How an award winning director left his job to volunteer around the world

To celebrate our Special Feature 'The Power of Volunteering' launching in October, Vision meets an award-winning screenwriter who turned his life around to volunteer and open an orphanage

John Marshall is a nine-time Emmy award winning writer, producer and director. In 2013, he was made redundant. A husband and father, he was pushed into unknown territory. As he questioned his future, he made a snap decision. He would volunteer for half a year. Now, years later, he has written a book about his experience – Wide-Open World – and plans to open an orphanage. Here, Vision talks to Marshall about his life, work, and thoughts on volunteerism.

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'Knowing how many millions of children are out there is more than enough motivation for me to keep going'

You’re putting together a foundation to support orphaned children. What’s the motivation behind that project?

It started three years ago. 2013 was a tough one for me: my wife and I separated, my youngest child left for college, and I was laid off from my long-time job as a TV producer. Suddenly alone in an empty house and feeling more than a little lost, I made an impulsive decision to go to India and volunteer my way around the country for six months. I thought it might help me clear my head, but it didn’t start off so well. I got really sick after only two weeks with a fungal sinus infection that would not go away.

As fate would have it, I ended up convalescing at The Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission, a large orphanage eight hours east of Delhi on the Nepal border. The Mission has around 70 orphaned or abandoned children, and these kids were not what I expected at all.

They were beautiful, so alive and full of love, and they helped nurse me back to health in no time. I stayed at the Mission for the rest of my India trip, and I now consider it my second home. By getting to know these kids, by helping make their lives better, by partnering with other organisations around the world that are dedicated to helping children in need, I have found what feels like my true calling in life. And knowing how many millions of children are out there in the world right now, just waiting for someone to care about them, is more than enough motivation for me to keep going.

The world has always been full of need and desperate for a hero. The difference is: It is probably the Golden Age of volunteering at this moment. It’s never been easier to volunteer, with opportunities all over the globe

John Marshall, Nine-time Emmy award winning writer, producer and director

What have you learned from your experiences in volunteering?

Before volunteering, I used to think that I was the one helping the world, but as I discovered, it’s really the other way around. When you focus away from yourself, when you reach out to others without expecting anything in return, there is a great sense of satisfaction that comes with it. It’s almost selfish in a way. I always find that I get much more than I give when I volunteer.

What does volunteering offer that your former career did not?

Winning Emmys or other awards are fun. They’re an acknowledgement that you did some exceptional work, and as an artist, that feels good. But the feeling is also very short lived. Statues on a shelf, no matter how many you win, do not produce that same kind of positive feeling every time you look at them. At least they don’t for me. But volunteering is different. I have a real passion for helping orphaned and abandoned children, and when I can help bring even one child from a place of hopelessness and fear into a family that offers them love and safety... a single picture of that child fills me with the same sense of pride and deep satisfaction every time I look at it. It’s the kind of lasting reward that no statue can ever duplicate.

Do you think it's particularly pressing that people volunteer now, more than ever before?

The world has always been full of need and desperate for a hero. The difference is: It is probably the Golden Age of volunteering at this moment. It’s never been easier to volunteer, with opportunities all over the globe. There are change makers in every country, with social entrepreneurs changing the way the world does business, and wealthy individuals committing their fortunes to solving problems that inspire them. There is a revolution growing where passion is replacing profit as a prime motivator for some, and everyone has the chance to get involved. It’s an exciting time.

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'I meet people all the time who have turned a short-term volunteering trip into a new career'

Though volunteering is pursued without payment, are there any economic benefits to it in the short or long term?

I meet people all the time who have turned a short-term volunteering trip into a new career, channeling a change of heart and a desire for something more meaningful into a new more fulfilling job. But for me, at its best, volunteering transcends the idea of economic benefit.

In what ways are technological advances making it easier to volunteer?

The internet is making the world smaller and smaller. Now if you want to volunteer somewhere, all you have to do is Google the name of the country you’d like to visit along with the word “volunteer” and you’ll have more options than you can research. There are also lots of great online volunteering organisers that will put a short or long-term trip together for you, wherever you’d like to go. It’s never been easier. But my favourite use of technology these days has been crowd funding.

How can governments, businesses and organisations inspire people to volunteer?

Businesses and governments can have huge impacts, committing resources and setting policies on a broad scale... but change very often starts at the individual level, with governments and businesses following much later. Even adding a single day of volunteering to your next vacation would be an easy way to start.