Photo courtesy of United Planet.

Dear Potential Volunteers,

Do you want a great volunteer travel experience and truly want to help? 
But you don’t want to get involved with unethical practices or bad “voluntourism?” 
You want to “volunteer abroad” and that’s different, right?

Unfortunately, it’s not. If you’re paying for the experience and not getting expenses covered, if you’re spending less than a year onsite and you are not a resident, you are a tourist and not an international development or aid worker. But as a paying tourist, you want certain things, like a great experience — and that’s OK. And in investing your time and efforts, you also want to primarily feel your contribution will be valued, that you are indeed helping.

You want to do it right, yet time after time, potential volunteers fall for the marketing ploys of unethical organizations, practices and projects, being exploited in the process. You don’t want to arrive and find no project. You don’t want to feel you’ve not contributed anything worthwhile. And you certainly don’t want to feel that what you have contributed has had a negative impact on the community or environment, left unfinished or at odds with local needs.

How Do You Avoid This?

My name is Vicky Smith, and I’ve spent nearly a decade involved in volunteer tourism. I’ve been a volunteer myself in many destinations, I’ve worked for a voluntourism organization, I’ve studied voluntourism at a Masters level, written an internationally published thesis on it and subsequently advised voluntourism organizations on responsible marketing. I also have years of experience in major travel businesses’ ecommerce and am an online specialist. And during this last decade, voluntourism has evolved from a relatively new specialist concept in the wake of the Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, to a huge tourism sector worth billions of dollars* involving millions of people and thousands of options. My thesis asked, with the hundreds of volunteer tourism organizations that can be found, can you really tell from a website who is responsible?

The answer is, yes you can, but you really need to be SMARTER in how you choose.

It’s not a given that an organization will be more ethical because it is a charity. Because it’s not about intention, it’s about impact. In fact, some for-profit commercial businesses can have more positive and less negative impacts than certain charities. It’s also not as simple as where an organization is based or local knowledge, because it depends who ends up benefiting and by how much. Moreover, don’t believe everything an organization tells you at face value. Many organizations make unsubstantiated claims about the ethics and sustainability of their operations, because the value of that is worth an enormous amount in the market and can financially facilitate them to grow for years into a huge international businesses. Again, years of experience, number of destinations or amount of projects does not make an organization responsible. This just means they’re potentially skilled at selling ideas to potential volunteers.

Photo courtesy of Nan Palmero.

A Note On Orphanage Tourism

You may have heard orphanage volunteering is unethical, but maybe you don’t understand why. Sadly, voluntourism demand fuels the creation — not the elimination — of orphanages. Children are literally brought in as a commercial arrangement parents. It may be hard to believe, but this is the case with as many as 90% of orphans in some countries, with parents poverty stricken and desperate, thinking their children will be looked after better. Instead, they are left in deliberately squalid conditions to appeal to Western guilt and charitable notions and lure funding. Vulnerable children such as these, possibly already neglected and abused in life, may experience abandonment and trauma as short term emotional attachments are continuously formed and dissolved with the hamster-wheel of volunteers, creating long term psychosocial problems, and so harming the very children volunteers want to help.

Unfortunately, projects and placements are frequently based on Western tourism demand, which often perpetuates negative impacts as they’re not truly based on community need.

The same can be true in wildlife tourism – “conserving” animals, for example, which all too often later become fodder for the canned hunting industry.

Ask yourself this. Would you be allowed to do what you want to volunteer to do in your own country? Would you (or your parents) think it okay for an unqualified, untrained, inexperienced volunteer who doesn’t speak your language and has had no criminal background check to walk in and come and teach at your school?

Potential volunteers aren’t dumb. They’re bright, adventurous, open, sociable, giving and often very  savvy; however, they’re often inexperienced. Moreover, there’s no international standards in volunteer tourism to go by, largely because every project in every destination needs a unique approach appropriate for its place, people and purpose. This means unscrupulous organizations take advantage, exploiting communities and volunteers alike through selling “poverty porn.” Many have been doing that a lot longer than you have looked for volunteer placements, making it difficult to see the truth.

Photo courtesy of sqback.

