It’s that time of year when many intrepid gap year students ready themselves to jet off to the developing world: building toilets, teaching at schools and generally giving their time to those who need it. While these young volunteers are doing an incredibly good thing, there are many vocal cynics that quite rightly ask: ‘Instead of spending money to travel to a school, why don’t you just donate that money to the school?’. It’s an interesting question and gets to the heart of whether people should donate time or donate money to charity. Should all those who plan to volunteer abroad simply donate their fees, or is their time well spent?
Is time ever more important to a charity than money?
There are certain kinds of charities that need time far more than they need money. All the money in the world cannot create blood, for example. Therefore non profit organisations like the UK’s National Blood Service desperately need people to donate 15 minutes of their time and give blood, rather than try give money. Often charities need manpower to truly raise awareness for a cause: they need people to go out into the streets and educate the public about their cause.
Don’t the benefits of money always outweigh the benefits from volunteers?
Of the cynics who shout down overseas volunteers, many fail to note that sometimes the contact that volunteers provide can accomplish much more than money can. For example, the presence of a young educated woman in rural village provide inspiration to girls who must walk two miles every day to the nearest school. Of course, inspiration isn’t everything and money much reach those who need it. But it isn’t a zero-sum game: both volunteers and funding are important to charities and neither should be written off.
Shouldn’t it be the people in need who benefit, not the volunteer?
It may not be incredibly altruistic, but it is important to consider what the volunteer gets from the experience. Volunteering not only gives the volunteer an incredible life experience, but it also introduces them to the reality of the situation far more than reading about it ever could. People also like to see the fruits of their own labour: many do not like donating money to charity because they don’t feel certain it will reach the people who need it.
Some people are so affected by what they do and see that it becomes their life passion and career. For others, even if they don’t join the third sector, the time they spend volunteering leads them to be passionate for the cause all their life. Spending a year in Somalia doesn’t mean you’re going to drop your life plan to be an accountant and move there to build wells, but it does mean that you will be aware of the cause and probably support it and fundraise for it your entire life.
So what should I do, donate time or donate money?
The people who know best are the charities themselves. Think about the causes you’re interested in and give a related charity or charity hub a call: only they know what they need the most. For example, after an earthquake or other natural disaster plenty of volunteers will spill on the scene. What they will need most are donations and people helping to fundraise for those donations.
And if you’re wondering whether spending a length of time like a gap year volunteering is worth it, I for one say yes. You never know what good you can do until you go out there and do it
By author Richard Orban, writing on behalf of www.probonoaustralia.com.au. Pro Bono Australia is a social enterprise, grouping together various non profit organisations in Australia.