Responsible Approach to Volunteering


What is poverty?     Assets vs needs     Avoiding paternalism     Volunteering tips


ACTS Volunteers have the opportunity and responsibility to help communities in way that is responsible, healthy, beneficial and sustainable. Many times, seemingly beneficial acts and contributions by well-meaning volunteers can in fact negatively affect a community, if their context, culture and background are not well understood.

ACTS’s aim is to make a real and sustainable impact in the communities and projects we partner with, and not merely to create short-term “fixes”. ACTS firmly believes in the philosophy of building relationships within the community, and mobilizing the members of that community to be proactive in bringing about change. We encourage all staff and volunteers to do with and not for or to.

What is poverty?

Poverty is often thought of as the lack of material resources or finances, in which case it is likely that hand-outs are given in order to assist people or communities. It is important that the true meaning of poverty understood before giving material hand-outs and in the process possibly causing harm to oneself and the community.

Words used to described poverty by the ‘poor’ themselves are shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness. This shows that poverty is multi-faceted and has to do with so much more than not having material things.

The way poverty is viewed determines the solutions attempted to implement to alleviate poverty. Poverty has to do with broken relationships, whether it is with oneself (poverty of being), others (poverty of community), God (poverty of spiritual intimacy), or the rest of creation (poverty of stewardship).

Viewed in this way, it is clear that everyone experiences poverty in one way or another. As a volunteer, it is important to be aware of one own’s poverty, so that one does not consider oneself as superior to others, and is open to learning from materially poor people on how to become ‘richer’ in one own’s areas of our poverty.

So, if poverty is multi-faceted, approaches to alleviating poverty must also be multi-faceted, and it is essential to determine the nature of the poverty before deciding on how to help.

What is the most appropriate response?

It is crucial to identify which kind of intervention is needed in the community/projects in order to not cause more harm, disempowerment or create dependency on foreigners.

Relief – this is urgent, temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering from a natural or man-made crisis. There is a need to ‘stop the bleeding’, and the assistance needed is often material or financial. The receiver is largely incapable of helping himself at the time.

Rehabilitation – begins as soon as the ‘bleeding’ stops; it seeks to RESTORE people and their communities to the positive elements of pre-crisis conditions. The key is in working WITH the victims, as they PARTICIPATE in their own recovery.

Development – process of ongoing change that takes the people involved into a place where they can work and support themselves and their families with the fruit of that work. Development is not done to or for people but with people. Development is an empowering process.

Assets vs needs

When wanting to help a community/project, it is important to start by assessing their assets (not their needs!). Generally a needs assessment is done first, making a long list of what is lacking and what needs to be done.

Instead, the ABCD approach (asset-based community development) focuses on the following four elements:

  • capabilities, skills and resources of the individual or community; poor people are viewed as full of possibilities
  • resources and solutions are sought to come from within the individual or community, not from outside
  • building and rebuilding the relationships among local individuals, associations, businesses, schools etc, so that the various individuals and institutions in communities are interconnected and complementary
  • outside resources are only brought in when local resources are insufficient to solve pressing needs; must be done in a manner that does not undermine local capacity or initiative

This approach draws attention to all the good and positives in the community, instead of highlighting all they do not have, thereby empowering the local community.

Avoiding paternalism (not doing what people can do by themselves)

Resource paternalism – providing only material resources into a project could result in the following:

  • Harming and undercutting local small business initiatives
  • Prevents the community from learning to be responsible stewards of what they have
  • Prevents community cohesion as the members of the community need to rely less on one another
  • Deepens the GAP between the “poor African” and the “saviour Westerner”, which ultimately contributes to dependency and disempowerment

Leadership paternalism – outsiders taking over the leading of initiatives discourages the communities to rely on local leadership. Local leadership knows and understands the needs, resources, most appropriate methods of helping etc, best. This also ensures that once the ‘westerner’ has left the community, that local leaders can continue what was started, making the impact long-term and the work sustainable.

Knowledge paternalism – Outsiders should strive to obtain local knowledge (by asking many questions) before trying to impose what they think they know could help the community or project. The poor too have knowledge, skills and abilities, and know their culture and situation much better than outsiders.

Labour Paternalism – doing work for people that they can do for themselves, and are sometimes even being paid to do, may result in:

  • Promoting passivity
  • Decreasing opportunities for the individual to improve and develop their skills
  • Disempowering the individual and confirm their ‘inferiority’ to your ‘superiority’
  • Lack of productivity – Community members MUST be involved in identifying the needs and directing the tasks.

Managerial paternalism – having the discernment of when to facilitate action or relinquish need for control and achieve immediate results. Communities often have different ways of achieving results and within a longer time frame. If they are given ownership of the project, the change brought about is likely to last longer and be more sustainable.

NB: Do NOT do things for people that they can do for themselves!

Volunteering tips

  • Get to know the culture and people: it is VERY important that you make an effort to develop an understanding of the people and the culture you will be working in. This includes finding out about cultural norms, beliefs and values. Ask questions and spend sufficient time with the people you will be working with before making your own assumptions.
  • Focus on and ENJOY building relationships. The greatest impact is made through building relationships – by simply showing love, care and friendship, you will be amazed how lives can be impacted.
  • Start with an asset analysis before a needs analysis. Draw attention to the positives and the resources that are found in the community.
  • Ask yourself whether your intervention is appropriate. Do you have enough knowledge and insight to diagnose the problem and therefore offer advice and input?
  • Join in with the project’s efforts; do not try and change it, even if you think your ideas are better. Do WITH, not TO or FOR. Do not take over, but be willing to serve alongside and learn.
  • Empower and encourage the community/project to come up with their own answers.