Only the weird volunteer

OVER ONE MILLION PEOPLE in the United States volunteered internationally in 2008, an increase from 145,000 in 2004. While a seemingly positive trend, there’s a caveat: Most of these volunteers are WEIRD.

That is, the typical volunteer is white, educated, industrialized, rich, and from a democratic culture. The concept of WEIRD people has been discussed in psychology, with some researchers positing that perhaps white undergraduate students are not indicative of worldwide views (Jones, 2010). However, I thought it was incredibly applicable in international volunteering contexts as well. In a study by Lough (2010), over half of the sample of volunteers had a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 88% were white. In addition, McBride and Lough (2010) found that white people were more than twice as likely to volunteer abroad than black people. And 1 in 3 volunteers lived in a home with an income of over $100,000.

Are we unconsciously perpetuating ideas of white privilege and creating unequal relationships?

While this seems like common sense and perhaps unavoidable (families with higher levels of income would have more time and financial resources to put towards volunteering), how does having such a homogenous volunteer base affect relationships with those of other cultures? In a study by Cross-Cultural Solutions (2009), one of the largest international volunteer organizations, they surveyed alumni volunteers on their experiences volunteering abroad.


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