Volunteering without ‘saviourism’

Helping to find solutions

I’m a lucky person. Actually, let’s use the real word. I’m privileged. I’m white, cisgendered, well-off financially and fully able-bodied. I know that my path, mostly because of things out of my control, has been smooth. I also know that there are places where I’m not even aware that the path could be rough. I’m grateful for that.

Like many people who realize their good fortune, I want to give back. I see people whose lives aren’t as easy as mine and I want to help. I want to remove the rocks from their path. And so far, so good.

“Saviourism,” however, rears its ugly head when people like me feel that we can fix the problems of a group or community of which we aren’t a part. (White “saviourism” is the most common form, but saviourism can also show up in other ways, such as well-off people offering advice to those who are struggling financially, etc). It comes when we think that we have solutions the community itself hasn’t thought of. We don’t.

Let’s face it, challenges always look easier from the outside.

We have good intentions, we just don’t have the intimate knowledge or experience. We don’t know the extent of the issue. We may not even understand what the real issue is! We simply can’t come in and solve other peoples’ difficulties.

And even if we could, it’s not our place. Even if our solution would work, it may not be one that the community itself would be comfortable with.

Think about it this way. Here in North America, we have a number of problems caused by our capitalistic society. That doesn’t mean we want someone from a communist society, for example, to come in and “cure” our headaches by installing a communist system here. It may solve the problems of capitalism, but we wouldn’t like it, and it would bring in its own issues. A communist society would not want us to go in and solve their issues with our capitalist programs.

The same goes for traditionally marginalized groups. A solution that may work for us, may not be right for them. We need to be OK with that.

We can’t assume that, because we can’t see anything being done to solve the problems we see, that no one is doing anything. There may be many grassroots organizations or individuals within the community that are working hard in the background. Significant progress can be made without being obvious.

How do we volunteer, then, without falling into the “saviourism” trap? During a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion workshop I attended, I heard a quote that really resonated with me (I have it written on the whiteboard in front of my desk).

“We can’t create equity for people. We have to co-create it with them.,” said Dr. Moussa Magassa, a professor at the University of Victoria. “And that is how we can avoid saviourism.”

We need to support the community in its efforts, rather than trying to take over. We have to do our research. Before we volunteer, we should find out what organizations from the affected community are working on the issue that concerns us. Look at the people on the staff or boards of societies that are involved in the challenge. If they are not, or mostly not, part of the affected community, keep looking.

It’s also important for us to try to find someone who was talking before anyone was listening.

Some causes can become bandwagons that privileged people jump on (again, with the best intentions), because they’ve made the news or were taken up by a famous person. If we really want to help that cause, we must join with the person or people who were fighting for that cause before it became well-known.

They will know more about it than anyone else and may already have a structure in place we can become a part of. They may also have tried some of those solutions we think are so good.

If we are already part of an organization that is working for one of those causes, we need to take a look around. What people are missing from the conversation, even if they’re in the room? If the ideas and decisions are all coming from voices of privilege, there’s a problem.

We need to listen. We need to talk with and learn from people in the community. What are the issues really and what is their scope? We need to listen and learn before we offer any solutions, and even if our solutions would work, understand they may not be accepted. And that’s OK. Our only role is to assist them in finding their own resolutions.

We need to be co-conspirators, not saviours. You never know, we might actually make a difference that way.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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