How To Make SMARTER Volunteer Tourism Decisions

If you want the best experience and to truly positively contribute, here some tips for making SMARTER volunteer tourism decisions:

S – Search Specifics

Let’s start at the very beginning: search engines. If you search for vague undifferentiated phrases like “volunteer projects abroad” don’t be surprised when you get vague undifferentiated organizations or projects. Keep in mind these organizations can buy their way to the top of search engines through paid advertising or investment in the optimization of competitive search terms. Specialist volunteer tourism organizations who do not take financial advantage and make large profits are unlikely to have the budget to compete. Be aware it’s easy for big organizations to say the right words and be found in a web search for the common phrases that everyone uses. Make sure to be objective and discerning on what you see online.

M – Motivations

Recognize honestly what your motivations are. If you really want to help, as most volunteers do, then look for concrete information about what has helped in the past, what will help in the future and what the project will entail. Maybe you want to be among a sociable group of volunteers. On the other hand, you might want a more solitary experience. Let your motivations be known so the right organization can match you to the right opportunity. Otherwise, your expectations will not met.

A – Assessing

Assess stated project objectives against your real motivations, as well as the skills required against those you can honestly offer. Evaluate the project information against the organization’s responsible tourism policy. Look at what’s included and what’s not. Go over price levels between comparable projects and look for value. Responsible organizations price responsibly, too. Ask about anything that’s not clearly stated. It’s important to make organizations answer to gaps in information and hold them accountable for claims.

holding hands
Photo courtesy of lusi

R – Relationships

Build relationships. They are the foundation of volunteer tourism: with the sending organization, so they can help match you well; with previous volunteers, so you know what you are going to be doing; and ,preferably in advance, with the community or the project you are going to support. Responsible organizations will facilitate these relationships for a mutually beneficial and longer term positive result, especially important when people are coming together in a place with different motivations and needs. Remember that relationships require communication and respect, and that every communication has the ability to cultivate or to damage.

T – Transparency

All good relationships are built on open and honest communication and transparency. This means clear, specific, unquestionable, factual, consistent, congruent, aligned information that enables everyone involved to set realistic expectations about what each party brings to the table and what the outcome will be. Transparency builds trust, expectations can be delivered, and a difference can be made, building longer term reputation for the organization and communities involved.

E – Evidence

If an operator makes a claim, is there evidence? Responsible operators will show transparency with supporting evidence and clear explanation of needs, skills, objectives and where the money goes. If there’s no evidence to support a claim of positive impacts achieved, of project work done or of where your money goes, then you are fully right to question whether those claims are true.

R – Reviews

Read Reviews when planning. Write reviews when you return. Blog, Facebook Better Volunteering and Negative Volunteer Reviews groups, Tweet, comment on operator and review sites. Shout about the great organizations who deliver positive impacts — as well as the ones who don’t. Hopefully the latter won’t happen if you’ve been smarter in your research, but all organizations have a hiccup once in a while. Let them address it: The good ones will, as any ethical business’ ethos is to truly make things better. The questionable ones may just try and shut you up.

And if it’s more like booking a holiday than applying for a job, if it’s easy and quick, and can be done last minute, do you really think you’re going to be contributing any skills or that the project will make you feel like you’ve helped?

Be smarter in what volunteer tourism you pursue, and you’ll truly have a much more valuable experience.

*Note: Volunteer-sending organizations who would like support in improving responsible operations and marketing are welcome to drop a line. You can contact me on Twitter @VickySmith.

Important Links

If you only review a few web sources, make sure you look at these:

vicky smith

About The Author

Vicky Smith has extensive experience in tourism, including beach, ski, adventure, charity challenges, voluntourism, safari and responsible tourism, working for tour operators in destination operations abroad and at home in ecommerce and marketing. Vicky passionately believes in responsible tourism and conservation to support community development and the power of the Internet for connecting communities worldwide for sustainable development and positive impact. Vicky has a Masters in Responsible Tourism Management, is affiliated with the International Centre for Responsible Tourism (ICRT) and is a consultant in marketing responsible tourism.

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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  1. So happy to have found this eloquent and concise outline on responsible volunteerism. Off now to share…

    1. @Elaine: Thank you!

    2. Thank you from the author too Elaine!
      Vicky 🙂

  2. Thank you for this educational read. Shared!

    1. @Aimee: Thank you!

  3. Amazing article! Is there any way i can be in touch with the author, Vicky? If you please can send her my e-mail, i will apretiate! Best regards, Rico

    1. @Ricardo: Will do!

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