The Great Volunteer

By Dan Milner - October 04, 2022

Rwanda training room

Volunteerism is a crucial component of outreach programs. In global health or medical volunteerism, particularly to underserved areas, the challenge for organizers and volunteers alike is skill matching, cost-benefit ratio, strategic goals of the funder, and clearly stated needs of the site of activity. All four of these components need to be aligned correctly for an individual to be a great volunteer. Some examples of how this failed alignment can lead to no impact are as follows:

  • A medical kidney expert visiting a site that sees
    25 breast cancers per day.
  • A business class round-trip ticket for a visit of
    three days.
  • A pharma company grant to address colon cancer
    in a site without colonoscopy.
  • A village concerned with deaths from malaria and dengue being visited by cardiologists.

Although these may be a bit extreme, they are adapted versions of anecdotal examples that have been encountered. Onto whom does such a challenge fall hardest?

The answer begins with the funding source. A self-funded volunteer of any type can choose to go where they like, when they like, without necessarily any input from a field site or knowledge about what skills are needed. A giant in the field of global health once said, “You can’t just walk into a country and start bleeding people.” That referred to a naïve researcher’s queries about travel, but the message is very important, and context is the key.

Organizing programs to which such volunteers can apply provide a context for when, how, and why a self-funded individual should (or perhaps should not yet) travel to a specific region or site. Established programs, which have performed an assessment and determined, with local staff, what the main needs are, provide vital context to any funder of what is going to be impactful. Without such information, the visitor is essentially a medical tourist. Both funders and field site collaborators should have both short- and long-term strategic goals toward which any visitor is contributing. This can include visits from potential funders but, for medical volunteers, the plan of action and their role in meeting goals should be clear to all parties involved.

If or when a medical volunteer chooses to deploy to an organized site to provide a specific set of skills toward an established goal, there are a few key approaches to the process that can make the experience valuable and positive for everyone, which include:

Cultural Immersion

Do not assume you know anything about a culture and allow your hosts or colleagues to talk you through what people expect, appreciate, and are upset by before you attempt to either judge, comment, or make suggestions about things you’ve seen. If you have time to read about local culture before you go, never assume that you “understand” that culture.

Gratitude and Politeness

When you travel (for any reason), you are a guest, whether at a foreign or domestic destination. Arrogance, excessive confidence, expectations, and frustration because things are not as you would like them can range from embarrassing to your host to an offense that may be punishable. You catch more flies with sugar than vinegar.

Electricity and Internet

Chances are that if you volunteer in an underserved area, power, water, and Internet access may be challenging. You can choose to invest financial resources in purchasing access plans or devices that will ensure you have access or you can accept the rate of access to these utilities and plan your day around it. Complaining about any of these is very disheartening to your hosts and colleagues because you are going to get to go home eventually but they will remain. If you do choose to invest in a mobile device for power (solar, hand generator) or Internet (cellular hotspots), consider leaving them with your host or colleague as a gift.


If you have previously volunteered in Tanzania and plan to go to Ghana, do not make the mistake of thinking you know anything from one to the other. Diversity of cultural practices from country to country (and even city to city) can be vast. Assuming anything is very risky and could lead to embarrassment or safety issues.

ASCP has been able to make great strides through the incredible support of our extraordinary member volunteers. We have many volunteer opportunities, both in-country and remote, for laboratory professionals and pathologists. As a representative of ASCP, we want you to enjoy your mission, feel as though you have made an impact, and bond with your hosts and colleagues. We are always here to meet your needs across the laboratory space, and this includes providing you with safe, enriching, and impactful global health and medical volunteer programs.

If you have any questions or want to volunteer, please find us on Facebook (ASCP Center for Global Health) or email us at If you want to support our work but can’t physically volunteer, please consider a donation to the ASCP Foundation or, just as importantly, advocating to others to give and/or support the laboratory.

Dr. Milner is the Chief Medical Officer for ASCP.

Volunteers are needed to expand outreach programs, and understanding the challenges both organizers and volunteers face is critical to ensuring a positive, impactful experience.

Dan Milner

Chief Medical Officer for ASCP