ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011 - 4:44pm
posted by
Laura E. Tan
Public Allies Arizona
Program Manager
ASU Lodestar Center

As I've done every March for the past four years, I participated as a Team Leader in United Way's Alternative Spring Break (ASB) in the metro Washington D.C. area. ASB is a great opportunity for college students who choose to spend their spring breaks volunteering in communities across the country. Since 2006, nearly 2,000 students have participated in ASB, volunteering over 64,000 hours of service.

For part of this year's ASB service, my group got to work at an after-school program for at-risk kids, ages 5-11, to help them with their homework. Our team noticed that many of the older kids struggled with basic reading and math concepts, even though they are at an age when fundamentals should be well established. We were only at Beacon House for four short days, but after working hard with the kids, many of us got attached to our new friends.

One of the participants in my group, Shelina, formed a particularly close bond with an 11-year-old girl who, for privacy reasons, I will call Zee. At the beginning of the week, Zee told Shelina that she wanted to be a hairdresser when she grows up. After observing the girl's clear talent at math and science throughout the week, Shelina encouraged her to think about other careers that would make use of her skills. By the end of the week, inspired by Shelina's support, Zee began to consider the possibilities of being a math teacher or a fashion designer.

On Thursday, as they hugged goodbye, Zee had a particularly hard time letting go of Shelina, both figuratively and literally. As Shelina detangled herself from her, Zee wailed, "Why do you have to leave?"

"I live in New Jersey, and I have to go back," replied Shelina.

"WHYYY?" countered Zee.

"I have to go back to school, " Shelina replied patiently.

Zee pouted, then shot back, "If you have to leave, then why did you bother coming in the first place?"

Shelina had no response.

It's a pretty good question, right? Every year, as ASB comes to a close, students tell us about how much they've learned, how they loved helping people, and how they've made great new friends. From the students' perspective, there are many compelling reasons for coming to Alternative Spring Break.

But what are the costs involved for the community members? Shelina was heartbroken when she had to leave Zee, especially because Zee had shared that her parents were divorced and didn't spend much time with her. Shelina was worried she had done more harm than good by coming into Zee's life and leaving it just as abruptly. In our reflection session at the end of the last day, she wondered out loud to the group, "Even if I was able to help Zee by being a role model and helping her with her homework, was it really worth it?"

Shelina's question highlights an important part of the service dynamic and embodies one of the core values of the Public Allies program I help manage at the ASU Lodestar Center: having integrity about the work that we come into communities to do. If we say we really care about strengthening our communities and making them better places to live, work and play, then we, like Shelina, have to ask ourselves the hard questions about why and how we serve. In this case, while there are no easy answers to Shelina's question, we might learn from her experience and strive to be more thoughtful about our work in the world.


This is such a great perspective. Volunteering is clearly a wonderful thing, but I agree that we have to consider fostering continuing relationships, especially when we're dealing with people (and even more so with kids).

I've volunteered with kids many times in the past, and it's always a refreshing experience, one which I walk away from with a sense of accomplishment. But by thinking about the impression I'm leaving instead of the feelings I'm leaving with, I definitely think I'll be able to make stronger relationships and deeper impacts.

It's a great question, and it doesn't apply just to ASB trips. The question is essentially: Am I volunteering just for the sake of volunteering, or can I truly make a difference?

I wrote an article about ASB trips back when I was writing for The Stanford Daily. I interviewed a few students and included their perspectives, and the theme of their responses was that the ASB trips are not effective for short-term impact, but they do great things to inspire people to further service. You can check it out here:

That’s a really good question for her to ask. I am starting to volunteer with at risk children and one of the first things they tell us is that we need to commit to at least a nine month period. For the fact that they have so many people that come and go in their life and that we need to be there for them if they start. I think it’s really good that they tell us that because I wouldn’t want to be the person that walks out of a child’s life. They need us so we need to be there for them.
It’s a lot of fun working with kids and things you learn for them are things that you cannot get from anywhere else. For all that to happen it needs time and patience, things don’t just happen instantly.

@Kayla - Thanks!

@Jessica - Great point. And I completely agree that different types of service opportunities are appropriate for people who are in different places in regard to their attitudes, knowledge, etc. about service and community issues. Short-term projects will always be a piece of the pie. But as nonprofits and volunteers and other folks who are invested in the sector, we can always be mindful of and responsible for how we might potentially affect communities, for better AND for worse.

@Ambika - Yes, especially with mentors, I've seen organizations ask for those types of commitments. And like Jessica stated above, short-term projects are useful for inspiring people to do more, especially when they're just learning what service can be.

But I think your point encourages us to think: How are the projects are set up? How has the community itself been a part of the planning process? And in what ways are volunteers interacting with the community during the project? If we discipline ourselves to ask those questions, we can create the kind of change that ensures we respect all people involved as well.

