in extreme poverty is astounding to me.

Want to help combat poverty? There no better organizations than these, IMO, to donate to, and to spend your time reading their field updates:

Also see:
*Another* Afghanistan Handicraft program? Really?

For those that want to help those affected by Sandy

For all of you wanting to volunteer to help people affected by Hurricane Sandy, and all of you wanting to donate clothing, food, or other things to help those affected by Sandy, please see these two resources ASAP:

Volunteering To Help After Major Disasters

Donating Things Instead of Cash or Time (In-Kind Contributions)

Let’s give the REAL help that’s needed – or get out of the way and let those who know how to help do their jobs!

 

People with disabilities & virtual volunteering

I said it back in the 1990s, and I’ll say it again: Online volunteering / virtual volunteering can allow for the greater participation of people who might find volunteering difficult or impossible because of a disability. This in turn allows organizations to benefit from the additional talent and resources of more volunteers, and allows agencies to further diversify their volunteer talent pool.

In addition, ensuring that your volunteering program – online or onsite – is accommodating for people with disabilities will end up making your program more accessible to everyone. For instance, if you make sure your online training videos have captioning, don’t be surprised when people who have no hearing problems at all thank you, since they can mute the video and watch it at work or in a public area without disturbing people around them.

People with disabilities volunteer for the same reasons as anyone else: they want to contribute their time and energy to improving the quality of life. They want challenging, rewarding, educational service projects that address needs of a community and provide them with outlets for their enthusiasm and talents.

I was reminded of this recently when a fantastic testimonial from Alena Roberts for the Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind was recently reposted to Inclusive Planet about online volunteering / virtual volunteering.

Here are 11 people’s testimonials about how virtual volunteering allowed them to volunteer, despite their disabilities, compiled by the Virtual Volunteering Project, that remain as powerful as when they were first-published back in the late 1990s.

I told this story back in April 2009, but it’s a good time to repeat it now:

Back in the late 1990s, when I was directing the Virtual Volunteering Project, I recruited and involved online volunteers myself to support the Project, feeling that it would be inappropriate to offer advice to other organizations to involve online volunteers unless I was engaged in the practice myself. The only recruiting I did was via the Project’s web site, on a page that was purposely not easy to find; online volunteers were oh-so-easy to recruit even back then, and by making the page harder to find, I regularly received applications from candidates who I knew were actually reading my web site.

One day, an application came in from a guy I’ll call Arnie. It was clear from Arnie’s application that he was… different. His answers to questions on the application were child-like (though everything was spelled correctly), and didn’t at all sound like they were coming from a man in his 40s (he shared his age despite my not asking for it). Among other things, he said that what he wanted to do most as an online volunteer was to share images and messages from the Virgin Mary, a skill set that I didn’t really have a need for at that time… But I kept reading Arnie’s application and thinking, well, while I know this person is very likely mentally disabled based on his answers, he spells just fine and he’s REALLY enthusiastic. There’s really no reason to say no outright. I’ll put him through all of the regular online screening steps and give him a trial assignment and see what happens, just like I do with all volunteers.

Unlike most other online volunteering applicants, Arnie followed all of the directions on the online orientation immediately, to the letter, and within just a couple of hours rather than a couple of days. I don’t remember what the first assignment was that I gave him, but just as the directions in the online orientation stated, he wrote back (within probably an hour) and said that he didn’t feel he could do what was asked for, so could he please have a different assignment? I think the revised assignment I sent him was regarding a list of names of people who had given me their business cards at conferences, but back in the 1990s, many people didn’t put their email addresses and web site addresses on their cards. I asked him to use Google to find that information for me, if possible. The next day, the finished assignment was waiting for me, with profuse apologies for each person he couldn’t find online, and a request for a new assignment.

I slowly became a bit obsessed with trying to create assignments for Arnie. He could do only basic things online, like looking up information, and he needed explicit directions on how to do every task, but he was SO enthusiastic about it all. I started saving things for Arnie to do that I could have done myself in far less time than it would take him to do. For each assignment he always wrote back promptly if he thought an assignment was too difficult, or wrote back to say how happy he was at the assignment, how excited he was to do it, etc.

