At Learning Service we talk a lot about how volunteering can sometimes create more problems than it solves. If volunteers are only providing band aid solutions then the underlying problem will persist and can even be perpetuated. For example, if volunteers build libraries in rural areas, even if they are stocked with awesome books, that alone will not grow a reading culture or improve literacy. Those processes are more tricky, and take hard work, local knowledge and input for the long term – definitely not tasks suitable to be squeezed into a short term vacation.

Volunteers involved in band aid tasks can contribute to creating a void rather than filling one. In our example, if that area now has a community library, there is now a bunch of books to be taken care of, opening times to be managed, a system of borrowing to be worked out, and, ideally, people trained in literacy teaching to make best use of the reading materials. That burden falls on to the so-called beneficiaries, who in the vast majority of cases just do not have the resources to manage it properly. Hence, the library ends up as a gaping void.

Volunteers can also create voids when they do a job that ideally should be done by someone with appropriate skills who can remain in post for a long time. Let’s take an example of a volunteer who comes into an organization as a human resource manager and plans to work in that post for a few months. It might work well while the volunteer is there, but once they have left the organization is still in the same situation as they were previously – maybe even a worse one, as our volunteer may have put some HR systems in place that need to be continually maintained.

As a general rule, we recommend you examine the role you will play as a volunteer and ask yourself, “Am I helping to make a system that runs better once I leave? Or am I creating a void that, once I leave, will either need to be filled by another volunteer, or an unpaid local person, or end up completely unfilled?” Creating a void means that once you move on, the organization will need to search for someone else to take on that role who might have to start from the beginning again. Rather than making the system run more efficiently without you, the organization is becoming more dependent on outside support.

Let’s look at an example of a volunteer teacher in a classroom. To know if you are building capacity or creating a void, you can ask these questions:

  • What am I doing to ensure the children have access to better education once I leave?
  • Will this class run when I am not here to teach it? Who will run it and where are they now?
  • Could my skills be better used supporting teachers than students?
  • Does someone else in the organization (such as a co-teacher or supervisor) know what I do on a day-to-day basis? Will they be able to replicate it?
  • Am I only just learning the skills of teaching myself, and is it clear from my role that I am a learner, not a teacher or trainer? Have I shared the resources and methods from which I myself am learning?
  • How does an incoming teacher know what has already been taught to students? Are there systems in place to collect information, share materials, and avoid repeating work for the future? If not, can I set them up?
  • Which other roles in the organization can I support so they feel better equipped to continue this work in the future?

Look for projects that tackle the root causes of problems rather than applying a band aid, and roles that support and improve an existing system rather than replacing it for the short-term. Hopefully then you can be surer of contributing to sustainable change and avoid creating a void!