How can I help?

It is estimated that volunteers contribute about $400 billion (USD) worth of services worldwide each year (calculate your contribution according to an average rate). Chief economist of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane, is quoted in The Economist as saying that in Britain, formal volunteers each year do the work of 1.25 million ‘proper’ employees, and nearly a billion people are engaged in volunteering worldwide. Interestingly, Turkmenistan and Sri Lanka lead the charts, thanks to national days of ‘compulsory volunteering’ in Turkmenistan. Yet the economic impact of volunteering is not captured by GDP statistics as no monetary transaction takes place.

Andy Haldane talks about three types of value that volunteering creates: economic, private and social. Just as we need to consider various types of capital to evaluate our own wealth, it’s important that we consider the types of value we might contribute through volunteering – at home or abroad.

One of the joys of no longer having to work is being able to determine what you will do, and for how much. We’ve spent part of our time in Fiji volunteering through IVI. Had we not already resigned, it would be impossible for us to take time off in the middle of the year like this.

Earlier this year, we were in Fiji when Cyclone Winston struck. We were out in the Yasawa islands when the resort manager handed us two weather reports – one out of the country’s capital, Suva, and one out of the nearest city, Nadi.

Each predicted a different path for the cyclone – one heading to Nadi, one heading to the Yasawas.

We had to choose: try to get on the evacuation ferry and gamble on finding shelter in Nadi. Or, stay in the Yasawas, with the knowledge we could be stranded after the cyclone hit.

Deciding to take our chances with the boat, we managed to find shelter in a dorm room at the hotel we had left only the day before, and after an extraordinarily windy night, awoke to debris everywhere.

We didn’t complain about the cold showers, lack of selection at the restaurant, or all having to share one big room. We were so grateful for the running water, the access to food, and the roof over our heads – one that didn’t blow off or crush us. We felt extraordinarily lucky – as we should everyday. At that time, we decided that we’d like to go back and help out as soon as we were free of work commitments.


And so, exactly two days after my final work commitment, we flew to Fiji and started work at cyclone-affected and remote schools.

I certainly don’t claim to have all of the answers, and am discovering what a complex area volunteering is, but two of the most important questions I think any volunteer can ask themselves are:

  • How can I help? Part of the application process involved identifying any particular skills we might have to contribute. As it turned out, we were grouped really well for the first task we were given – fixing up a computer lab. Part of my old job involved the design of classrooms and teaching of computer lab sessions, my husband is a designer trained in IT, and the other volunteer we were teamed with was a former pilot with woodworking skills. So the three of us were well-placed to design a classroom layout with custom-built, flexible furniture that can be used for other things, using new wood and tools purchased locally, and wood we reclaimed from a cyclone damaged classroom. Although we were working with far fewer resources (we spent a total of 1% of the entire budget of the cheapest technologically-enhanced classroom project I have worked on to date), we managed to get it done much faster, and, in my opinion, in a way more consistent with the school’s current and future needs than I’ve been able to achieve in past projects – despite a number of ‘tropical tech support’ challenges. Once word got around that we had fixed some computers at the first school, we ended up with the same tasks at the other two schools we visited. This entailed a few firsts – picking a gecko skeleton out of the fan, chiselling mud wasps’ nests out of a PC!Computer
  • Why am I doing this? The Ethical Volunteer lists ‘7 deadly sins’ related to ‘bad’ volunteering that I find useful to consider, the first of which is ‘Don’t go on a ‘Hug an orphan’ vacation’. I was very glad to have a clearly defined role at the schools (working on the computer lab) which didn’t interrupt the children’s schooling too much. We interacted with the children only when invited (e.g. at the end-of-term party, or when the whole school came together to watch Fiji’s first ever Olympic gold medal win), and tried to enter and leave quietly, like any visitor at any school. The list ends with a call for volunteers to do their ‘homework’: ‘There is an arrogance about sailing off into the sunset to “be of help” when you know next to nothing about the culture, politics, history and economics of the country you are about to visit’. We were fortunate in that a large part of the reason we chose to volunteer in Fiji was our prior experience – I am far from an expert, and wish I could speak more of the language than a few basic phrases, but I’ve been coming here every couple of years for over a decade, and my husband grew up here as a child, and was educated at Fijian schools which is why we wanted to contribute something back. (For those who haven’t visited this beautiful country before, Wikipedia is of course a great place to get an overview).

