A couple of years ago, a young woman named Pippa Biddle wrote about “volunteerism”, which combines the need to do good with the desire to travel. On the face of it, voluntourism seems like a noble idea. Why spend your vacation lying on a beach when you can help build a school for impoverished children? You get a break from work, you improve life for the less fortunate and you come back with a wider perspective. Sounds like a win-win right? Not so much, according to Biddle. She writes about her high-school “mission” to Tanzania, a trip that coupled a week-long safari with the opportunity to build a library at an orphanage. Each day the highly educated, private boarding school American teens mixed cement and hammered nails with the best of intentions. Their efforts were earnest but their results were sub-par so each night while they slept, local men would take apart their work and redo it so they wouldn’t be aware of their construction failure.
The critics of voluntourism claim that these trips are nothing more than an attempt to assuage the guilt westerners feel about their own privilege and that we shouldn’t be using developing nations as our personal, feel-good playgrounds. These are extreme examples but hapless do-gooders are all around us and we’ve all been on the receiving end of help that we didn’t ask for, don’t want and don’t need. Here are a few examples:
- You assume more is always better – Let’s say you grow tomatoes in your garden and you have a bumper crop. You ask a neighbour if she’d like a couple and she says yes. You deliver 40 tomatoes in various states of ripeness to her front door. This is not helping her. This is forcing her to choose between eating spaghetti for two weeks and throwing out a bunch of rotten tomatoes.
- You don’t believe people can think for themselves – The idea of a surprise party is terrifying to me. Some would say I have control issues. Maybe they’re right. Or maybe I just don’t like surprises. I am very vocal and unabashedly honest about this, yet, on more than one occasion, I have had to plaster a smile on my beet-red face while tone-deaf, unenthusiastic waiters sing Happy Birthday to me. Anytime you do something you know people won’t like, regardless of your intentions, you are not helping them.
- You decide what people need rather than asking them what they need – Imagine you’re in charge of a digital resource centre in your workplace. The assets in this centre are valuable and can help your colleagues do a better job. You can make it super easy for them to access the resources but you decide instead to make them jump through hoops while you “help” them get what they need. You tell yourself it’s for their own good. After a while they give up and find another way to access the assets. If your colleagues have developed an elaborate workaround to avoid you, you’re not helping them.
- You create extra work for people – When my kids were younger, I was an active fundraiser in their school. Each year, we asked the teachers to create a wish list of things we could buy with our fundraising dollars. Their requests included books, lego building kits, iPads and funds to bring scientists into the classroom. They are the ones in the trenches and they know what they need. But some of my fellow parents rejected their list as unimaginative. They offered to “help” the teachers by giving them funds to stage an operetta or some other large production that would require them to add hours onto an already busy schedule, redirect curriculum time and put in volunteer time after hours. When your help creates extra work for other people, you’re not helping them.
So how do you help people? You ask them what they need and if you are able, you give it to them. You don’t judge their request. You don’t assume you know them better than they know themselves. In short, you don’t give them 10 tomatoes when they asked for one.