Taking Care

The Quest for an Ethical and Mutual Approach to Service

The university conference room buzzed with questions and rich conversation as students wandered through the maze of post-graduate volunteer service display tables. As I watched the students passing by, the words of author James Baldwin played in my head: "The questions which one asks oneself begin, at last, to illuminate the world and become one's key to the experience of others." I knew that the students I met that day who chose to participate in a service assignment would open themselves up to new and challenging questions. These questions might take a lifetime to answer, yet had the potential to propel them toward becoming the effective and engaged citizens and leaders that our diverse and interconnected world so greatly needs.

During a lull in visiting with students, I struck up a conversation with a young man representing another service organization that serves impoverished U.S. cities. He confided in puzzled frustration, "We are really having trouble in one community. We've been going there for a couple of years but now they are telling us they don't want us to come. We've been bringing students to fix up homes, paint, haul away garbage. It's a really poor area and the place is a mess. We are only there for a week each time. We come in, do the work, and head out, so the teams are not very disruptive at all. We are just trying to help." I was reminded that, as a facilitator of service, I also needed to follow Baldwin's cue. What questions should I be asking to help illuminate the delicate and clouded path of serving others well? Indeed, in addition to questions, the room was also full of assumptions. Display tables and organization leaders, myself included, touted the benefits of service: namely, how service can make a lasting and positive impact on the world while simultaneously benefiting the volunteer with intercultural and leadership skills and more. However, I know it can go either way: the act of serving does not guarantee a mutual benefit. At times, in fact, quite the opposite can occur. Care must be taken for service volunteer and host community alike. Both deserve our careful consideration of the ethics of service.

Concerns about the benefits and methodology employed in serving others are not new. In 1968 the Catholic priest Ivan Illich gave a scathing yet poignant scolding to a room full of eager newly-arrived U.S. volunteers in Mexico: "I am here to entreat you to freely, consciously, and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on Mexico. I am here to entreat you to use your money, your status, and your education to travel in Latin America. Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help."

Are these ungrateful hosts? Or is there something else much deeper, less visible, and perhaps more critical at play? As the growing culture of volunteerism entails extended and delicate immersion into the lives of others, it is more important than ever to pause and take this question seriously. I do not believe the best answer is a blanket "do not go," though there are certain situations and methods of service where this might indeed be the correct and most ethical choice. Our collective challenge is to discern and implement only quality service. Entreaties to stop serving offer an opportunity to check our blind spots and closely examine our assumptions, expectations, and practices about "doing good for others," whether it is in a U.S. classroom rife with economic and educational disparity, or abroad in a remote village devastated by HIV/AIDS.

At the same time, equal care must be taken on behalf of the volunteer. Too often, ambitious, caring young adults find themselves thrust into a strange culture or unknown situation ill-equipped to deal with the physical, mental, financial, social, and spiritual challenges that await them. Mark Terrell, founder and director of Cup Cool Water, a ministry for homeless youth, shares that "my time of service has been the greatest thing I have ever done in the world. I have never experienced so much joy, peace, hope, unity and love. Yet at the same time it is the worst thing I have ever done in the world. I have never felt so much anger, frustration, fear, sadness. I have never felt so worthless, hopeless, and unloved." Organizations that facilitate service volunteers-too often strapped for cash, time, and personnel-cannot always provide the system of support necessary to prepare young adults for life during and after a time of service.

Val and a friend play with Puppies

There is unease brewing amidst many service volunteer advocates, myself included. Many have shared with me stories of good intentions gone awry, and I note the current rapid growth of programs such as Teach for America and AmeriCorps (which has plans to jump from 75,000 members in 2009 to 250,000 by 2015).1 Service organizations, volunteers, nonprofits, and university service-learning programs must examine the positive and negative ramifications of service on the host community and volunteer alike. Many are doing so already. My hope in this article is to support the holistic framing of service ethics and to instigate healthy debate around this increasingly relevant and timely topic.

My first insights into service ethics began over ten years ago when my husband Tom and I moved to a village in Kenya for a year-long volunteer opportunity. The astounding generosity of a warm and thoughtful school manager completely altered my own assumptions about "service." We were making our first visit to the school where we would live and work. Like many overseas volunteers, we knew little about what our role would be. We had been told by the director of our volunteer program that we would be living with the school manager Njeri and supporting additional life-skills courses for the girls at a dress-making and tailoring boarding school.

From the beginning, it was evident Njeri was a delightful woman; I was excited at the prospect of living with her. We walked across the school yard to a rectangular stone house with a flat roof. Njeri opened the door and walked in, beckoning us to follow. Her house was empty. We took in the freshly painted red cement floor and bare golden walls. Slightly self-consciously, she explained, "I want you to have this place. I have moved to another." She'd moved five years of living out of this stone house and into a small tin house elsewhere on the school grounds.
Every fiber of my being wished to reject the gift and a dozen reasons to do so came to mind. But with a wise and sharp look from our program director, I swallowed my refusal and gave humble thanks.

