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(2019-2020) ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’: a discussion of the importance of intention in volunteering

by | Dec 6, 2019 |

By Amber Seddon, Chaney Watson, Ellen Dickinson, Erin Hanson, Ewan Murry, Isabella Wimmer & Paris Oliver 

‘Volunteering, n. [vol-uhn-teer-ing]: Any activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims primarily to benefit the environment or someone (individuals or groups) other than close relatives’ (University of Manchester, 2019). 

This definition of volunteering stated on the University of Manchester’s Volunteer Hub website highlights the selfless and altruistic characteristics which underlie the notion of humanitarianism. However, in the following sentence, volunteering is framed as a way to ‘make new friends, become part of the local community and develop new skills which will look great on your CV’ (University of Manchester). While the humanitarian ideology has been constructed in many different ways, it generally has at its very foundation a notion of de-politicised compassion. That is not to say there is any singular definition of volunteer, or that the term doesn’t have negative connotations to different groups already, but further production of the notion of volunteering in alignment with employability seems to disregard the lived realities of those volunteers are intended to work with, groups of people who are supposedly the central focus of volunteering.

More broadly, student volunteering at any University or NGO is marketed in terms of some form of reciprocal exchange. For instance, the University of Manchester rewards volunteers who work a minimum of 40 hours with the Stellify Award– a leadership recognition served to look good on your CV, thus foregrounding employability. Surely, this marketing process is geared towards attracting more volunteers and creating a culture that regards volunteers as valuable members of a successful community. However, this manner of volunteer recruitment begs the moral question whether a supposedly altruistic and selfless act, such as volunteering, should be distinguished from any self-serving purposes. After all, the aforementioned definition of volunteering directly contradicts the following quote about what volunteering can do for the volunteer. If volunteering is geared to primarily help the environment or a community, then why is volunteering so heavily entangled with a discourse of employability ahead of human decency? One could argue that such benefits are not problematic, in that it is self-evident that volunteering revolves around a foundational compassion. On the contrary, others may argue that compassion in humanitarianism is not self-evident, and that many individuals engage in volunteering primarily because of the incentive of increased employability. If this is the case, it becomes questionable whether volunteers are committed to their projects and really are ‘doing good’. However, while employability as a reason to volunteer may be considered problematic, it is only expected in a neoliberal economy, in which individuals are coerced to adopt what Ilana Gershon terms ‘neoliberal agency’ and perceive of themselves ‘ a particular self that is a flexible bundle of skills that reflexively manages oneself as though the self was a business’ (Gershon 2011:537). In light of this, one could argue that although many individuals volunteer out of compassion, it is inevitable that skills and insights gained from volunteering will be highlighted when competing in the job market. Nevertheless, many may still feel uneasy about the decision to volunteer not being based solely on altruistic sentiments and intentions to do good. However, it is difficult to deny that volunteering does require moral labour that deserves some form of remuneration. One may question how ethical it is to participate in volunteering as way of boosting your cv, but individuals that partake in organisations such as MSF have to ‘bear witness’ (Redfield 2006) to often harrowing forms of suffering and do deserve recognition of the ‘good’ they do.

We argue that making the experience centred around what the volunteers gain undermines the concept of altruism that seems integral to the image of the volunteer; volunteering, however, is often constructed to its applicants in a way that highlights its instrumental effects on their skills as individuals. While this is not necessarily inherently negative, to market the volunteering experience as primarily based around its effects on the volunteer, appears to direct the motivations to volunteer away from effecting change in a particular community or project. The concept of marketing volunteering to a wide audience, like the UoM volunteer page, plays into Hannah Arendt’s idea that compassion can only exist in interpersonal, face-to-face connection and anything in a public sense is more akin to pity. She suggests that projects that attempt this use of generalised compassion ‘engender a self-indulgent sentiment of pity that … leads those who profess it to take to violence in a vain attempt to demonstrate their own sincerity’ (Arendt 1992:297). However, this kind of advertisement does help to facilitate the potential for genuine moments of compassion when volunteers meet aid recipients face-to-face. 

The issue of volunteer-focused humanitarian aid is that there is a lack of attention towards the local communities and realities that are affected. As previously mentioned, volunteering for the purpose of gaining employable skills is problematic. A further issue is the phenomenon of ‘voluntourism’. Every year millions of people travel from wealthy countries to low income countries to volunteer for NGOs. Much scrutiny has arisen over whether individuals really intend to make a difference in those countries, or whether they just view it as ethical holiday. Regardless of the intention, humanitarian aid is still being given. The problem lies in the perpetuation of existing issues in recipient countries due to uninformed volunteers who perform fleeting visits, unaware of the possible consequences of their work. The assumption that all volunteering helps the local community is emphasised by volunteering marketing strategies that centre on the volunteer, rather than what the recipients gain from the experience. However, research like that of Rebecca Smith (2018) on the detrimental effects of volunteering highlights how untrained young people volunteering in orphanages internationally are unaware of how they affect the psychological development of the ‘orphans’. Smith suggests that orphanages now essentially exist for voluntourism purposes. This means that supporting orphanages through volunteering ‘creates more orphans’ (Smith: 2018). This example reinforces the notion that good intentions do not necessarily equate to positive outcomes; an experience that benefits a volunteer’s CV may have been ineffective or even detrimental to someone else.  

Again, one could argue that it is more important that people are volunteering than how we define and market volunteering. However, this appears to be a misplaced utilitarian logic – the very people who apply to volunteer, what they seek to achieve in doing so, and what they hope to gain, are all mediated by the application process for volunteering which normalise and reproduce certain notions about what it is to volunteer. These notions could in the long run be harmful to the concept of volunteering, but more importantly, could have significant repercussions in these contact zones. While it would be impertinent to paint all volunteering organisations with the same brush, to reformulate the notion of what it is to volunteer in the first instance would seem to relieve some of these tensions.


Arendt, H (Eds: Hinchman, L, P. & Sandra, K, H.) (1992) Hannah Arednt: Critical Essays. State University of New York Press, Albany. 

Gershon, Ilana. (2011). Neoliberal Agency. Current Anthropology, 52(4), pp.537–555

Redfield, Peter. (2006). A less modest witness. American Ethnologist, 33(1), pp.3–26.

University of Manchester. Volunteers. Available at: [Accessed November 26, 2019].

Smith, R. (2018) Orphanages are Not the Solution, Save the Children, Available at: [Accessed November 26, 2019]