OPINION: Beware of student volunteerism that harms those it claims to help

(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

“I am a founder of X Fund … .” “I run the nonprofit Y… .” Nowadays, this rhetoric seems to propagate amid the entrepreneurial-oriented Generation Z. It’s a clear indication that today’s youth are more aware of pressing issues evolving worldwide than previous generations, perhaps due to the widespread use of the internet and social media. 

Often pressured by these digital platforms to be vocal or act against injustice, some students engage in activism and volunteerism beyond the traditional scope. For example, instead of taking care of local kids after school, there are some students that ambitiously take a trip to a remote country to conduct humanitarian work for the local population. Coupled by society’s gravitation toward entrepreneurship and innovation, today’s youth develop confidence and autonomy to found their own organizations or companies to address causes. 

On the one hand, their works seem commendable: A flourishing trend of student volunteerism and initiatives has demonstrated youth’s ability to expand their scope without being confined by their positions as students. The truth, however, is that those good intentions do not always translate into good consequences. As much as these students are driven by their passion in addressing particular causes, they often struggle to foresee the consequences of their actions — the process of weighing potential benefits and harms and questioning whether their action truly serves those they pledge to work for. 

When consequences do not reflect original intentions, then the entire scheme begins to fall apart. Whether you realize it or not, you end up primarily working for your own benefit: The act of volunteerism gives you a sense of purpose and ego-boost, and it’s a convenient social marker through which you can rebrand yourself as a generous and informed person willing to lend a hand to those in need. 

For some students, volunteerism takes the form of student initiatives organized among similarly-minded youth. While running an organization grants students autonomy, the major downside is that its operation is not always sustainable or effective. It’s often the case that student leaders call a halt to their organizations at the turning point of their lives without finding successors. 

Regardless of the lifespan of these organizations, though, the more underlying issue may be that these student leaders often fail to acknowledge or at least contemplate that there may be pre-existing institutions operating toward a similar goal that have more resources and expertise. If that’s the case, then joining in a pre-existing effort will probably be a more effective way to address issues rather than starting the initiative on your own. 

As an entry-level volunteer, you may not get a position with substantial responsibility and autonomy on the first step, yet it’s also a crucial reminder that most students are not equipped with sufficient skills and experiences that can apply to the type of volunteering work that they aspire to pursue. Those who start organizations on their own often do not go through the process of receiving evaluation in hierarchical work environments, so they may be prone to overestimating their capacities.

However, this criticism of starting one’s own organization does not equate to saying that all existing professional organizations are good or reliable. Some operate solely for the sake of attracting people to volunteer and are less concerned about making actual changes. One prime example is called voluntourism; for most Westerners, going on a volunteer trip gives them a unique and fresh experience. On the other hand, though, it’s less likely that locals in a developing country will actually benefit from such an act of “volunteerism.” 

Dr. Samantha Nutt, a Canadian philanthropist and founder of War Child Canada, argues in her book “Dammed Nations” that the short-term commitment of these tourists will create more harm than good by constantly disrupting the trust and bond formed with local children. As a high turnover of these volunteers forbids the establishment of long-term relationships, local children will be put in emotional distress. 

But perhaps the more pressing issue of voluntourism, according to Nutt, may be the exploitation of local children. Especially prevalent in orphanages, sexual exploitation of children occurs due to an inherent power hierarchy between locals and Western visitors, coupled with the fact that organizers of such trips often do not implement rigorous background checks or professional training for volunteers. 

All these concerns are only a few of many other factors potentially producing more harm than good. But even when the harmful effect is not directly measurable, voluntourism is a problematic concept at its root. As Nutt argues, voluntourism makes “a spectacle out of poverty” and reinforces “outdated stereotypes about developing countries.” Such a form of volunteerism eventually morphs into the attempt of colonialism veiled in the white savior complex, reinforcing the narrative of “Westerners saving the Third World.” 

The point is, most people outside of professional fieldwork are probably not qualified to be in direct contact with the local population. But that does not mean there’s nothing they can do. Rather than going to a remote country with little knowledge and skills, you should be encouraged to find and support local organizations and charities already tackling a similar cause. As Nutt suggests, for tourists, investing in the local economy by purchasing locally-made goods is far more helpful than doing fieldwork. 

Today’s youth seem more entrepreneurial-oriented and driven by global causes. All these arguments presented above are not meant to disparage the bravery and intellectual curiosity of such students; rather, they are a crucial reminder that emphasizing action over consequences often produces more harm than good. 

Sae Furukawa PO ’25 is from Tokyo, Japan. She loves nonfiction, documentaries and Coppola’s films.

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