Voluntourism – Helpful Aid Or Just A Warm Fuzzie?

(Source: Google images)

There has been something of an explosion in the travel industry of a new form of travel dubbed “voluntourism”. Part community service, part holiday, participants agree to help out as volunteers as part of their holiday package. The range of opportunities on offer and the number of companies getting in on the action has expanded dramatically over the last ten years.

But is it a good thing?

Most of us would react positively to the idea of helping our fellow members of the human race in some capacity and if we can combine it with a holiday, all the better. And the community we work in benefits from our efforts. It’s a win-win, right?

Except that not all volunteering is created equal. Some offerings are more about providing that “warm fuzzie” moment for the traveller than of providing any lasting benefit to the recipient. Spending a week playing with orphans in Africa may make you feel good but what does it do to the children if you bond with them and then disappear forever?

“But surely they would be grateful for whatever we offered?” Someone actually said that to me once when I was voicing my concerns about some voluntourism organisations.

If my local childcare centre announced they were getting in a bunch of twenty-somethings from overseas to play with the children and that a different group would turn up each week, there would be an outcry. “Who are these people?” we would ask. “What checks have there been to guarantee my child’s safety?” we would demand. “It can’t be good for the children to have such a high turnover of carers,” we would mutter.

So if it’s not good enough for us, why must it be good enough for the poor?

It is also an industry open to exploitation. Cambodia, for example, has seen a massive increase in the number of orphanages being established in the last ten years despite there being no real reason for an increase in orphaned children. Foreigners seeking volunteer opportunities in Cambodia – and willing to pay large sums for the privilege – are actually fuelling the establishment of ‘orphanages’ that are often filled with children who are not orphans. There are no checks and balances and the money often doesn’t go to the care of the children. (Reference)

I am not against voluntourism. In fact, I am a participant myself. In 2009, I travelled to Peru as part of a World Expeditions Community Project. You can read about the experience here.

The bridge we built. (It’s concrete. That’s just the wooden frame.)

I did my research. I read extensively about the pros and cons, what to look for in an organisation, what to avoid and I must have read the prospectus of almost every company offering volunteer opportunities at the time. I was clear on what an organisation should be offering and what was most likely to be beneficial.

Interested in voluntourism? Here’s what to look for:

◊ Is the company offering the project a reputable, well-established company? Check out what they are about, what their beliefs are and how they rank on ethical tourism standards.

◊ Has the project been established in consultation with the local community? In other words, will you be working on something that the community actually needs and wants?

◊ Is the project of lasting benefit? Playing with orphans may make you feel good but what lasting benefit does it provide to the children? Better projects involve building or renovating something the community needs such as a school or community building, sanitation, etc.

◊ Is the project sustainable? In my research, I came across the story of an organisation that built a school for a village. When they visited the following year, the building was being used to house animals. There was no point in building a school for a community that didn’t have the money for furniture, books or the wages of a teacher. So choose a project that does not have ongoing costs and can stand alone once finished. Otherwise, check that the organisation is continuing to support the community to provide what is needed to sustain the project.

◊ Does the project employ local people? The last thing you want to do is take jobs away from other people. Check that the project has employed a local foreman and/or employs local trades people. It’s okay to be the grunt or muscle to get a job done.

◊ Where is your money going? Make sure you are clear on what you are paying for and where the money is allocated.

I would recommend a volunteering trip to anyone, if chosen carefully. It had an enormous impact on my life and is an experience I will never forget. Just make sure you are providing helpful aid to the community and not just a warm fuzzie to yourself.

In October, I will be participating in another World Expeditions Community Project. As part of their Rebuild Nepal program, I will spend ten days in the village of Lura with a team of volunteers and local people working to rebuild the local school that was damaged in the earthquake last April. More information here.




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289 thoughts on “Voluntourism – Helpful Aid Or Just A Warm Fuzzie?

  1. Great post! I had a very similar experience when I studied abroad in East Africa, and one of the outreach projects my group really wanted to do was to visit an orphanage for a day (just one day, no recurring visits). I hadn’t thought about it much before, but it hit me pretty quick that this project that everyone was really excited to do actually wasn’t the best way to help those children in the orphanage. We ended up raising money to purchase food, beds and school supplies for them instead–I’m so glad that we decided to go another direction. Definitely a topic that deserves more attention that it’s getting!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey, im right now in India working at several schools for one year. I am 18 Years old, was pretty good in school and I did a lot of social and volunteer work in my free time… But to be honest with you: Neither I am a trained teacher nor I will change the lifes of the children here. But I would not say that this year is unnecessary. I do not want to argue about short-term aspects….
    The people, who spend an year in a so called development volunteer service, are mostly high educated. They also are pretty ambitious and some will may be the our future politicans and leaders of companies. And the year abroad will definetly change us volunteers. We see things and have experienced things, some of our politicans and company owners better should have seen. The problem with the wealth of some countries and the poverty of many countries wont be fixed by some volunteers, because the problems lie in high political and economical levels. But I like the thought that some of are future leaders have experienced this poverty that you cannot comprehend through Facebook, television or newspapers.