I think Arnie’s favorite assignment was when I asked him to visit 20 or so web sites that were supposed to be targeted at children; I was putting together a list of things online mentors and young people could do together online, and I wanted to know if these web sites were worthwhile. A paid consultant could not have provided the thorough, brutally honest assessments that Arnie did. Things like

I did not like this site at all, Miss Jayne. It was confusing! I did not know how to use it! It is a bad web site for this reason.

      or

I liked this site very much, Miss Jayne. It was fun! I showed it to my mother. She thought it was fun too.

I was starting an online mentoring program at a local elementary school in Austin, and I invited all the online volunteers I had worked with to apply to be online mentors. Arnie was probably the first applicant. At first, my reaction was: he can’t do this. I have to tell him no. But then I kept thinking about it — *why* couldn’t Arnie talk online with a 10 year old? His tone would actually be perfect for a 10 year old. They would never know each other’s real name or be able to contact each other outside the web platform we would use for online exchanges, every message he sent would be screened, just like the other mentors. Why not let him go through the whole application process and see if he makes it? So, I did.

Among the screening required was two references who could attest to the candidate’s character and communications abilities. One of Arnie’s references was his doctor. When I called for the reference check, the doctor said, “Are you the Miss Jayne?! I’ve heard about you for a year now! Arnie lives to volunteer with you! It’s changed his life!”

I’m glad I was on the phone, so he couldn’t see me crying.

Arnie survived the screening process and was a wonderful participant in the program. His emails to his student were always perfect, full of questions and enthusiastic comments, written in short, simple sentences. The only thing I ever had to do was ask him to revise an email that had a religious reference in it, not as in “I went to church this weekend and it was fun,” which would have been fine, but as in “I hope you are praying to God every day!” Arnie quickly understood why that was inappropriate once I explained it to him, and it never happened again.

After more than a year of working together, Arnie wrote to say that he would need to take a break from volunteering, because he was getting “too full of worry” when he did assignments. I wrote him after a month saying that I hoped he was doing well, and he wrote back a lengthy, somewhat rambling apology for “letting you down.” I wrote him again to say that was NOT the case at all, wrote lots of encouragement and thank yous, etc. When I didn’t hear from him after a few months, I called his doctor, just to make sure he was okay. He was, but his doctor said he probably wouldn’t be using email anymore, that it had become too overwhelming for him. Sadly, I never heard from Arnie again.

What did I learn from all this?

I became a better volunteer manager for all volunteers because of Arnie. My descriptions of all tasks for volunteers became much more detailed and explicit. I better emphasized to volunteers that the time to drop out of an assignment was right at the start, and that there will be no hard feelings for doing so before the commitment has begun. I started reserving a diversity of tasks specifically for volunteers, and for my own list of tasks, I would always ask, could volunteers help me do any of this? I tried to identify a range of very simple starter assignments, so that new volunteers would not feel overwhelmed — or, if they did, they would know that online volunteering was not for them very early on. I look very much into what a volunteer can do, not what limitations a volunteer may have. I also learned that everyone, people with disabilities and otherwise, screen themselves when it comes to assignments, and it’s rare that someone will ask to volunteer for a task they are unqualified to do.

Since Arnie, I’ve worked with other volunteers with disabilities, though often, I haven’t been aware of such, since online volunteering often masks any disabilities a person may have. I can judge people online only by their abilities, rather than their appearance, if I stick to text-only communications.

When I’m working at a nonprofit organization, I involve volunteers not to save money, not to do what I can’t pay staff to do, but rather, to involve the community in the work of my organization, to create an army of advocates for our work, and to make my work more interesting with input from many more people. I’ll continue to strive to create inclusive programs, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because, in the end, it helps me be a better contributor.

2014 update:

vvbooklittleThe influence of this experience, and many others, as well as extensive research, can be found in The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. This book, which I wrote with Susan J. Ellis, is our attempt to document all of the best practices of working with online volunteers, from the more than three decades that virtual volunteering has been happening. It’s available both in traditional print form and in digital version. If you read the book, I would so appreciate it if you could write and post a review of it on the Amazon and Barnes and Noble web sites (you can write the same review on both sites).

There’s also The Virtual Volunteering Wiki: a free resource featuring a curated list of news articles about virtual volunteering since 1996, an extensive list of examples of virtual volunteering activities, a list of myths about virtual volunteering, the history of virtual volunteering, a list of research and evaluations of virtual volunteering, a list of online mentoring programs, and links to web sites and lists of offline publications related to virtual volunteering in languages in other than English.

And there’s also our LinkedIn Group for the discussion of virtual volunteering.

Also see: Safety in virtual volunteering