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Volunteering Abroad Didn't Work Out: How Do You Do The Right Thing?

Posted by Randy LeGrant | Dec 31, 2010 12:52:00 PM

I watched a TED talk today by Barry Schwartz.  I was so taken with Mr. Schwartz and the subject of "doing the right thing" that I'm embedding the video at the bottom of this post.

What got my mind racing at the outset of Professor Schwartz' talk was the description of measuring a round column in relation to "rules." If you think about it, it is impossible to measure a round column using a ruler.  So to solve the problem, the Greeks fashioned a ruler that bends.  (Yeah...you can already see where Schwartz is going with this one...)

A taptape measuree measure.  A flexible rule.  A rule that bends.  Aristotle saw that to measure a round column, they needed to design a ruler that could bend and later he equated that with dealing with people.  Often times we need to bend the rules.  In dealing with others, many times to be successful we need to improvise.  But a wise person bends the rules and improvises for the right aims.  Schwartz goes on to say, "If you are a person who bends the rules and improvises to serve yourself, what you get is ruthless manipulation of other people.  So it matters that you do this in the service of others and not in the service of yourself."

Most of us think institutions, and for that matter most people, don't really have our best interests at heart.   We mistrust organizations and other people more today than ever before.  My physician needs to see a patient every 11 minutes.  How can he get to know me in that amount of time?  My bank needs to cut their risk, so along with thousands of other consumers, they decrease my credit line without calling me to sit down and talk about it and inquire about my needs.  Teachers, teaching for the test, can't or won't spend time with my kid to find out what he already knows and what skills he really needs to learn next month.

Professor Schwartz reminds us that to deal with the economic crisis, we set up rules for bankers.  And to make certain no child is left behind, we set up rules for teachers to follow on how to educate all children.  We tend to react to a crisis or even criticism by setting up rules, or devising even more rules so that these things never happen again.  But that only adds fuel to the mistrust we have in organizations, because they are so busy enforcing the rules and inventing rules on how to enforce rules, there is little time to get to know the customer.  And we all know that like water, people will find the cracks in the rules.  The point of the TED talk is that rules and incentives don't work.  Practical wisdom works.
In the Volunteer Abroad space, I have seen websites pop up that actually encourage people to write negative reviews of their volunteer project abroad.  Whether they went on that project or not!  It seems to be encouraged on those sites that the more negative you can be the better things will get.  I don't see any suggestions on using practical wisdom in making things better.  I do see many opportunities to make the problem worse.  And that only contributes to mistrust.  They are simply a depository of negativity.

Schwartz concludes the talk with, "Rules and incentives don't tell you how to be a good friend, how to be a good parent, how to be a good spouse, or how to be a good doctor, a good lawyer or a good teacher.  Rules and incentives are no substitutes for wisdom.  In giving us the will and skill to do right thing, to do right by others, practical wisdom also gives us the will and the skill to do right by ourselves."

I think the bottom line is this:  If the organization does right by you, it does right by itself.  If the organization does not do right by you, use wisdom in your next steps so that you do right for others, thereby doing right by yourself.  It's why we volunteer, isn't it?  We do right by others and therefore we do right by ourselves.

Written by Randy LeGrant

Randy is the Executive Director of the GeoVisions Foundation. He has spent the last 44 years managing organizations that send people abroad on cultural and educational exchanges.

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