There were some questions I wish I had asked the organisation beforehand:

  • Is there anything the school needs? Before we left, we filled our suitcase mainly with books, both our own and those donated by others. This turned out to be a good thing, as one of the schools we worked at had almost its entire collection damaged in the cyclone. But we quickly found out there were other things we could have easily brought – USB keyboards and mice, for example. How many businesses must there be back at home with unused but perfectly usable peripherals stacked in storage? And soap. Soap and toilet paper were not provided as a matter of course at the schools I visited. (At one school, for that matter, there is no running water, despite proximity to an extremely expensive luxury resort). How many little soaps must be wasted each day in hotels and resorts where a guest uses one at the sink, one in the shower, and the largely unused soap is then thrown away?
  • How many kids are enrolled at the school? Attendance isn’t even close to 100%, particularly when it rains, but it’s good to know the maximum number that might show up in case you are bringing anything for the children. We made balloon animals for the end-of-term class party at one school and had only just enough to go around.
  • What is available locally? Wherever possible, I like to buy locally, not only to support local stores and manufacturers (Fiji actually has a surprising amount of locally produced products) but also to avoid having to carry too much luggage. However, after visiting six different hardware stores, we discovered there are some things that don’t seem to be available locally, such as countersinks. These small, relatively inexpensive tools would have been easy to pack, and we could have donated them to the schools or the volunteer organisation afterwards.
  • What is the school schedule? When we arrived at the first school we were placed at, the head teacher informed us that the kids were currently undertaking their exams, so we wouldn’t be able to interact with them. This wasn’t an issue (other than the fact that we were careful to be as quiet as possible with our sawing and drilling and hammering!), as we were there to serve, not to be entertained, but for volunteers specifically looking for teaching experiences, I’m not sure how the situation would turn out.


Am I really helping? writes that this is one of the common questions asked by volunteers ‘Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer. There are, however, ways to make sure that you help more than harm and that your good intentions come across to others’. These include being open-minded, being a partner, being realistic, being yourself, being informed, and being ethical in your choice of volunteer organisation (in terms of sustainability and local involvement). ‘Is the project or service needed or wanted? Was it suggested by locals? Have community members led, or even been involved in, the planning process?

Katie Campbell, from the Council for Certification in Volunteer Administration, provides a number of questions for you to ask yourself, including:

  • Do you consider yourself an ethical person?
  • Do your actions reflect your core values?

But what about the notion of volunteering itself? Kirsty Henderson has a good series of reflections, starting with ‘Is it possible for volunteers to have an impact in a short amount of time?She suggests that, with the exception of some manual labour, it’s hard to imagine what sort of impact a volunteer can have, given the adjustment time required, so making a donation to the organisation instead may be more suitable. Kirsty also points out that ‘You should do your best to ensure that you’re not taking a paying job away from a local person. In most cases, you’ll simply be offering an extra set of hands in a position that the organisation would never have had the money to hire a local for in the first place. In the worst case, using volunteer labour might mean that a local might be put out of work’.

Will the work the volunteers do acually help the community or just serve to make them feel good about themselves? In particular, Kirsty asks whether the experience will simply make you feel warm and fuzzy, and stock your social media feed with some interesting photos, or whether you will be entering into the arrangement ‘humble and willing to learn and adapt’. (I can honestly say that I am sure I have learned more from our lovely host families than they have from me).

It has been a rewarding, challenging, enjoyable experience so far, and having visited the schools and spoken to the children and teachers first-hand, I have a better understanding now of what is needed. Roofs are obvious, but soap, for example, is not a given either. And donations such as computers, while great, need to be followed up with appropriate technical support on the ground – exactly the same issue I have faced in educational institutions back in Australia – training and ongoing tech support/maintenance are often overlooked in costing projects. I also have a better idea of the lessons to be learned from Fijian schools, where in spite of a lack of material resources, I have found great commitment to pedagogical philosophies of experiential learning and providing an inclusive, multilingual education for students.

One of the most important things I have learned, however, is to keep asking ‘How can I help?’


26HelpFor those considering volunteering, consider checking out Shannon O’Donnell’s collection of fantastic books, TED Talks, and websites, or the Guide to Ethical Volunteering eLearning course at the Ethical Volunteer.

The Fijian Government’s Disaster Relief Fund (This was current in March, please check that it remains open).

UNICEF’s Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Program (An important program the head teacher of one of the schools we worked at informed us of, improving sanitation for schools and communities).

Finally, check out How (Not) to Start an Orphanage author Tara Winkler’s Tedx talk.

Today’s featured image is one of the computers we got up and running again. Others we didn’t have as much success with.



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