• Taylor Piotrowski

The Seeds of Volunteering

“Since the mid-1970s, the NGO sector in both developed and developing countries has experienced exponential growth…. It is now estimated that over 15 percent of total overseas development aid is channeled through NGOs.”(5)

The act of making a sustainable impact and the idea of doing good is too often blurred in young philanthropist’s beliefs when volunteering with international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO). My criticism on international NGO’s is predominantly focused on the adoption of “quick-fix solutions” to many world issues arising out of “underdevelopment, ethnic conflict, and resource cartels” (4). Large NGO’s are too often sourced by ‘do gooders’ for the personal fulfillment of helping others, but their ‘helping hand’ neglects to plant the seed for sustainable grow. Thus volunteer work is like the seed of growth and can only develop into a flower if the community is given the opportunity to grow in its roots.

Think about a time you have volunteered, whether it be with a community food drive, a children’s hospital or a mission trip overseas.

Now think about what you contributed during your time volunteering.

Maybe you packed food into boxes, maybe you knocked on doors to collect money or planting trees in blistering heat. All these acts were the seeds to a family eating dinner that night, children playing with toys during the holidays or a vibrant park for the community.

Looking back I see instances where my volunteering actually contributed to sustained growth such as planting trees but after arriving at University and involvement in Borderless World Volunteers I have noticed more and more ‘helping hand’ incidences.

Borderless World Volunteers (BWV) has opened my eyes to the world of volunteering, having changed my perspective on what an overseas development trip should entail. Before I came to university, I was planning a mission trip with a large and well-known international NGO (rhymes with ‘We do See’). This trip was unfortunately cancelled.

After joining BWV I refer to this trip as ‘unfortunately’ canceled with a grain of salt.

BWV prides itself on fostering an intimate, collaborative and empowering experience for our volunteers and our partner grassroots NGOs. Our mission is to build development projects whilst garnering a rich cultural understanding of the communities we travel to. Participating members gain firsthand experience of everything that goes into building a sustainable and successful project, learning that it requires a lot more than a cheque and a plane ticket. Simply paying $4000 to live in a Westernized camp and follow what Emillee Hernandez, the Vice President of BWV International Projects Development, would call a “relay” or a continuation of youth led volunteer work. Grassroots NGO’s develop projects from the seeds to the flower as opposed to many international NGOs who approach development in ‘quick-fix’ marketable projects which appeal more to aspiring western philanthropists than the communities themselves

Looking back, I now understand that volunteering for an international NGO would be my attempt to ‘experience’ the act of doing good rather than fostering sustainable development. I have and am continuing to learn the importance of helping someone help themselves to sustain the growth of the initial seed of development..

“Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime”. (Lao Tzu)

Focusing on sustainable action (building the roots) is in-line with what Jude Howel and Jenny Pearce promotes as growth in civil society in avoidance of “creations of the outside, embodiments of external norms and goals, and materially dependent on outside rather than local sources.” (4)

Thus, in attempt to avoid voluntourism I decided to develop a project with a grassroots NGO in Vientiane, Laos called SaeLao. Working one-on-one with SaeLao - a locally based organization- ensures the time and money invested into both my project and the trip itself will go directly to the source: the community. My project is founded to avoid the common criticism in development studies which questions international NGO’s allocations of funds from donations, sponsors and the cost of hosting volunteers. Unfortunately, these NGO’s face a tight funding climate according to Paul Griss, coordinator of the New Directions Group and so this lends to his and others apprehensions of large NGO’s prioritizing externally supported things such as marketing campaigns, workers’ salaries and the over-all quality of stay rather than the project itself.

BWV members follow similar paths to sustainable development in a number of host countries around the world. We first collaborate with the organization from home via Skype and email, then we travel and gain first-hand experience of the issues we’ve been discussing in the months preceding. After arriving, we will get our hands dirty and plant our seeds. We will work hard and encourage the community to involve themselves in the success of our sustainable project.

Grassroots NGO projects are based on the needs of the locals rather than forming a ‘cultural experience’ for international ‘do gooders.’ Grassroots NGO’s sometimes place their volunteers in local hostels, or work with host families who invite you to live in their home. Your money spent on living, eating and purchasing locally sourced goods will subsequently add to the economy, promoting societal wellbeing.

With all of this being said, I do not want to reject anyone’s experiences volunteering with international NGO’s. Ultimately, any knowledge of a new culture is better than none (wise words from Emillee Hernandez). Nonetheless, I would like to highlight the importance of prioritizing a community’s well-being over personal fulfilment and profitable gains associated with many international NGOs.

Volunteering at a grassroots organization is notably far from a posh overseas volunteering experience; you live in locals’ homes, you eat local cuisine, and you work long and strenuous hours. But isn’t that what a volunteering experience should be about? If you travel hundreds of thousands of miles to help a community, shouldn’t you learn their culture by actually living in it, shouldn’t you experience the cuisine rather than having a Western meal, shouldn’t you invest in the seed to see the growth of the roots and blossoming of community development?

Well, I think you should.


Note from author: Unfortunately finding a grassroots NGO is notably harder than an international NGO; it requires more research to confirm its legitimacy (watch out for fraud), but once this marginal step is completed you will be well on your way to developing a sustainable effort to improve the well-being of others.


(1) David Rieff, The False Dawn of Civil Society, The Nation, February 22, 1999

(2) Jude Howell and Jenny Pearce (David Lewis and Tina Wallace, Editors), New Roles and Relevance; Development NGOs and the Challenge of Change, (Kumarian Press, 2000), p. 83

(3) Jude Howell and Jenny Pearce (David Lewis and Tina Wallace, Editors), New Roles and Relevance; Development NGOs and the Challenge of Change, (Kumarian Press, 2000), pp. 76, 77-78

(4)"Youth Travel Fast Facts." World Youth Student & Educational Travel Confederation. Wordpress.com, 24 Jan. 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2017. <https://wysetc.wordpress.com/research/youth-travel-fast-facts/>.

(5) Verbeke, A., & Merchant, H. (2014). Handbook of research on international strategic management. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. P.458

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