Why I'll never volunteer with this NGO Again

I wasn't sure if I wanted to write this post or how to even begin, but after some consideration I've decided to speak up and talk about my experience with All Hands and Hearts and how they threw me to the wolves in a time when I needed most support.

A little bit of background

All Hands Volunteers started off as a group of individuals that came together while being in holidays during the 2004 tsunami that hit the south indian sea. I first started volunteering with All Hands and Hearts (AHAH), formerly All Hands Volunteers, in the fall of 2016, helping them rebuild a School in the district of Nuwakot and that was destroyed after the 2015 earthquake that shook the central region of the country.

 I can't stress how amazing and helpful I felt this experience was.  In only about 4 months we managed to build an earthquake resistant school from the ground up, in an experience that for me I considered as one of the best experiences in my life.   Back then the company was focused on being a Volunteer powered NGO.  All volunteers lived in a communal life , entwining our lives together , getting to know people from all over the world , doing hard work but knowing we all were a part of something bigger, trying to make the world a better place.

I met so many nice people, developed friendships that last to this day, and bonding in an incredible way with the country of Nepal, it's culture, its language and its amazing people. This was a trully remarkable experience, and anyone who lived the experience in Nuwakot (Prithvi base, Kalyani Devi or Bachalla).

Eventually the company became All Hands and Hearts. It looked to grow and expand, build more projects, and in order to accomplish this, it seems they sort of forgot about the whole "volunteer powered" part of their lema.

My personal story

I joined All Hands and Hearts again in 2018 to help in their rebuilding efforts in the region of Sindupalchowk. And again I decided to rejoin them in 2023 in their project in Sinduli. I loved the country of Nepal, spoke enough of their language to get by and be helpful, what could go wrong?

I was planning on taking a professional break and join their project for a couple of months, until the school was completed, but already then I started feeling like something was off. Things were not entirely the same at all.  For starters in this project, they had already amassed a very reasonable number of local masons to work in the school. This project was much smaller than the other projects I had been working in, but still there were around 26 volunteers, and around 25 masons all together, working in a relatively small environment.

The first thing I noticed was there was not so much work to do as in previous projects. And there was a bunch of us. Sometimes i felt like  they had to make up work for us to do, because there simply wasn't enough. Most of the days I had to simply pile up bricks, or sift stones in a way that didn't really look so useful.

That's the first thing I noticed. Us volunteers were not  really there for the work and the volunteering, but for the fundraising. Back when I met them, they wre pretty decent at fund raising, but they had now become really good at it (good for them!). Up to a point where they would rather have more volunteers just doing less work, if that meant that they could use them to raise a little bit more of money, and a raise a little bit more of awareness in their social networks.

Still, most of the staff members were amazing people. I got see old friends again, and living with other volunteers was a nice experience. We would find a way to enjoy each free minute. And Sinduli and the Pahaar region of Nepal proved to be a beautiful part of the planet.

When the problem started

One day I started noticing pain in my knee.  At first I tried to ignore it, but eventually the pain started to become very noticeable, and following the organization's mantra "Don't break down, take a rest if you need" I decided to take a rest. I went to the nearby health post where the medical personelle  attended me and took a look at my knee. Apparantly it was simply tired and Swollen, so they gave me some medicine and told me to rest on hard work and heavy lifting for a couple of days until it went back to normal.

The medicines prescribed proved to be very effective, as well as the rest. Since I had brought with me my laptop, and I am a computer engineer, I helped the volunteer coordinator with some digital work that needed to be done and some image editing. Up to here every thing went fine.

Already while resting, the program director approached me and "kindly" asked me if I wouldn't be better off resting in a hotel in the nearby city of Hetauda, since I was not working.  I was a bit shocked, because the idea of going alone to Hetauda for a couple of days was not very entertaining. I rathered stay around friends and other fellow volunteers, than in a room in Hetauda. Since the pain was going away anyway i decided to limp it on. That night I  tried to dance with some locals in our community night, and then the next day I resumed work, only doing something that did not require me to carry heavy stuff around the base ( I recall we painted the front door)

The next day, I was called in by the project director , and the Operations Manager, where I was handed a warning note,  telling me I was expected to work properly and the full shift, as well as ennumerating a bunch of lies and "opinions" that were presented as a fact. They told me I had "pretended not to work" and that they had seen me "running around the base and dancing at night".  They brought up other things such a disagreement I had with another volunteer, and they questioned my manners around other volunteers .

I immediately realized how pitiful this letter was. One of them two must have not liked me much to ennumerate any minor mistake they found on me, trying to make it a big deal. I realized this, and wasn't very sure of how to react. The letter was so puny, so ridiculous. I wanted to talk about this , but I didn't have the time.

The very next day, my family found out that my mother had a very aggressive cancer, and she had to undergo a very complicated surgery and a very difficult chemotherapy. We were not sure if she was going to make it, and we were all terrified about what was to happen.

