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Voluntourism: Is It About Them or YOU?
10 Questions You Need to Ask Before You Go

Sometimes you have to pay to volunteer - that's known as voluntourism: using your vacation time to do something worthwhile, and paying for the privilege.

This is becoming an increasingly popular way to spend a vacation and the 'industry' is worth some US$ 2 billion a year.

Voluntourism pros and consVolunteer projects like this one in rural South Africa often revolve around women and agriculture

Voluntourism is something travelers do as they travel, (usually) guided by an altruistic desire to help those less fortunate.

The difference between this type of travel and the more traditional long-term volunteer work overseas tends to be duration and money.

A voluntourist volunteers while on holiday, for as little as half a day or as long as a month.

A volunteer with an agency like the Peace Corps or VSO could be gone for as long as two years and in some cases even more.

A voluntourist also pays all expenses for her volunteer vacation, including transport, accommodations, and the agency's fee. A long-term volunteer's expenses, however, will often be covered by the sending organization.

BUT - and there is a rather large BUT - what if your voluntourism experience is actually doing more harm than good?

This is a hotly debated subject with supporters on both sides so to save you a bit of time I'll quickly outline some of the major arguments.

Voluntourism is a GOOD idea because...

You can help people worse off than yourself.
We know about poverty and hunger and environmental damage in the developing world and we want to help.

You can make use of your skills.
Many communities need your skills - whether your expert IT abilities or translation expertise or grant-writing greatness. Without you there is a chance their needs might not be met.

You can pass on your skills.
If you can do this, even better. You'll be teaching people to fish rather than giving them fish and that means long after you leave, what you've left behind will be of value. You will contribute meaningfully to their lives or livelihoods.

You can learn about local communities.
Isn't this why many of us travel? To see the world, of course, but to delve below the surface and understand how people live? This is your chance.

You may make meaningful friendships.
That, of course, is very much up to you but if you approach people with understanding and solidarity you stand to gain at least as much as you give.

You can help bridge a cultural gap.
Much of the evil in our world comes from ignorance and lack of understanding. By spending some time in an alien environment you'll deepen your understanding - and theirs, making intense connections with people and their cultures.

You can alert the world of existing needs when you return.
You can advocate for more aid or better understanding that stems from your own increased awareness.

You could return a changed person.
Sometimes the sheer contrast between your life and your voluntourism experience is enough to make you question some of the premises of your life. It's not rare for returning voluntourists to admit their lives have been changed as a result of their trip. 

You will contribute to your own career.
True, this could pad your resume and field experience is often a desirable asset and that's fine, as long as this isn't your primary reason.

Voluntourism is a BAD idea because...

You might be unsuitable for the job at hand.
Some unscrupulous companies are more intent on filling spaces than doing good and might assign you to something you don't know how to do well.

You may be taking jobs away from locals.
If your job is a relatively unskilled one, a local could be earning money doing it instead of you.

You may be touching a community in the most superficial way.
If you don't speak the language, or at least know something about the culture, you may be interacting with the tourism industry rather than everyday members of a community.

You may be damaging local culture.
By coming in contact briefly with you, your gear and your willingness to help, customs and traditions may be lost.

If you're working with children, your departure may be traumatic.
Much has been written about the dangers in working in orphanages (see this article on AIDS orphan tourism as an example), especially about how children become attached to volunteers who constantly leave.

Your money may not be helping the community at all.
Your organization may be more interested in its own financial gain than in the community's, and most of the money may go into pockets back home.

You may be making people even less self-sufficient.
When people are accustomed to receiving aid it is that much harder for them to survive once the aid is gone. Unless the project is well thought out and longer term, there is a risk people will actually end up worse off - despite your good intentions.

Projects can exacerbate disharmony in a community.
If a project's criteria aren't transparent, there may be friction between those who benefit from your project and those who do not - and feel left out.

You may be falsely deluded into thinking you're doing good.
And that's why you're volunteering - to do good? If your organization or project isn't great, you may leave feeling good and not knowing that you have had no impact, or worse, a negative impact.

Voluntourism pros and cons

No two voluntourism experiences are alike. Your presence can actually save lives, just as it can harm people. The trick is to sift through the thousands of offerings and find the right ethical options, and those that actually work.

How? By asking the right questions.

These 10 should help.

Voluntourism Objectives

You have to figure out what you want to do...

  • Do you want to help people?
  • Practice a foreign language?
  • Learn a skill?
  • Discover a new part of the world?

Be honest with yourself. There's nothing wrong with volunteering in South America to practice your Spanish as long as it is a secondary goal to helping a community and being of service. If all you want is a language brush-up, take a course.

Read the fine print - and make sure you end up doing what you want to do. If your intention is to volunteer in a city, don't sign up for a rural agricultural project. It's obvious, but it often happens.

Voluntourism pros and cons

Some groups specialize in ultra-short placements of half a day or a day, while others can place you for several weeks.

Make sure you've got the stamina for a lengthy stint before you sign up for one of the multi-week plans.