One hour, two cups of tea, and dozens of handshakes later, we'd crossed a threshold not only into our new home but into a new spiritual humility. Our entire service perspective had been irrevocably altered. The scale was tipped: we hadn't realized there even was a scale, much less how heavily we had weighted our role as the primary giver. Yet such assumptions had certainly lingered below the surface. Instead, we were thrust into a sense of mutual indebtedness.2 Indeed, any sense of what we could do for the girls at the school paled in comparison to the remarkable gift we'd been given on our very first day of service.

It's been twelve years since Njeri's momentous gift began the recalibration of how I perceive service globally and locally. After returning to the United States, I became involved with the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship, first as a volunteer board member, then as Program Director, and now as Executive Director. My work has provided me with the privilege of coming alongside young adults in their journey through service.

The Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship is one of many organizations that believe deeply in the benefits of connecting highly motivated young adults with significant service opportunities to help meet some of the toughest challenges facing our local and global communities. A cohort of "Krista Colleagues" engage in a year or more of service in one of three areas of focus: urban U.S., developing nations, and environmental projects. The Krista Foundation is different than many service organizations, such as Peace Corps or Lutheran Volunteer Corps, in that it does not place volunteers in the field. Instead, the focus is to augment the good work of other organizations by providing ongoing support and a peer mentoring community for young adults before, during, and perhaps most valuably, in the transition years beyond their formal service season.

Through the last ten years of sharing in the stories and experiences of Krista Colleagues, the Foundation community has become increasingly aware of the gifts and challenges that impact host communities and volunteers alike. Similar to business or environmental ethics, we have begun to use the term "service ethics" to describe the process of discerning best practices for effective service engagement. We intentionally explore service ethics both from the standpoint of the impact on the host community and -equally crucial in our minds-the impact on the life of the young adult volunteer.

Behind the intended benefits to those being served exists an assumption on our part that there is a long-term benefit to the volunteer and, by extension, their home community. Insights gained in service can be vitally leveraged to support the development of an exceptional generation of leaders. However, we must be careful not to assume that participation in service automatically guarantees that the volunteer will immediately or eventually possess such characteristics as effective leadership, intercultural competency, and civic engagement. Recent research on organizations such as Teach for America and university study abroad programs3 suggest that without intentional and well-guided balance of challenge and support, the result can be quite the opposite. According to Stanford University sociologist Doug McAdam, reasons given by Teach for America alums for lower rates of civic involvement include "not only exhaustion and burnout, but also disillusionment with Teach for America's approach to the issue of education inequity."4

Transitioning out of an intense service season and making sense of it is no small task. As Ronald Heifetz, Ph.D., a Harvard professor on leadership, argues, "Adaptive leadership is not just about change. It's also about identifying what you want to hold onto...a change process also involves a lot of hard thinking about what to preserve."5 Anecdotal evidence suggests that many young volunteers resonate with this concept. A businessman and former Peace Corp volunteer shared with me recently, "Life after service really threw me for a loop. Being in Bolivia was easy compared to coming back to the United States. I was disillusioned by U.S. consumerism, individualism and all the other ‘ism's.' I had a lot of passion but was impotent. I just spun my wheels for several years. I have a great job now but I sometimes wish I'd found a way to connect the two lives." As Krista Foundation co-founder Linda Hunt shares, "much of the real work begins when they return. They have a chance to explore what they experienced in the field and decide what to do with it."

The Krista Foundation operates on the belief that a season of significant service does not end with the formal assignment, but rather becomes a foundational beginning for "service as a way of life."6 Instead of "two lives" as the businessman described, former volunteers can translate their service experience into one interwoven life, positively leveraging the lessons learned into vocation, community, faith and family.

Beyond a doubt, the growing service culture represents an unprecedented and exciting opportunity to maximize its benefit both for service volunteer and host community. Here are some of the significant areas that both sending organizations and individuals choosing to volunteer should explore when thinking about service ethics:

Mindset and Methodology

The mission teams led by the young man I met at the university service fair years ago most likely came to the community with competent skills and the best of intentions. However, the desire of the hosts that the mission teams stop "serving" them altogether suggests the teams lacked something even more important: a mindset and methodology relevant and respectful of the host communities' perspective. From the beginning, a one-way relationship both in mindset and methodology existed.

A shift away from one-way service culture can begin with the lesson Tom and I learned from Njeri: the importance of being "mutually indebted." As service volunteers and facilitators of service, our ability to learn from and receive the gift of service from those we endeavor to serve is crucial. Without a more holistic and mutual approach we run the risk-as the mission teams did-of unwittingly reinforcing the very structures and perspectives that impede our collective ability to find sustainable and life-giving solutions to pressing problems.

