Fight Volunteer’s Guilt


There is a feeling that all volunteers can relate to: post-volunteering guilt. It’s that feeling of returning home after an amazing experience working abroad, only to wonder “did I do enough?”. Did you spend enough time with the kids you were teaching? Build enough homes? Vaccinate enough dogs? Play enough games of soccer? The list can go on and on.

My husband, John, and I are experts at realizing this guilt. We have worked abroad in three different countries.; Teaching English, providing childcare, building houses…you name it. We met while both teaching in Lima, Peru for an organization called Tarpuy Sonqo. ( – check it out if you’re heading to South America). He worked for six months building three houses, and developing a full curriculum for the 4th grade students. I spent the following two months continuing his teaching work. Our hearts were completely invested in our efforts, and of course we fell in love with every baby, kid and adult that we met along the way. (Another feeling that every volunteer can understand.)

When we returned stateside and started dating, our conversations were consumed with when we could return back to our classrooms in Pachecutec, the largest slum outside of Lima. We worried how our students were doing, if the projects we’d started were continuing, and if the volunteers we’d trained were maintaining our high standards. But with full-time jobs, eventually buying a house and adopting dogs, it was becoming unrealistic to return to Lima for more than a week or two. That wasn’t long enough to make the impact we had in mind.

john 7.jpg

Instead – we decided to take the business we were already running, and use it as a tool to provide continued support to the causes close to our heart. My travel photography company – Kristen Emma Photography – quickly developed into a forever-fundraiser for international charities. Our new motto became “Capture the world to help the world”.  We decided to give 25% of our sales back to charities local to where each of my photos were taken. Anything from South America was given back to Tarpuy Sonqo – and other photos donated to a select charity based on their continental location. Within a few months of art shows we were supporting teachers in Peru, dog adoptions in the UK (, prenatal medicine for women in India (, AIDS research and meds in South Africa (, even penguin conservation through the Pew Charitable Trusts and my recent trip to Antarctica.

Not only were we thrilled to be helping our Peruvian students – but our clients were amazed! With the rise of charity companies, and the one-for-one model, people are always looking for products that give back to various causes. Adding the charitable aspect to our business model was good for the charities – but also good for our bottom line. That certainly wasn’t our goal, but it helped put food in our dogs’ mouths. :)

IMG_2019 1.jpg

The lesson learned is that volunteers can use their guilt as motivation to keep helping. It’s not always possible to physically get back to their area of choice – but they can instead work to find methods of help in their everyday lives. Of course, not everyone has a business that they can use like we did – but there are other approaches to helping:

·      Getting married? Set up a gofundme page for a charity, rather than asking for gifts. (John and I raised over $5000 for Tarpuy Sonqo. It built an entire park in the slums where we taught, and a jungle gym in a 2nd location. Exchange rates are always your friend. :)

·      Birthday? Have your friends bring a non-perishable good instead of a present for you, and then donate it to the local food shelf. (You don’t really need another pair of earrings anyway.)

·      Clean out your basement, sell what you don’t need on craigslist, and commit some of the proceeds to your volunteer location. (Those college books you’ve been holding onto could fund new books for your students in Kenya).

·      Have friends who are looking to travel? Put them in touch with your volunteer coordinator. A lot of organizations will trade housing and food in exchange for a few hours of work per day. My company of choice is New Zealand-based International Volunteer HQ. They’ve got volunteer placements all around the world, and their credibility makes sure volunteers stay safe while having an incredible experience.  Check them out at They charge some fees, but its always cheaper than a hotel!

·      Volunteer locally! There are an abundance of opportunities to help in your own neighborhood. If you speak another language, you can teach ELL classes at your community center. Any work you found abroad can definitely translate to your own community – teaching, childcare, food shelves, and homeless shelters.

In the short seven months since we developed our charitable mission, we’ve raised over $1500 for our partner charities. Although it may not sound like much, it’s $1500 more than they had before. We could have easily NOT raised any money, but what good would that do? Its important to remember that even just $10 raised is helpful to any of the thousands of organizations around the world.





Kristen is a Minnesota-based photographer, specializing in fine art travel photography. She has lived in three different countries, and traveled to all seven continents through her photography endeavors. Her goal is to use photography to show similarities between cultures, regardless of their location. In order to give back to the communities that she photographs, 25% of all sales are donated back to local charities around the world. See her work on Etsy or on her website