We want to give what we think is important for us. This helps us to recieve the purest simplest feelings of productivity because we can imagine what it feels like to not have these things, in the situation that we are currently in. But how is it to not have these things when we've learned to live without them? When we are in a different culture?
We volunteer to serve ourselves. I mean this in two ways: we volunteer our time in order to fulfill a need we have--a need to feel like we are making a difference, serving God, bringing good into the world, changing lives... whatever you want to call it. Humans have this need to affect positive change (at least some of them do). In my opinion, this isn't a wrong or impure motive at all. In fact, I think God created us in His image, and God is love. We are made to want to serve.
But. What we do about it is another thing. We volunteer to serve ourselves--to provide things that we can imagine ourselves needing and appreciating (to assure ourselves that we are being needed and appreciated). But we are not serving people like 'us'... and somehow we can know that and be totally unaware of the reality of that at the same time. Or... maybe we just have a very hard time liking things we don't really like.
Today's example: a wonderful, sweet older woman spent all summer and fall knitting hats for those staying in the shelters down town. Most of the people staying in shelters are men. Most of the hats would be perfect for a wonderful, sweet older woman.
This is not an isolated or unique example. So often, I watch volunteers start facilitating activities that they enjoy, serving food that they love to make, and having conversations based on their own curiousity. These are such good things, but they so often miss the mark.
It is so possible to give people what they need, but it does require sometimes sacrificing what we want, and what feels the best for us to give. We can remedy this by educating ourselves, buiding relationships and knowing who we are serving. I have heard a lot of very valid arguments that have realized that the barrier between the donor and the recipient only grows when money is donated, but as long as that barrier exists in any degree, money donated to an organization that recognizes the needs and culture of the people it serves will always be used better than if it was used by those who don't.
Look at it this way: You have a Grandma that lives in Florida who you never get to see, but she loves you like crazy. Every Christmas and birthday, she sends you a porcelain figurine of a little boy fishing or playing baseball or petting his dog, along with a framed picture of a peaceful cottage in a forest. You would rather have the money. She doesn't know you very well anymore, but she loves you, and wants to show you that. Perhaps you still feel the love, but resource-wise, the situation would be much better if you just told her what you needed, and she listened.
This is to say that the love is there, and the intentions are good, but as much as the thought counts, there is an opportunity for more: helpful contributions, educated gifts, connection.
A friend of mine once told me that it is difficult to love someone if you are focused on what you can receive.
A science fiction novel once taught me that you cannot love someone well unless you can understand them enough to know why they love themself.
I am thankful for the both of them, and for an opportunity to witness why their wisdom is important, and the consequences of not following it.
As volunteerism evolves, so will we.