Volunteers: The good, the bad and the ugly

P1000411Research student Teresa Moore describes how staff at a slum foundation in Bangkok regard volunteering: 

This article will summarise the main findings of a dissertation on the impact of the volunteer programme at a slum foundation in Bangkok, as measured through the eyes of the local staff, an under-represented and much-needed voice in literature surrounding the volunteering sector.

The road to this research:

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge how I came to choose this area of study. Just over ten years ago I spent four months working as a volunteer teacher at the very foundation on which this research is based. I had the very specific role of preparing a young teenager to undergo a scholarship overseas, by teaching him English. Alongside that, I organised a fundraiser for the foundation and helped the younger children with their homework, played with them and took on the role of big sister in general. While I was working at the foundation other volunteers came and went, usually in groups and for short periods of time lasting 2-3 weeks. I managed to get an insight into how these comings and goings impacted on the foundation from talking to the director and staff, as well as my own observations.

While the children enjoyed the novelty of having new people to play with, and the volunteers themselves enjoyed the experience, there were many problems, ranging from staff feeling stressed about finding things for the volunteers to do to having to take care of the volunteers, many of whom were still teenagers! I recall conversations about volunteers dressing inappropriately and failing to do what they had promised. But perhaps more frustrating than anything was the fact that these groups of teenagers paid an intermediary company huge sums of money to be placed in a slum foundation with vulnerable children, which was blatant “exploitation of the poor”, in the words of the director- especially when the foundation received absolutely no monetary contribution from that same company! The good intentions of these volunteers were completely misplaced. There had to be something fundamentally wrong about that model of volunteering.

Fast forward ten years and volunteering overseas is more popular than ever, a booming business built on the back of good intentions. But is it really helping poor communities or do they even have a voice in the debate?

While early academic literature painted the impacts of volunteers in a positive light, they failed to include the perspective of host communities. More recently, criticism has grown about the possible negative impacts of current models of volunteering, reflecting the doubts raised back when I myself was a volunteer. But if we were to shun volunteering completely would it be a case of ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’?

Who could really say if there were any benefits to be had from running a volunteer programme? Certainly not the profit-making sector, or even the volunteers themselves. I negotiated with the director of that same foundation where I worked and it was agreed that I could return to formally research the impact of the volunteer programme there. With a 30 year history of “accepting and rejecting volunteers” (Director), the opportunity to see volunteers through the eyes of staff at such a foundation and give them a platform to be heard would provide a contribution to this debate more valuable than any volunteer or sending organisation could make.

The findings:

The findings of this research were based on interviews which took place with all staff departments at the foundation- administration staff, teaching staff and carer staff, alongside the volunteer co-ordinator and director.

The recruitment of volunteers…

In terms of recruitment, some key changes have been made to the volunteer programme since I worked at the foundation. These days the needs of the foundation are given precedence over the desires of volunteers. The foundation has become more particular about who they accept and anyone wishing to volunteer must have a useful skill to offer. Enthusiasm alone is not enough! The foundation now has a volunteer co-ordinator, which has enhanced the volunteer programme by making it more organised. In addition, the foundation does not utilise any third party in recruiting volunteers. Potential volunteers contact the foundation directly and the foundation has full control over the recruitment process. Because of this, they can really cater to the needs of the children and community. Volunteers are not recruited exclusively from overseas, nor are they exclusively western. Mature volunteers are preferred, as are those who can commit to a few months rather than a few weeks, because stability is important for the children, especially considering their circumstances. The only exception here would be if someone has a specific skill to offer. For example, during the research a photographer ran a course with a group of children for a week, where she provided a digital camera for each child and they learned how to take photos that captured life in the slum community.

The good…

Plenty examples of positive impacts were evident in the findings, but importantly, these impacts came mostly from skilled, long-term volunteers and mature volunteers, rather than the typical gap-year student or short-term volunteer. Many benefits centred on educational outcomes, particularly in the teaching of English and the Arts. Some instances of volunteers acting as positive role models were given also. The best type of volunteers were described as ‘task masters’, meaning those who could start something new and see it through, who could use their own initiative rather than sit around waiting to be told what to do.

The bad…

One of the most prominent findings was the increased workload for staff as a result of facilitating volunteers, cited by quarter of the administration staff, over half of the carer staff and one third of the teachers. Examples included disrupted schedules and having to re-do tasks which volunteers did incorrectly. Also, there were problems of volunteers judging situations in an over-simplified way through their own value systems, rather than taking into account the value system of the local community. Examples of volunteers not preparing lessons properly or not taking their role seriously were given. This tended to be more prominent with young volunteers, some of whom were criticised in the findings for not actually being able to teach.

A less well-known issue that presented itself was something called the “Demonstration effect” (Guttentag, 2009). This refers to the unintentional impact of volunteers where by simply being in a community they exemplify a way of life through their sense of dress, possessions and attitudes. Teenagers and children are particularly affected by this, as they may want to emulate what they see as a desirable lifestyle. However, while the coverage of this issue in the literature has material roots, the findings of the research showed that the demonstration effect was present in a different way- the longing for a stable family life that visiting volunteers were seen to have, with parents to look after them and provide for them, as opposed to the life of an orphan in the slums. There were also findings which indicated unequal power relations between the host community and volunteers, with some staff unwilling to criticise volunteers or report misconduct.

The ugly…

There were some reports of gross misconduct of volunteers in terms of child protection issues, the uploading of a video on social media with the title “HIV children” being just one example. Attitude problems were cited, with evidence given of one volunteer who frequently swore and complained about aspects of their stay in front of the children. Some volunteers acted as if it was their right to be there and that the foundation should be grateful for their presence before they had even done anything constructive! The problem of dressing in skimpy clothes was cited by one fifth of respondents, a total disregard for the cultural norms of the community.


It is clear from the findings that this foundation is now implementing a ‘less is more’ approach, whereby quality over quantity has become a priority. Fewer volunteers are recruited, directly by the foundation. They have a real skill to offer and the commitment to stay for a longer period of time than many more mainstream placements require. This research found that real benefits can come from volunteering, but only if programmes are run in a way where the voice of the host community is prominent. There is a need for further research to gain an insight on volunteering through the eyes of other foundations and host communities, so that all potential volunteers can be better informed and enabled to move from exploitative volunteering and towards equitable volunteering. I will conclude with a statement from the director of the foundation where the research took place: “Could we survive/flourish without volunteers?  YES, quite nicely. Do we welcome Volunteers?  YES, but only when and if they realise what an honour and privilege it is to be here with us and our children”.

This article is based on the findings of a dissertation written by Teresa Moore, and submitted to The Institute of Education, UCL, as part of an M.A. in Education. The paper is titled “Volunteers: a new branch on the tree or a graft that does not take? The perspective of staff at a slum foundation in Bangkok”. The dissertation is currently being graded.

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