I decided to blow this off. Told the project director I was sorry about everything, but that I had to leave because my trip in Nepal was coming to an end. I had to go back home the next week so I left to visit some family in Sauraha, Chitwan, and then back to Katmandu.  I had plenty of things to think about, and work to do and things to organise.

I had a bunch of stuff. Over 100 usd worth of camping gear that I had bought because I planned on staying there for long. Tents, matresses, sleeping bags, blankets, boots... you name it. I decided to donate most of my gear to a fellow volunteer. A friend, an incredible human being.

I cleaned the whole thing up, packed my shit and left. And in leaving, I wrote a good bye letter addressed to her and left it in the tent so she could read it after work was finished.

The next thing I knew, a couple of days later, I was kicked from the whatsapp group and told that "Unaproppiate notes had been found in my tent and that I would not be allowed to go back to volunteer with them. I was so shocked. What notes? What unappropiate? 
​I received a message and an email from someone in management I had never met before in my entire life telling me they found that to be disrespectful

I was surprised and heartbroken.  I didn't understand what notes they were talking about. And then I realized they were talking about the letter. I asked my friend about this and apparently , one of the staff members had walked into my tent, found the the letter, opened it up (out of context), didn't like what was inside and decided to push this through to the upper management. 

The Response

I tried to talk this with my friend and with the organization. Apparently they told her it was standard procedure to open up the letter, and the contents of it were deemed unappropiate so they decided to kick me out. I confronted the person responsable of making this decision, telling her it was outrageous, and a federal crime , both in Nepal and in the United Stated. 

My friend didn't want to push this through either, because apparently she had been hired that very same day to work with the organization, in what happened to be a very lucky coincidence. Apparently they hired her, then sat her down, told her it was "standard procedure for them to read this letter", obtained her permission in what I believe is a huge example of duress (they clearly had opened it up before, but needed the story to cover up the ineptitude, hatred and racism of one of their staff members who probably ignorantly had broken the law ).  I had enough on my plate, since my mind and heart was back home with my family and my sick mother.

I tried to confront the Director of people development about this, and got the  stupidest and most condescending email back.

The way  to close this up was to imply that volunteer tents were a public space to which staff and volunteers had "access by right". They could duress people into showing their private correspondance because apparently "thats a standard procedure", and could  wish me Taking care of my sick mother and supporting my family in time of need as to be "a learning experience", what a sick joke, what a complete dipshit.

The aftermath

​I had enough on my plate, and my friend had just been hired to work with them in a job that would definately help her carreer out. So I guess we simply let it be. I know when people started asking questions, they controlled their version of the story. When I needed most support and was  in my darkest time of need. Someone who did not like me forced his or her way through, commited a fellony behind my back knowing I could not defend myself.  The organization decided to do as much as they could to cover the incident, and I realized about this because I talked with a group of interantional lawyers and showed them all of the evidence and witnesses, and of course I could have ground rules to sue them, because their story would never hold up in a court of law. Specially because even if what I said was considered unappropiate (which it wasn't, this is a private conversation between two adults), reading addressed correspondance is illegal.

I let it go, because I had other things in mind, and i probably wasn't going to volunteer with them again. I had found this experience to be not so useful as when I've volunteered with other organizations. And I had realized that they had become a company of voluntourism. Where volunteers would raise money, do some minor works and post all about it on social media to get more attention and more volunteers.

It wasn't until enough time had passed that I started reading and hearing stories about other volunteers and other more serious criminal offences that had taken place in All Hands and Hearts, that had also been covered up by the NGO to prevent any problems. 

To me it was just a cover up for a mistake made by some staff member who trully did not like me at all. But other people lost limbs or got raped by other staff members or volunteers. The former NGO (now turned into a corporation, with its own agenda) would rather cover up these stories to prevent furthed damage to their image, in the name of what they believe is a greater good.

It wasn't until I came across this video that I found it necessary to simply speak my voice up, and tell my version of the story , and the sadness I feel 

And this is the reality of what I feel they have become. In order to become so successful, they put real CEOs that took the company to become a real business. All hands is an amazing fundraising group. 

"The problem is that they just only care about their corporation. About their image. They are hiring CEOs who get results. They are hiring people at the top level who run businesses. Volunteer work should never be ran as a business and All Hands can do so much better."

I cannot stress how fortunate I felt that I ran into All Hands Volunteers back in 2016.  But I feel right now they've become a tax laundering corporation (since all donations are tax deductable in most countries) that promotes PR and voluntourism for rich people and companies like Black Rock, who made billions during the 2008 financial crisis.

The pros, the cons.

If you are considering in volunteering with AHAH, either as a first timer or a returning volunteer. I advice you to be wary . Don't expect your work to save the planet or be very useful. Your fundraising will be. Still, at least they build schools / rebuild shelters and homes that will last and help generations of people. Their mission is still noble, and most of the people you'll meet there will be truly amazing individuals. But if the shit hits the fan, remember they are not there to save the planet. Remember that despite their good PR, they still are another corporation, and they will protect themselves before they protect you. At least they build schools / health posts. But apparently it has also become a craddle for jobsworths.