To volunteer, or to work?

by Travel Paulie on August 24, 2010

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That’s the question I’m facing just now.  Should I continue with the goal of travel + volunteering, or are there better options out there in the world of social and community contribution?  I’m beginning to come around to the idea that there is and that it might suit me better to try it out.  More specifically I’m referring to working for much larger organisations that are government-sponsored (at least in-part) so that I can receive a salary and some of the extra benefits that come along with it.

Sure, I can continue to work and live here off of my savings for a while, but the longer I spent here in MaeSot (Thailand), increasingly I have come to realise that most people don’t do that.  Instead they manage to avail of work that provides them compensation enough to live on, and other benefits besides.

I think what I’m proposing is to put my volunteering/meaningful travel on hold for a while, and try my hand at ‘meaningful work’.  Now what am talking about this time, you may ask?  Well let’s find out…

Meaningful Work – isn’t that what we all do?

This is entirely subjective.  What counts as meaningful work to one person, may be nonsense to another, since we assign meaning to things in our lives independently of others.  That’s the theory at least.  In practice we typically unconsciously adopt the meanings that other people tell us.  But that’s a discussion for another time. For now I’ll just say that my definition of meaningful work is that which contributes to a cause that is far greater than myself.  It is working to assist in raising the standard of living for those who do not have the resources to do it alone.  Meaningful work is not what I was doing up until when I left Japan, whereby I simply laboured to earn a salary that would sustain the lifestyle I was living while simply lining the pockets of my superiors.  If you find meaning in that, fair enough, but it’s not what I’m down with any longer.

It’s basically the same as meaningful travel but with less travel (I assume) and I’d receive financial benefits that would allow me to live – i.e. enough for food and shelter and a little bit for fun.  So that’s what it is, but where would I find it, and why am I so concerned about this as to write an article on it?

Where to find meaningful work?

Everywhere it seems.  Taking Maesot as an example, there are bucket loads of NGOs and organisations working here to sort out the problems facing the refugees.  Most people I have met here are involved with an organisation of one sort or another.  Very rarely do I meet truly independent volunteers – in fact, I’ve only met 3 in the past 2.5 months.  Most people are earning a salary from the work they do here and while it’s unlikely they work solely for the salary they earn, they receive something none-the-less.  I need now to reach out to some of the groups here with a view to finding a position within one of them.  There’s only one issue with that…

… I like my independence.

Do I really want to go back to working in a position where I must endure politics, egos and bureaucracy?  I don’t think so.  Do I also want to pigeon-holed into position of IT geek where I’ll be fixing virus-ridden desktops for the next 6 months?  Hmmm, I think not.

Of course, I know the only answer to address these concerns is to find the right job – not to take any position just because it’s there, but rather one that fits the bill.  Simple.

Why?

Why is this question arising now, and why shouldn’t I just continue to work as a volunteer?

There are several reasons for this.

  • Sustainability.  I can only do the work-for-nothing for so long before I run out of cash.  In that regard, I have decided to take on a consultant job for a week in Singapore to earn some extra spending money.  When you’re not earning any salary whatsoever, small purchases become much more significant and there is resistance to spending money on certain things that may actually assist.  I know if I had a salary I would buy/do things that I’m not doing just down in a bid to reduce costs.  I’m effectively compromising myself, and limiting what I can do based on monetary concerns.
  • Reputation.  This is an interesting one.  I’ve pondered this for a while and I don’t believe it’s an ego driven concern.  When I tell many people I’m an English teacher here, there is a subtle change that takes place.  It doesn’t always happen and I’ve made a couple of friends and good contacts where it hasn’t.  The shift is similar to peoples’ eyes glazing over when I start talking in computer-geek-speak before I realise they’re non-technical and I lost them at “double-click on”.  It’s a combination of boredom and disinterest.  English teachers are like cockroaches (not a pleasant analogy, but stay with me :)).  Cockroaches… when you see one, you know there are thousands in the same area that you cannot see.  They’re practically all the same and when you crush one under your boot you know with sickening certainty that tomorrow, he’ll be back.  He might look a little different, but ultimately he’s the same thing.  In a nuclear holocaust there are only 2 things that will crawl out of the rubble – cockroaches and English teachers.

I think professionally in this sort of environment, English teachers are considered low-value – there’s no point in investing time with them, since they’ll likely be gone tomorrow and replaced by another college gap-year student with little or no life direction/experience to bring to bear on the larger issues.  I find this a little frustrating and if I want to connect with people who are in a position of influence, I too need a title that begets a position of influence.  Before I catch myself, I realise I’m telling them “But I didn’t come here to teach English, but rather do IT.  And I’m doing ICT work here and getting computers in the school. blah blah etc.”.  I’m defending myself.  Why?  The shift I perceive is sometimes so strong and some part of feels a need to “win” them over.

