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Volunteering: an adventure in self-discovery

Do you want to help important initiatives and make the world a better place? Choose tasks that interest you:

Ivan is a project manager whose involvement in volunteering opened up a new world for him and gave him the strength to cope with burnout. We spoke with Ivan about how he balances work and helping others, and the unexpected benefits of participating in volunteer projects.

Why did you decide to become a volunteer? What was your first experience like?

— I was about sixteen years old. In 2007, I attended a camp in Belarus called the International Summer University of UNESCO Clubs. They worked in many areas, one of which was a camp that actively promoted self-governance and conducted various training sessions. I went there twice, and this amazing experience changed me a lot. It was there that I learned about similar projects both inside the country and abroad.

Volunteering as a concept always attracted me. It’s an opportunity not only to see and learn something new but also to become an organizer without having any significant experience. It’s a chance to see the «inner workings» of different projects and help achieve something.

I became interested. Young people who were too old for a typical teenage camp could participate in the volunteer movement, and they talked about how great it was.

For example, in the international camps of the BelaMUN Model UN organization, we represented «countries» rather than squads, participated in something akin to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and created our own «laws».

As a result, I started attending similar events in Belarus as a volunteer organizer. I also managed to visit Open Houses volunteer camps in Germany, where they had fantastic programs. For instance, in the theatre camp, we created a play and then performed it in one of the chapels in Berlin.

It was an international community with many interesting people. By the way, such projects are an excellent opportunity to improve your language skills.

— Which projects particularly stood out to you and why?

— I enjoyed Germany so much that in 2011, I applied to the same German organization as a camp leader, a person who coordinates other volunteers among other responsibilities.

I spent three months in various camps: first, we learned to be camp leaders, went through a kind of onboarding, and then practised our skills. For this, we received about 50 euros per week.

Then there were other stories, such as with the international Rotary organization, which sponsors various good initiatives.

Finally, in 2014, I was invited to participate in a long-term volunteer program and spend a year with Chance International. Everything aligned perfectly: Berlin, youth exchanges and training, the opportunity to practice German.

At Chance International, volunteers were provided with accommodation and transport, as well as a small allowance for living expenses. Therefore, I perceived my participation in the project as a full-time job. But it was a wonderful volunteer experience combined with full immersion in another country’s life.

However, later, when I got a permanent job, there was no time or energy left for full-scale volunteering.

On choosing between work and good deeds

So, do «commercial interests» simply deprive you of the chance to actively develop in volunteering?

— It’s hard to be an active volunteer when basic needs aren’t met, and you bear responsibility not only for yourself.

But it’s always important to remember that volunteering offers new and interesting opportunities and often provides a good career start, not necessarily just in youth.

For example, once in Bali, I met a 36-year-old woman who travelled across Indonesia, using volunteering as a way to gain an authentic experience of life in a small village where she taught locals English or German. She wasn’t paid for this work. She was only provided with food and accommodation. But she was glad to have the opportunity to interact with nature, study orangutans, and deeply immerse herself in the island’s environment.

This is possible anywhere in the world. In Bishkek, I met another woman from New Zealand. At 46, she was a yoga instructor and certified trainer. She had no problems with housing and no need to wander. But it was volunteering that allowed her to travel the world and participate in various important projects.

What drives such people? Undoubtedly, the desire to fully absorb new experiences.

I think it’s possible to combine full-time employment with active volunteering, but it requires savings, passive income, or remote work. Then it can work.

How do people often perceive volunteer work: as a way to see the world and gain new perspectives, as hard work, or something else?

— Volunteer projects are often seen solely as a free opportunity to travel or have fun. This is not bad. But this path will primarily lead to the volunteer’s burnout.

Simply chasing experiences, at some point, you lose the sharpness of perception. The acquired experience, people, and projects all blend. It becomes difficult to reflect on what is happening. This harms anyone’s mental state.

Another problem is inflated expectations. Yes, sometimes those who have already participated in volunteer projects develop specific requests. Some say, «There we were fed ice cream and didn’t have to work, but here why do we have to?»

