My freshman year, I finished registering my organization as a branch of Habitat for Humanity, a homebuilding nonprofit that uses volunteer labor and donations to build low-income housing for the homeless.
Prior to going into it, I had thought of Habitat as solely a homebuilder, simply building houses from the ground up and giving them away, free, to a nearby needy family. I thought that spending my time at the build site was the best thing I could do. In actuality, Habitat for Humanity does build houses for the homeless, but the process is far more complex.
The process of buying land from local governments drains resources, the price of materials are high, and paying employees, architects, contractors, and the like take significant resources. The work on-site is both tough and delicate at times. The waiting list to build can be months long. I wonder if I, a 17-year-old with no construction experience, actually help the cause by taking the spot of someone likely more skilled than I am, and whether there were other ways I could make a bigger impact.
Habitat for Humanity has provided invaluable support to many families, but the true purpose of volunteer building, and “charitable experiences” as a whole, is up for debate. In a recent Forbes article, Jeff Fromm claims that the true purpose of many volunteer programs is “fueling more engagement and partnerships that will lead to donations later on.”
What this means is that the primary focus of volunteer operations such as homebuilding, unless you have relevant skills, is to elicit donations in the future. A more extreme situation is seen in the recent popularity of “voluntourism,” where many people spend enormous sums of money to travel to foreign lands and do a job that could have been done more quickly and efficiently had skilled workers, or even just natives, had worked on the project themselves. This article asks whether the work done in these areas truly helps, or if the volunteer is the sole benefactor of their own hard work.
So, in that case, is traveling for charity worth it? Are unskilled volunteers a detriment to the cause they support with such good intentions?
It has been argued that while volunteering might not be immediately beneficial to the cause, the engagement that arises from it and the goodwill it creates are good for both the volunteer and the recipient. The experience could lead to other, new people encountering the issue and becoming involved themselves , although others would argue that this would concentrate donations into charities with popular “experiences,” and hurt skilled workers who would have done the jobs, especially in developing nations.
Is volunteering just for experience selfish? Do our intentions matter all that much in charity?
The main question is, should we choose where to invest our charitable efforts out of simple utility, or does taking such a calculating view of charity negate the benefits goodwill can cause? And regardless, how can we make sure our efforts help the people in need?