Saturday, 19 October 2013

Some thoughts on volunteering

Volunteering is the 'in-thing' right now.  David Cameron is promoting 'The Big Society', supposedly unleashing the social energy that exists in the UK to help build a better, healthier society. Closer to home, my daughter is undertaking The Duke of Edinburgh Award and must volunteer in the community every week for three months to qualify for the award.  My good friend and walking buddy Anita runs' My Ten Days' encouraging and supporting owners and managers of small to medium size enterprises (SMEs) to give one employee ten days paid leave to do voluntary work or fund raising (

Yesterday I discovered my hairdresser Heather has just returned from 4 weeks volunteering in a school in Uganda - I leave for my second trip to Uganda tomorrow so you can imagine we had a lot to talk about.
Heather, a young hairdresser in West Malling who has just returned from volunteering at a school 

Volunteering aims to benefit society.  The Royal College of Midwives' Global Midwifery Twinning Project aims to help reduce maternal and neonatal mortality in Nepal, Cambodia and Uganda by strengthening the capacity of the professional midwifery assocations in those three countries.  Our UK midwife volunteers spend up to 4 weeks in-country, helping develop midwifery education, regulation and practice (

However, volunteering also aims to benefit the volunteer - personally and in their work. The World Volunteer Website suggests that volunteering not only has a positive impact on the community but benefits to volunteer, developing their skills, giving motivation and a sense of achievement, boosting career options, opens up new interests, hobbies and experiences, allows the volunteer to meet a wide range of people and sends a positive signal to employers, teachers, friends and family  (

A recent systematic review in the journal Globalization and Health  (Jones et al, 2013) showed that, despite limitations in the quality of evidence, there is a strong theoretical argument that the skills acquired through volunteering are transferable to service delivery within the NHS and that the benefits to individuals and institutions could be maximised when volunteering is formally embedded within continuing professional development processes. 

Win, win. However, could there be a negative side to volunteering?  Certainly.  Unregulated volunteering in all its aspects is harmful to children. Recent events in the UK news have highlighted the dangers of unscrupulous adults (e.g, Savile)  having access to children and others in so-called charitable activities. Overseas, the picture is similar.  Friends International and UNICEF have joined together in an initiative to stop orphanage tourism - known as 'voluntourism'  - in Cambodia. Voluntourism is often conducted by unscrupulous business operators and, despite tourists' best intentions causes more harm than good. It  can endanger the proper care of children, rendering them more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, and contributes to the separation of Cambodian families. Instead of visiting orphanges, the initiative suggests individuals give their your support to organizations who work with marginalized young people and their families. These provide vocational training and community based initiatives such as income generating activities, where income goes to the family and to provision of social support.

Food for thought. 

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