@Jessica, thanks for sharing the link to your article! I think it is a perfect companion piece to Laura's blog post. I often wrestled with these issues when I was a missionary for my church in Korea for two years. In addition to my regular proselytizing activities, I participated in multiple community service projects each week. We did a variety of things, from picking up garbage on downtown streets, to helping out on rice farms, to working with autistic kids in mental health facilities. So, the concept you mentioned of service in another country really resonated with me. While my experience was of a much greater length of time, I felt many of the same frustrations that the students you interviewed gave voice to. Sometimes I felt like my status as a foreigner obscured my ability to serve effectively - especially when it came to working with the autistic kids. They would get so riled up (because in many cases we were the first foreign faces these kids had ever seen) that I wondered if we had done more harm than good. But, I can definitely say that my experiences in Korea helped me to be a better person.

As a missionary I was often plagued with the fear that I would do more harm than good. I made mistakes, and wasn't always as effective as I probably could have been, and I worried about how my often awkward attempts at service was affecting the people I was trying to serve. Luckily, I think good intentions can go a long way. People are often willing to overlook mistakes and inefficiencies when they recognize that your motives are pure. Thank goodness for that. But, it definitely doesn't excuse us from having to take responsibility for the results of our actions (whether intended or otherwise).

I'm glad that Laura had the insight and courage to tackle a topic that we, as service-minded people, are often loath to discuss, or even think about. I am increasingly convinced that volunteer organizations and nonprofits need to build space into their programming that allows them to evaluate and critically think about the aggregate effects of their activities - especially the unintentional ones. I know that this is very difficult, logistically, and so I applaud the United Way for building the reflection sessions into their program. I'm sure that the more we carefully spend time trying to consider all of the implications (whether good or bad) of our service, we will learn to plan better and be able to, hopefully, minimize any negative repercussions and maximize our efficiency.

Great job, Laura!

All of you have brought to light so many great insights about volunteering, service opportunities and the perspective we all need to have as professionals and volunteers alike. I have never been a part of an alternative spring break, but I have been involved with a number of local youth programs. Each time I choose to volunteer I always think to myself, “What can I do to be a part of inspiring or bettering these children’s lives?” I think all of you have made me realize that in order to volunteer you need to have that passion about something, but you also need to set aside your own personal wants and look at it from the perspective of the communities you are serving.
I have been a Big in the Big Brother Big Sister Program for about a year now, and it has taught me so much about myself and about what it means to fully commit to mentoring a child. As many of you probably know, BBBS asks you to commit for at least a year, and set aside 2-4 times a month to spend with your little. I thought long and hard before I said I could commit, this wasn’t just about me wanting to help this involved another human, a child. Even though I feel as if I have all my ducks in a row, I have a busy lifestyle with full time school, full time work, two puppies, a fiancé and trying to plan a wedding; but what is once a week, when compared to everything, to be there for a child. Through the last year, I have created such an amazing bond with my Little, but it breaks my heart every time I talk to her on the phone and she asks when are you coming to get me; or makes up dates and times when she thinks we are going to hang out; or when it’s time to take her home says “Can’t I just stay? I don’t wanna go home.” It has been a struggle for me to find a happy medium for our relationship.
I think that all of these questions that you have all brought to the table aren’t just questions we need to ask ourselves about service abroad programs, but questions we should be asking in every volunteer opportunity we take on, every project and with every program.

- Danny

Thanks to Laura and everyone else too for bringing this touchy subject into the light for discussion.

I don't know what's more heartbreaking for a volunteer than to have our fears manifest themselves in a simple question of a child asking, "If you had to leave then why did you bother coming?"

I have definitely experienced that gut wrenching feeling where you are forced to look inside at your truest inner motives and realize that they were not completely unselfish, and wonder if your service actually benefited you more than the intended recipients. As Travis mentioned, mission trips can certainly have this feel. In the two that I have been on, one was over the weekend at an orphanage in Mexico and one was in Queens, New York and lasted a week.

Volunteers are the type of people who are going to be hard on themselves. Some people look around and see economic opportunity, political injustice, creativity, beauty or complacency. Volunteers look around and see need. We are so critical of the work that we do and the impact it makes on others because we feel a personal sense of responsibility to alleviate the suffering or injustice of others. It’s our strength and our weakness.

Even if our motives are not 100% altruistic, or the services we provide don’t meet every client need and produce all the outcomes we had hoped for, that doesn’t mean that we should hesitate in going out and serving others frequently and to the best of our ability. That little girl will never forget the time that she spend with her tutor, and the encouragement she received in that one short trip may have forever changed the way that she views herself and the goals that she can achieve. And remember, the success of a client doesn’t normally depend on a single individual. Where one person sows another harvests...

Great post, I too have had such an experience when i volunteered at the YMCA in Huntingtion Park, California. I would suggest for ASB to stay close to "home". There are many places in Phoenix that need the same help, why not better our communities before we start trying to reach out to others? This way we can stay connected and follow up with those we help and increase community connectedness and the power for change with in our communities.

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