Let me make an attempt on defining what volunteering is. Over time I have read and heard a number of definitions for volunteering. I am not here to add another, but attempt to put down my understanding of volunteering.
For me, the two pillars of volunteering are:
- An activity undertaken through my own interest and for
- the benefit of someone else (and myself!).
Many definitions equate volunteering to altruism. That it’s a selfless activity for the good of others without expectation of any returns. I don’t agree. 15 years ago when I first volunteered to distribute drugs during a medical camp organised by my dad, I did it just because he asked me to. And then when the teachers in the school asked me to take classes for adults during evening, I did it because they asked me to and because my other friends were doing it. During both the times while I was doing something for the community, that wasn’t my primary reason. My primary reason was to get noticed, was to win the approval of my dad or my teachers or under peer pressure. I had my own selfish reasons. So I don’t get why volunteering should always be altruistic.
It’s okay if you are selfish in volunteering. It’s okay to volunteer because you need a certificate; because you need the work experience of an NGO or because you want to look good and feel good :). These are all selfish motives. Most importantly many say it should not involve any expectation of a financial return. Well it’s not a job so yes, one shouldn’t expect a salary but it’s fair to expect expenses to be met. If one is going to a new place to volunteer for an NGO (say a new city or a country) it’s fair to expect basic expenses like food, lodging etc to be reimbursed or taken care of.
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And the most important aspect is that volunteering should be out of volunteer’s own free will. If at any time you feel you are doing it out of coercion, it’s time to stop. No activity can result in mutual benefit if all the time you feel you don’t want to do it. However leaving something you started mid-way because you lost interest or it became too much for you, will be wrong, so wait till you finish what you started or someone else steps in your shoes.
How do you understand volunteering? share with us your thoughts on what is volunteering and who is a volunteer?