Service, and volunteering in general, is more often than not viewed as “good.” How could helping someone else in need ever be bad? You are meeting a need, you are giving of your time, you, and service, are good. However, service can be bad. It can be easy to overlook this fact because we don’t want to call ourselves, and others, “bad.” When you take a step back though, it is easy to see that there can be real negatives to service. Whether it be in the intentions, in the action or in the follow through, there are many things that can go wrong with service- many ways that it is not totally “good.”
The main reason I think service becomes not-so-good is because we live in a culture that demands instant gratification. Because of this, we may see a need out in the world and immediately start trying to fix it without thinking it through first. Do we have the right intentions? Does this community even want our help? Are we getting to the root of the problem? How might we use the strengths this community already has instead of just trying to tackle their needs? Are we willing to follow through after service or set up a system that will support the changes we made so the service is not just effective, but sustainable? These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves. Service does not have to be bad! We just need to look at it a little closer before we begin.
The first problem with how “good” an act of service is lies in the server’s intentions. High schools, organizations and clubs all sometimes require “mandatory service hours.” If the primary reason someone decides to serve is get a form signed or a box checked, they probably do not want to be there very much. This will show in how they serve- their service will be less focused, less thoughtful, less urgent. On the flip-side, some people may decide to do service just because how it makes them “look” or feel. Doing service just for the Instagram picture, the praise of others or to feel good about yourself is not really the point either.
These intentions can undermine the very point of serving before you even begin. Yes, maybe you are still meeting the need that needs to be met, but service is about more than just meeting a need. Service is about building relationships in communities and letting the served know they are respected and valued. Doing service without this intention does little for the served and even less for yourself.
Another problem arises when we do not put the community we are serving first. They know more about themselves than we know about them, so they are better suited to know their needs and possible solutions to their problems. The problem is, we forget that very quickly. We think that we know best; and it can be very easy to jump right in where we see fit. You would think that the community being served may stop the volunteers right there and say, “Hold on! We would like some input on this!” But this can be very hard for a community to say because if they are truly in need, and someone wants to help them, how could they resist? When the group trying to help is offering money and resources the community needs, they will probably allow the group to do what they want, for fear of losing the resources. This is unfair to the community in question and takes away from real change that could be happening in that community.
A community should not only dictate what service should be done, but have a real working part in this service. The community should be working alongside the volunteers, coming up with a solution to the problem and putting that solution into action. This is important because it will increase the likelihood that whatever work is being done will continue in the future- the service will be sustainable. If volunteers come into a community, stay for a few hours or days working on a problem, and leave without keeping the community truly informed on what they were doing, the community will have no way of knowing how to continue or sustain this work in the future. The service performed will therefore be a waste of both time and resources.
The community in question also needs to be analyzed before service can begin. Every community has strengths. Oftentimes, these strengths can be used for good, but aren’t because it takes time and effort to connect all of the strengths and assets of a community in beneficial ways. There may be many different groups working on the same issue in a community. If all these groups worked together, how much more they could get done! It is also counterintuitive to utilize the strengths of a community when you are trying to solve a problem. Because we are impatient, we just want to fix the problem. Taking a step back to look at where the community is thriving or could thrive is not the natural first step in problem solving. The use of preexisting strengths in a community though, can save time and resources, and can allow for a better infrastructure in the future.
It can be very easy decide to do some sort of service in a community when the plan is to do it for a few hours, a day or even a week. You are committing yourself to a set amount of time. We need to realize however that doing service is not just about the act of serving for five hours on a given Saturday. The point of doing service is for that service to have a lasting impact on the community. A community may just need a wall painted, so you go and do that. The fact that they needed the wall painted though, means that there is some sort of financial or physical need present. It is important to keep in touch with this community to see what else they may need help with in the future. Or maybe you repaired something that was broken. It is important to teach the community members how to repair it, so that if it ever happens again, they will either know how to fix it themselves or be able to call on you again.
When you think about all the ways that service can go awry, it can be a little depressing. It can feel like we will never be able to serve well, which may cause you to think, “why bother?” Unfortunately, we are imperfect people. Our attempts at serving those around us will be imperfect too. We will sometimes go in with the wrong intentions, think we know more than others, or fail to follow through after serving a community. We may forget the importance of the community we are serving and discredit their knowledge, strengths and abilities. We can get very impatient and jump into service without putting much thought into it- if we are even getting to the root of the problem. It is very possible for even a good work of service to do some harm in a community. It is important to remember though, that as long as we think about these things in advance, we may not be perfect, but we are showing care for the community we are serving and we are engaging responsibly. Service is not always good, but that does not mean it has to stay that way. We have the power to make a difference in the way we serve and be an example to those around us.