Aside from travel tips, the most common questions I get from people have to do with voluntourism. I do not, by any means, want to style myself as an expert on the subject, but I realize that after many voluntourism experiences, I have valuable information that I can offer. This article is a collection of that information. You’ll find that much of it is designed to disabuse you of any romantic notions you might have about volunteering abroad—namely because I discovered that my experiences didn’t match my own idealistic visions—but if you approach it with a realistic understanding of the pros and cons, what you hope to gain from the experience, and a tremendous amount of energy and initiative, I believe you’ll gain more from your experience than you originally hoped for.
First, I should be clear about what I mean when I use the term “voluntourism.” I am not talking about long-term aid work, such as what you might do with the Peace Corps. When I use the term, I am specifically referring to travel that includes shorter-term volunteer placements. There are many ways to find these volunteer placements—you can find your own organization and work directly with them, you can work with a third-party company that specializes in placing you with organizations and projects, or you can sign up for a tour that includes volunteer work in a community. I’ve tried only the first two. I provide you with this background so you understand the perspective from which I approach the remainder of this article.
If you’re interested in voluntourism, I believe an important first step is to embark upon the “search”—and I don’t just mean for an organization. If you’re looking to do volunteer work abroad, it’s important to do a bit of soul searching to examine your reasons for doing so and be honest with yourself about what you hope to gain from the experience. If you find you have a romantic, idealistic vision about what volunteering will be like, it would be wise to check those notions at the departure gate so you can adjust quickly when you discover that the work is hard, sometimes dirty, and requires a lot of motivation and initiative to make it truly worthwhile.
The most common statements or questions I hear from people who are considering voluntourism are:
I want to try something different.
Volunteering abroad is certainly a unique experience, but there are numerous ways to get unique experiences that take up less of your travel time and require a lot less work. If you’re only hoping to do something unique, you might consider enrolling in a language course, trying a new sporting adventure, or signing up for an eco tour. You can even try combining all of the above—while I was in Ecuador, I encountered a kiteboarding school where you learned to kiteboard while studying Spanish…all while supporting the local small businesses.
Can I save money by volunteering?
I can understand why people might think that volunteering abroad would be a less expensive way to travel, but these jobs are typically not free—and if you’re able to find one that is, then I would question how well organized or well supported you are while you’re there (see “What To look for in a potential organization” below). If you’re primarily looking to save money, you would have better luck by staying at hostels, couchsurfing, or trading labor for accommodation as a WWOOFer. If you’re staying long enough in a location, you can also consider renting an apartment. I did this while in Greece and my well-located apartment cost less than staying in a hostel.
I want to make a positive impact.
I think this is a great reason for volunteering, but this could also be a good way to set yourself up for some disillusionment. Yes, you can make a positive impact, but sometimes it’s not in the dramatic way that you idealized. If you don’t have enough time to commit to a project, then it’s likely the impact is just an extra pair of hands to bridge a labor gap, or another fee that helps support the organization’s programs. If you don’t mind this, then I think this is a fine reason to proceed. However, you might also consider making your impact in other ways, such as donating to a cause you believe in, volunteering in your local community, or choosing “eco-travel” options that ensure that your travel activities are low-impact and that your money goes toward sustaining the communities you visit.
If, after examining what you hope to gain from volunteering, you find you’re still considering it, then I would advise you to initiate the second phase of the search—this time for organizations. There are a lot of bad organizations out there that exist solely to prey upon your desire to help—or your desire to feel less guilty about your own good fortunes, however you want to look at it—so it’s important that you research the organization thoroughly before signing up to volunteer.
There’s ongoing debate regarding whether voluntourism helps or harms the communities that you are trying to serve, so I recommend you read up on this. Mind you, I am not trying to dissuade anyone from volunteering abroad, I simply believe it’s important to make informed decisions, and thorough research will help you ask better questions when it comes time to evaluate potential organizations. Since you’ll have little difficulty finding articles in support of voluntourism (after all, it’s become a hot topic in the travel industry and tour companies and organizations are trying to ‘sell’ you on the idea), I will only provide links that offer valuable insights about the flip side of voluntourism:
If you’ve read this far and perused the links I provided, you are now more informed about the pros and cons of voluntourism. If you still want to learn more, or if you are ready to start searching for organizations, here are a few resources that can help you (followed by a section on what to look for in an organization):
The questions I ask a potential organization often change depending on the organization; however, these are what I consider my ‘baseline’ questions.
Is the organization an NGO (Non Government Organization)?
An NGO is a non-profit organization that operates independently of the country’s government. When I volunteer abroad, the types of NGOs I typically encounter are those that were formed “locally” (within that country) for charitable, service, or environmental purposes. Although I’ve heard that the ‘NGO’ designation can be used inconsistently, it’s still good to ensure that the organization has that status—you can always ask additional questions if you’re unsure of its government affiliation or want to make sure of how your program fees or donations are being used.
Is the organization also a tour operator?
I don’t want to give truly responsible tour operators a bad rap—I know they’re out there—but if they are a tour operator first, and their interest in the NGO is purely secondary (and smacks of providing tourists with a feel-good experience), then this should incite you to ask a lot more questions.
I came across this insightful blog post written by the founder of PEPY—a tour and voluntourism organization that operates in Cambodia—that explains this in a much more thorough way than I can. Read it here: http://goodintents.org/staffing-or-employment/voluntourism-what-could-go-wrong
On the other hand, there are wonderful organizations out there whose primary interest is in the community they serve (i.e., they are NGOs first), but also happen to offer additional tour activities to round out the volunteer’s travel experience. PEPY seems to be one such organization (although I do not have first-hand experience with them), but another that I’ve personally experienced is Perus Challenge: http://www.peruschallenge.com
How long has the organization been in operation in the community they serve?
There are a lot of “organizations” that are forming solely to capitalize on the rise of voluntourism’s popularity and have marginal interest in the community that they serve, so it’s important to attempt to weed these out. When I research, I look for organizations that have operated in their communities for several years. It takes at least this long to establish themselves within a community and develop relationships with the locals.
How much of the fee goes toward the organization, project, and/or community that they are serving?
As I’ve already mentioned, voluntourism is often not free. This might seem odd to those of us who are accustomed to volunteering in our own communities and not paying a dime, but consider the cost of organizing, coordinating, and supporting volunteers—not to mention providing them with food and accommodation (if that is also offered). Since I started volunteering abroad, I’ve had only one volunteer job that cost me nothing except sweat—and it showed in the lack of project organization and local support, the lack of which had an impact on my overall experience. I would have gladly paid money if it meant I would receive better direction or had access to a local resource that could help me with my placement.
Having said all that, if you’re paying for your volunteer experience, then I think it’s important to know how the money is being spent—just like you would with any donation. Ask how much is going toward administrative costs (keeping in mind that accommodating you is a large part of their administrative costs), and how much goes toward the organization, project, and/or community.
Are you still with me? If so, then voluntourism might be just your thing. Despite the numerous caveats I peppered throughout this article, you’ll notice that I’m still volunteering abroad—I’m just doing it in a more mindful way, with more realistic expectations, and with a greater understanding that you truly “get what you give.” I encourage you to begin your search and find a volunteer placement that interests you. Then, try it—and do so with the knowledge that your experience is largely dictated by what you’re willing to invest of yourself. If you invest yourself fully and open yourself to learning from the community you’re serving (as opposed to the other way around), then I guarantee you will have a rewarding and memorable experience.