And be realistic: volunteering for a day or two isn't going to help anyone but yourself - unless of course you're writing a grant proposal which ultimately leads to the building of a district school or hospital!

Voluntourism Comfort

Conditions can range from rudimentary to extremely comfortable.

If you need to sleep in a room by yourself and have instant access to a bathroom, choose a plan that provides these amenities.

Otherwise be prepared to share and live rustically, since you may well be living with a local family whose means are modest. If you truly aim to understand the culture you're visiting, you'll want to get as close to its people as possible.

Voluntourism Physical

If you've been a couch potato for years, this isn't the time to do an environmental survey that'll have you walking eight hours a day.

On the other hand if you're super-fit there's nothing stopping you from helping out on a farm in Africa or cleaning up a hiking path in Nepal.

Beware that in many locations, health care may be rudimentary at best, so if you have health problems, come prepared.

Voluntourism Preparations

Because your volunteer stint will be relatively short you'll need as much preparation and orientation as possible.

  • Does the agency provide background information on the destination?
  • Do you have a good sense of what the project is about and what it will accomplish?
  • What kind of backup or help do they provide on the ground?
  • Is there someone you can easily reach if something goes wrong?

Whatever they do provide, bear in mind that it will be slanted towards getting you to sign up. Do your own research online about what the place is like, its politics, and what is socially acceptable. If you're an out gay woman, you probably want to avoid Uganda (where homosexuality is severely punished) and many African countries, for that matter.

Voluntourism Philosophy

The thinking behind each organization is crucial.

Is it strictly a money-making venture or does the agency put money back into the community? Do they actually look for some qualifications or do they just take anyone and everyone? Is it a faith-based group and if so, to what extent will you be expected to participate?

Again, you'll have to do your own research. The company will tell you what they want you to hear. "Of course all our money goes to the local community." "Of course you'll be matched to your skills."

The best way to check is obviously online, where plenty of blogs document people's experiences in various groups, but also on social media. If people have complained about a certain organization, try to contact them and find out more. If several people have complained, that's a pretty big red flag.

At the bottom of the page is a short list of resources that will help you in your research.

Voluntourism Fee

Have a look at the annual report.

Does most of the money you pay go to high management salaries?

Or does it go back into the project?

While voluntourism costs money to organize, it's nice to know that overheads are kept low and as much money as possible goes to those who need it: the recipients.

An annual report is an audited document and will tell you the truth, even if you may have to read a bit between the lines. Beware of terms that are fuzzy - 'project fees' and 'management fees' and the like.

Voluntourism Projects

Now we're getting down to business.

Find out whether the projects actually fill a need or whether they've just been put together to attract voluntourists.

Will you actually be able to accomplish anything worthwhile in such a short time?

Or is the program merely designed to make YOU feel good - without doing any good?

For example, if you're building houses in an area that doesn't suffer from a housing shortage, you should be having some serious doubts. Or if plenty of young people are sitting about as you work, you'll be right to ask why they're not working as well.

Voluntourism pros and cons

Start with the end in mind.

What happens if a project lacks volunteers or funding dries up? Will the organizers just leave the work undone and move on, or are they committed to finishing the work? What happens once the organization pulls out? Can the work maintain itself with local workers?

This to me is possibly the most important question. If a project is truly designed to fill a community's needs, long-term plans are essential. The worst thing you can do is provide a solution for a few people for a few months - and then disappear.

Voluntourism Reputation

The best recommendation for voluntourism will come from former participants. Ask the organization to put you in touch with returnees, and don't be shy with your questions.

I would go further because chances are the organization will put you in touch with satisfied volunteers, not with those who have complained loudly about poor living conditions and insufficient training. You'll have to find those for yourself, usually by visiting forums online.

Useful Voluntourism Resources

  • Voluntourism.org is a one-stop resource on voluntourism that delves deeply into the various aspects of voluntourism. Perfect for the serious researcher.
  • Globe Aware is a US-based non-profit group whose approach to field projects is building self-reliance. POD (stands for Personal Overseas Development) is a UK-based charity that promotes sustainability, finds volunteers for projects and also helps fund projects on the ground.
  • If environmental conservation is your thing I'd try Earthwatch, whose volunteers actually do much needed work in reserves or in the wild.
  • One business that tends to get it right is Responsible Travel (they also have a UK site).
  • One of my favorite resources is Grassroots Volunteering, a database that lists both paying and free opportunities and is especially good if you're already traveling and want
  • If you're looking for personal stories of voluntourism, you'll find plenty on the websites above but also by searching online for voluntourism + blog or voluntourism + forum. You can start with this piece on Gadling.
  • And finally, I would recommend Shannon O'Donnell's Volunteer Traveler's Handbook (Shannon is the brains behind the Grassroots Volunteering website mentioned above). There are plenty of books on volunteering, some of them quite personal - just search on amazon.com for 'voluntourism'.

Have you had any voluntourism experiences - good or bad? Please share them in the comments below!

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