  • Access.  This is hugely important.  As an independent volunteer I don’t have the same level of access to restricted areas such as the refugee camps – I must piggy-back with other people with influence.  This means my schedule and ability to act is dependent on that of others.  Increasingly I’m of the mind to just get things done myself and usually it falls on my own resourcefulness to do it – if I can obtain increased access-privileges through association, so much the better.
  • Power.  And I don’t mean a position of personal power.  I believe that if, as I mentioned above, I am restrained financially, or through my reputation, or through decreased/no access privileges, then my power is reduced.  I believe I can do much more with the backing of an organisation.

What are the consequences?

To accept a job with an organisation it means I’m no longer “travelling”, and I’m no-longer a “volunteer”.  That concerns me a little.  I want to travel, and I want to do so meaningfully… but I think as I wrote in a previous article, Maesot and the people here have touched me like I hadn’t expected.  I want to help them and if that means putting a pause on my travels, then so be it.  Further, if I think the best way I can help them, without hamstringing myself, is to take a paid job with an organisation, then I’m happy to do so.

In reality, the consequences aren’t really anything to worry about unless I accept a position that doesn’t fit with what I want and one that suits my needs.  I intend to return to Maesot in January 2011, in order to work further with the migrant community here in my own small way.  Hopefully I can obtain a job that allows me to do that effectively.  There will be further articles on this as it develops.

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  • I think I too would struggle with “returning to a full time paid job”. But there’s a difference here:

    1. You’re not lining the pockets of some CEO or group of directors that quite frankly don’t care what people are doing so long as their making them rich.

    2. You have genuine drive and reason to undertake the job. You know you’re working to create positive impacts on those that need it, so getting up in the morning to goto “work” isn’t the same as what you’ve known it to be. When it comes to indepenence, holidays, and location etc…I don’t think these are going to be a problem, you just think they will be due to your past experiences.
    Location -you’ll likely not be in full control of that, as you’ll need to go where needs must -but isn’t that the purpose?

    3. You’re right about sustainability. I’ve often thought about this regards your travels. How long are you going to be able to do this? what will you do after the money runs out? But it’s served it’s purpose to lead you to where you are now.

    4. Also, this will give you experience -which you will need. Just as you went to uni to get the job you had in Japan. I recall you wanting to probably try to start a non-profit-organisation? To me this seems the perfect move if you have that intention for obvious reasons.

    I think you’re probably going in the right direction.

    Keep us posted.

    D.

    • Thanks for the comment… everything you say is true. As I began writing this article I wasn’t sure what I thought of the whole thing, but as is the nature of writing/journaling, clarity usually manifests as a result of the dialogue.

      The more I reason it out, the more it makes perfect sense and the less advantage I can see in retaining the independent volunteer position. If I wanted to keep travelling, which I do, but if I wanted it more than I want to help the people I’ve met in Maesot, I would stick with the “meaningful travel”.

      Thanks for spelling some more of it out for me… it helps to hear said back to myself 🙂

      Ta!
      Paul.

  • In my experience, it has not been paid vs. unpaid but rather the independence one has in either situation. If paid, have you allowed yourself to be bound to the job by your income needs? If not, you can wisely choose the work you want and walk away if needed. Sometimes being paid improves your effectiveness — it means that someone has taken the trouble to put a value on the work which makes it more sustainable. On the downside, it can cause an indentured servitude phenomena. At the moment I am backing in the land of unpaid volunteerism due to the freedom it allows.

    • I agree… and I think as I go along I’ll probably go back and forth between the two extremes. If I could find something in the middle, that’d be perfect, but how likely that is, I don’t know.

      I value very highly the independence I have right now, but I’m willing I think to subjucate that at least temporarily to afford me a whole new perspective/experience on the problems in Maesot.

      We’ll see… just going to experiment and see what happens.

      Thanks for your thoughts and feedback Michelle. 🙂

  • Hi there,

    This is an interesting conversation and I have a few thoughts I want to share…

    Happiness depends on your ability to give, to love and your suffering comes from your need to be loved. From my own experience most people are slaves to their jobs, companies and money, it doesn’t make them happy.

    I volunteered for a few years at a company to create something beautiful and I was very happy about that, it felt more like a hobby. To me volunteering is to support a good cause and to create something that normally couldn’t happen for lack of funding, resources or knowledge to create synergy.

    The disadvantage can be to fall into a trap of being exploited as cheap labor in that case you are not very smart.

    In my opinion the important thing about volunteering is your intention for doing it. If its your intention to help and to give its always a good thing and will help you grow as a person. Its the giver that receives.

  • I think you sum it up fairly well – the important point about volunteering isn’t so much what you do, but why you do it. And typically, if the ‘why’ is self-less then the result is much greater for all involved than you can predict.

    Thanks for adding to the conversation Guido! 🙂

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