Is volunteering working for free? Volunteering vs. free and exploitative work

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The anecdote: what a woman asked me once in a volunteering program

It seems like it is been ages since this anecdote that I’m going to write about happened, but the value of what I learnt of it is still valid and shareable. A few years ago I volunteered in a foundation in Barcelona, ​​the city where I was born and where I usually live. This foundation offered, among many other things, free courses in Spanish and Catalan (where only the course materials had to be paid by the students) to people at risk of social exclusion, especially newcomers immigrants. I was part of this foundation as a volunteer, teaching Spanish as foreign language

It occurred in the class once that, while teaching an intermediate level Spanish, the topic of volunteering as a teacher came up. All the teachers who taught at that foundation were volunteers and, although most of the students didn’t say much about it, there was a student, a fantastic Russian lady in her fifties, who I am going to call C (for her confidentiality, although she gave me permission to talk about this) who had something to say. C asked how it was possible for me to give them a free class twice a week, arguing that I was working for free and definitely working for free.

I recognize that at that time, (apart from rejoicing at the grammatical correction with which she asked me, which it is not relevant now but made me very satisfied as a teacher), I had a hard time trying to explain to C that I was not working for free. Even today I think I failed to express properly why so many people spend time offering part of their skills without even thinking about getting something, money or whatever, in return. Obviously, I wanted to explain that volunteering is usually done with an ethical sense, that volunteering also enriches the volunteer personally and professionally and that I strongly believe in societies where volunteering is a daily reality. But I didn’t know how to explain it in a way that C and probably the other newcomers understand me.

The sad thing and what volunteering isn’t

Unfortunately, some companies offer sometimes volunteering or internships with the aim of finding people who would work for free, often taking advantage of the professional situation of those who, having little experience in their resumes, do not see another viable option to work  to acquire that experience, sometimes even with the (false) promise of being hired over time. But that is not volunteering, not at all.

Volunteering is NOT working for free, it is not working without a paycheck. Volunteering is NOT being full-time or part-time exploited  in a for-profit company that seeks volunteers to save payments and paperwork.

What volunteering is

Volunteering is making a decision: the decision to devote a part of your time to a solidary and altruistic action based on an ethical and personal option, without expecting to receive an economic reward for it. Volunteering means:

I have an ethical and social commitment to improve and transform the reality that surrounds me and I do it by offering what I know how to do.

What I wanted to say about volunteering benefits and pros to my student 

I still remember affectionately C. What would I have liked to say that day? That my option was to improve and transform their reality and mine, theirs and that of each of the students who were there at that class learning Spanish and enhancing their opportunities in Barcelona. This, just to begin with. Because every hour I volunteered as a teacher, I did it with the conviction that my grain of sand was going to transform, mobilize, improve, whatever it is, something of the reality that person lives every day. Because what we were doing there was somehow planting grains of sand so that in the end, the day we’d say goodbye, we could pick up the pile or the mountain of sand that we were creating in that classroom. Because they learned Spanish and I learnt a bit of what they needed, I learnt about their desires and about their realities, I learnt about their needs, which went far beyond of learning what I had to offer in my lessons. Unfortunately, I never got to tell her and them any of this.

Remei González Manzanero
Remei González Manzanero
(Barcelona, 1990). Philologist, freelance writer and text optimizer, teacher of Spanish, persecutor of a PhD in Language Teaching. Passionate about diversity, writing and good causes in the world. She contributes with what she knows how to do and what she keeps learning. As a volunteer, she has been in an educational project for child protection in Lalitpur, Nepal, translating documents and teaching Spanish as a foreign language. She is currently the blog manager of this blog, where she writes as much as she can, from Johannesburg, South Africa.

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