Without realizing that programs can vary significantly, people become disappointed and start seeing volunteering as a burdensome and unpleasant duty.

But different mechanisms of interaction are built everywhere. By regularly and consciously participating in volunteer projects, you gradually get used to such diversity. You begin to understand that much depends not on the organizers but on your level of involvement. Each volunteer’s personal contribution is truly important.

On the challenges of volunteering

In recent years, the number of volunteers has decreased. There is a feeling that people are tired, they have many of their problems. What should specialized organizations do so that volunteers do not become disillusioned and are more willing to devote time to volunteer work?

— Projects are very different. It’s important to start from their specifics. There are trainings that do not require hard physical work but imply a desire to learn something new. And there are platforms where you need to carry bricks, mow lawns, fix something.

Initially, you need to define a pool of necessary volunteer positions that can give participants a unique experience. Everyone should indeed become a part of something bigger.

It should be something that money can’t buy. When a person understands the importance of their work, it’s easier to attract them to any activity. And it’s not about offering volunteers only entertaining tasks. I remember one acquaintance who helped in the archives of Buchenwald. She initially understood how important her mission was.

Volunteering is an adventure. When you create adventures, they will definitely interest someone.

Another important aspect is the project phases. It’s better to involve people step by step so that a concrete result is visible at the end. Otherwise, it’s not clear why everything was started. Phases are especially important when implementing a long-term project. At some point, psychological stress or the desire to switch to commercial work will force a person to leave, even when they are relied upon.

The third point is marketing. Usually, people do not seek volunteer opportunities — unless they are bargain-hunters for cheap travel. Therefore, advertising, participant reviews, and attractive «packaging» are needed.

I don’t see a big difference between commercial and non-commercial projects in terms of ways to attract an audience.

For example, in 2023, I moved to Bishkek and immediately became interested in local volunteer initiatives. It was curious to see how they were doing. And things are going well: there are many different organizations actively working on creating and developing volunteer communities.

It’s good when communities form around some common value. And this is undoubtedly a very commercial approach. In the end, the opportunity to become part of a cool community works by itself. People need people, right?

On the future and self-discovery

Do you think volunteering has a future, and what is it?

— There is a future. But the line between money and altruism needs to be rethought. When I went as a volunteer to Germany and received money for living expenses — it was still volunteering. If I didn’t receive it, I wouldn’t have gone. Everything requires investment: food, visa, accommodation, travel there and back. The fact that it was paid for didn’t make me feel any less of a volunteer. I openly said, «I am a volunteer, and it’s great».

Moreover, later I included this experience in my resume as a job, noting in brackets that I was a volunteer.

Money itself is not the point, but the idea of doing something voluntarily, personally, out of your interest and desire to help.

In this sense, I believe everything should be about volunteering.

Whatever job you do, ideally, it should be done based on the result you want to achieve. Money is great. But volunteering differs from commerce in that people go there to do something important, bring some benefit, and only then for secondary benefits. Among these benefits, of course, can be money. But they may not be.

But what if an organization simply doesn’t have the money to support many volunteers?

— I think valuable initiatives should be supported by the government.

For almost two years, I worked on projects related to twin cities. In Europe or in the same America, which is considered a highly commercialized country, all volunteer stories are funded by government grants, grants from various foundations, and public associations. It’s still about money, you understand?

For example, people involved in twin city relations in America partly finance it out of their own pockets. If someone visits them, they pool money and pay for the person’s accommodation and meals. A great example of how volunteer work for money and the promotion of higher values coexist without regard to who earns how much in the end. And if it works now, it will work in the future.

In the end, any productive activity is always a story about values that are important to us, right?

— Yes. I am sure that if you don’t feel a sincere desire to engage in any work, there’s no point in doing it. Even if it brings in very good money, at least, you definitely shouldn’t make it your life’s work.

And it is volunteering that very often helps to start, try different things, and understand what you want to do. At any age, in any country. This is the undeniable advantage of volunteering: it helps you find yourself.

Reshim thanks Ivan Makarov for the interview and volunteer Anna Filatova for preparing the article