How do volunteers recognize the inherent privileges they enjoy as guests who have chosen to participate in a given cause or community for a finite amount of time?

How can volunteers and organizations alike foster a spirit of mutual indebtedness and appreciate fully the many gifts they receive from the community they endeavor to serve?

What are examples of best practices for service partnerships that address the inherent power-privilege dynamics of a serve and served model?

Relevant Skill, Realistic Role

Many organizations work tirelessly with local host communities to design meaningful placements and ensure service volunteers either have or are trained in the skills needed to respond, not dictate, to the community in need. Others are not so careful.

Who determines who should serve who, and what that service should entail?

How are volunteers equipped to accomplish with integrity the service task at hand?

Recognizing that service volunteers deserve respect and require care, what expectations and boundaries should govern their time of service?

When is volunteerism an appropriate way to augment, replace, or subsidize professional paid staff? How do we best determine when or where the line is crossed, and the use of volunteers becomes unreasonable or even abusive?

Commitment to Intercultural Learning

When Njeri shattered Tom's and my benevolent service plan by giving us her house, more than a scale tipping occurred. We were reminded that we had a distinctive cultural perspective and had entered volunteerism seeing ourselves as the primary giver. In this case, it was a truly North American sense of myself as an independent individual. While student loans and consumer debt was a normal part of my cultural worldview, the notion of being indebted to another person was almost too much to take.

Indeed, perhaps one of the most important paths to serving others effectively, be it in the U.S. or overseas, is learning more about one's own culture(s) and way of being in the world. Recognizing when and how our worldview intersects and/or differs from others can go a long way towards finding mutually beneficial ways to bring the skills, insights, and gifts of all to the table. A commitment to intercultural learning is core to developing healthy service models.

What emphasis and place does intercultural learning have in the training or ongoing mentoring of service volunteers?

Where and how is the voice and leadership of the host community honored and heard?

How do we attend to the latent classist, sexist, or racist attitudes that might lurk below the surface and inform our assumptions? 

Service Year: More than a Photo Album

As a rich and challenging service season concludes, memories good and bad abound. Service experiences can become a nostalgic photo album that we pull out and dust off. As we attempt to interpret snapshots for friends and family our unanswered questions are like blurry images, the parts that are raw and painful are photos carefully omitted. On the other hand, the questions we ask of our service season can become, as Baldwin says, "one's key to the experience of others," the foundation for nurturing a life-long ethic of service and global citizenship.

How can service programs be designed with intentional space for volunteers to ask the hard questions?
Where does a facilitating organization's responsibility begin and end with supporting the transition of a volunteer out of a service placement? For volunteers, what opportunities exist beyond the facilitating service organization to engage service learning and identify venues for next-step discernment?

How can organizations, volunteers, and communities, partner to support transitioning volunteers as they align next steps with their new perspectives and enriched worldview?

In my work both as a volunteer and a facilitator of service, I have come to believe that our collective success or failure to serve others effectively and ethically hinges not only on the questions we ask, but also on the honest pursuit of answers, and the subsequent implementation of best practices. We can take our lead from groups like Comhlámh's Volunteering Options, an Irish nonprofit organization whose mission is to equip "development workers in global solidarity." Their Volunteer Charter and The Comhlámh Code of Good Practice for Volunteer Sending Organisations encourage "a set of standards aimed at ensuring that overseas volunteering has a positive impact for the volunteer, the sending organization, and the host project and community."7 In the U.S., platforms for connecting young adults to service and helping them discern options are growing, including the websites of idealist.org and Catholic Volunteer Network. Partnerships such as Volunteers Exploring Vocation facilitated by the Fund for Theological Education, which includes the Krista Foundation and thirteen other Christian volunteer service organizations, offer additional opportunities to share best practices.

Despite the challenges that the ethics of service present, one of the most common refrains heard from returninservice volunteers is, "I received so much more than I gave." In the humble spirit of mutual indebtedness, we are privileged long after our formal service season concludes to continue asking questions, and in so doing, honor the gifts given and lessons learned. These young adults speak with passion, care, insight, wit, and often with deep ache for all the challenge and strain of being in the service crucible. With such depth of commitment and enthusiasm, volunteers-and the communities they endeavor so passionately to serve-deserve careful service ethics. Let the conversation begin.

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Val NorwoodIn 1999, Valerie Norwood and her husband Tom became part of the Krista Colleague Charter Class. They embarked on a yearlong volunteer assignment in Kenya. Upon returning to the United States she joined the Board of the Krista Foundation and worked in the insurance and business field and then with Mustard Seed Associates, an international Christian ecumenical ministry. In 2003 she became the Krista Foundation's first Program Director and currently serves as the Executive Director. Additionally, her great joys are to play in the forest with her sons Caden and Colin, have friends over for dinner, and grow vegetables and native weeds.