Self-Serving Community Service

Frankly, volunteering is not always fun. Before college, I volunteered at the Center for Refugee Children. Sometimes it was dull, frustrating, or even dangerous, but it was also rewarding. It was rewarding to see the progress your students make in language and math, to see them grateful and excited. Looking back I can see that the value of that experience is in the fact that it was not about me, not about volunteers at all; it was always about our children.

However, an entirely different experience awaited me at UC San Diego. At UCSD I tried to get involved with Alternative Breaks. The first thing that surprised and disappointed me was that their projects seemed to be volunteer-oriented rather than issue-oriented.  Looking through the Alternative Breaks @ UCSD site, one can spot a lot of conversation about raising “lifelong socially active and globally conscious leaders” and many photos of volunteers. However, one will not be able to find much about which issues the organization tries to tackle or which results it had achieved. This is not surprising since organizations such as Alternative Breaks are only disguised as philanthropic organizations when in fact, they are social clubs for UCSD students.

Such a self-misrepresentation results in systemic inefficiencies in both local and global efforts. For instance, in an Alternative Breaks program called Alternative Weekends in which I participated, only two out of 10 hours was spent on actual service while the rest of the time was devoted to various social activities. The same inefficiency can be demonstrated in Alternative Breaks international efforts. Students dispatched by the program to Ecuador spend a lot of money on transportation and accommodation while bringing little to no change since they lack necessary language skills for social work or physical preparation for hard labor.

Such false advertising is not uncommon among “philanthropy” organizations. Rotaract, Volunteering Programs in Women’s Center, Human Trafficking Awareness Programs, and many others are posing themselves as volunteering programs while in fact, they are social clubs. Apart from the above-mentioned systemic inefficiencies, some philanthropic organizations can never pick the right tone for the conversation on serious issues. For example, Rotaract conducted a Polio Awareness Program in which volunteers were supposed to guess Polio-related statistics by putting the right number of Skittles candies into a cup. People were laughing, screaming, and applauding when getting the correct answer and in the process, everybody forgot that every candy denotes thousands of children crippled, paralyzed, or killed by the disease.  

This tone is more harmful than it may seem at first sight. It trivializes and dehumanizes the issues discussed, which leads students and organizations to overestimate their impact on serious issues and underestimate the necessity for community intervention. As a result, despite the abundance of organizations on campus protecting and supporting women affected by sexual abuse, I arrived at UCSD in severe depression, struggling with PTSD, but could not get any help on campus.

The fact that social clubs on campus disguise themselves as philanthropic organizations harms campus philanthropy. However, there are ways to fix this.

First and foremost, no social club should disguise itself as a philanthropy organization. Contrary to common belief, a disguise as a social club does not help attract more people to volunteering. It, on the contrary, drives people who are already passionate and are willing to put an effort away, and it turns volunteering into a silly game which does not benefit anybody. I do not think that those social clubs should be eliminated. They are in fact playing a crucial role on campus providing students with opportunities for meaningful socialization, for getting leadership experience, and for starting their careers. However, it would lead to a better outcome if those organizations were reformed into either solely volunteering organizations indeed focused on issues they tackle, or into social clubs where people have a fun time hanging out.

Secondly, to achieve a goal of raising active citizens pursued by UCSD, we should expose students to work which will indeed make a difference. After, they will be able to see the results, even if this work will be sometimes dull and draining.

Finally, instead of creating a distorted image that volunteering is always fun while not necessarily efficient, the campus should create an awareness program educating student organizations on essential criteria for a high-standard philanthropic organization. Such a program would help students make smart decisions when donating money, involving themselves with organizations, and maybe starting their own.