    Liked by 4 people

    • That’s a really interesting way of looking at the issue. I hadn’t considered it in that way. I agree that experiencing the effects of real poverty would (you would hope) have a profound effect on the volunteers that could then influence them in their careers. I would just say that I still think the opportunities chosen in which to have that experience have to be selected carefully.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Your comments are so true. I am volunteering at the moment and the organisation I’d great, we discussed on several occasions where my skills are best applied. But while reviewing where to go I almost fell into a trap of the big cash generating companies that sell volunteering and yet provide little value to the exact organisation they are trying to help

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Read about this in Mindfood magazine this month- most genuine volunteers would surely want to do something that makes a difference? My daughter recently visited Borneo, and abandoned initial plans to work with OrangUtans since foreign volunteers were taking jobs from locals.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t question that most people have genuine caring motivations for choosing to volunteer their time but I think I was trying to make clear that sometimes that’s only making the volunteer feel good about themselves rather than providing any real lasting assistance to the community in which they volunteer. While she was probably a bit disappointed not be working with the orang-utans, it’s great that she was able to recognise that benefit could be applied elsewhere,

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I really liked this, I had never thought of it from that perspective! I havent personally done any volunteering abroad yet but it has been on my list of things to do, It’s certainly made me think twice about where I go and who I go with. Thank you

    Liked by 2 people

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  7. Such an important point. I read recently about the negative impact of mission trips. Churches are dropping into villages with real need and building unsafe structures. In one case, at night, members of the community were secretly taking apart and rebuilding the misdion group’s work in hopes of having something sustainable after the group left. The money spent on mission trips might be better served by sending a small team and teaching a community a skill or even how to market an existing trade. Better yet, just send the money and let them use it how they see fit.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Really interesting and helpful. I have only come across the low-level stuff here, i.e. helping to clear brambles and bracken off an area of scientific interest or similar. I support the old Schumacher foundation (now called Practical Action), whose purpose is to engage with local communities in small low-level practical improvements that can be made and sustained by locals. I don’t think work in orphanages could ever be of use unless there is a real time commitment.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Such a brilliant article – thank you so much for changing my perspectives on this. So many people volunteer abroad for their CVs or the Facebook pictures without really thinking about what they leave behind. I particularly appreciated your comment about the school then being used to house animals. It’s so easy to simply go to a place and move on afterwards. The heart of volunteering is, after all, to improve the lives of others.
    However I do also agree with lukastohoff. If volunteering abroad can benefit the community and has an impact on the volunteer when they come home that will then further benefit the community, is the person’s initial reason for starting the work really important? I agree that volunteering ahould come from the heart, but as long as the work done is, like you so rightly point out, what the community wants and needs and is sustainable, then voluntourism could be a good way to open people’s eyes to global issues.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Yes. That’s why I wrote that I wasn’t against voluntourism as a concept (obviously, since I’m about to do another trip myself), just that whatever volunteering component was chosen should be, as you have said in your comment, what the community wants and needs and is sustainable. Then, yes, there is also the added benefit of being able to expand other people’s knowledge through your own experiences. I just don’t think that side of it is important enough on its own to warrant dodgy volunteering.

      Thanks for your comment. I always love it when people enter into the conversation – it’s the best part of blogging, really.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. This is such an insightful thought. You are very critical when looking at both pros and cons of volunteerism. Sustainability can be considered as the key of every project. Starting up a project is hard but keeping it go and develop is much harder. Moreover, money that we pay or donate should be used rightly. Coincidentally, I volunteered in an orphanage in Cambodia 3 weeks ago and during my time there, I went to build houses for poor family in a village.The money is actually donated by volunteers. This is a project that I know how my money and others’ was used as I have witnessed money was used wrongly in some organizations. Besides, we didn’t pay so much money for our stay in the orphanage (only 2$/day) and more importantly we know where our money goes, since I have witnessed some organizations overcharged volunteers and used those money not for non-profit purpose.

    Your article has given me another look of volunteerism and reminds me that I should be critical, but I still love volunteerism anyway. Helping is always a good gesture that we can do for our community (or others’) to make them a better life.

    Liked by 3 people

      • I know you are not against volunteering. You actually did a good job that has given people a different perspective on volunteerism. I just wanna say people should be critical but still open their hearts when it comes to helping out the others.

        Liked by 4 people

  11. I have been struggling with this exact issue lately, in my efforts to be more effective and responsible in my interactions in an impoverished Hispanic neighborhood where I lead a children’s ministry. I find that the “giving culture” is so pervasive and ingrained here in America, that it feels like pushing against a hurricane to try to empower the poor. Instead, so many of our charitable systems are set up in a way that perpetuates poverty and dependence. Meanwhile, it allows all us middle-class citizens to feel oh-so-good about ourselves for donating and “helping out.” Recently, I’ve read several books on the subject from the Christian-charity perspective: Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton, When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett, and Beyond Charity by John M. Perkins. I’ve also begun trying to educate my crew of volunteers… It is not an easy endeavor. Thank you for your post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much for sharing your story and it was so well expressed. I understand your struggles and I support you completely. We should always be working towards empowering people to care for themselves rather than perpetuating the cycle of dependence. I wish you much luck in your endeavours.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. We are gardening the problem away rather than throwing money at it. Its working. Ill have a full positive feedback loop when there’s surplus of food for the farmers market. grow the food, feed the kids, harvest the seeds, sell the surplus, buy more supplies, sow more gardens, feed more kids , its a good plan. On topic more, I agree some volunteering is just a scam. Go clear a trail or change the sheets in some guys hotel? Help capture free animals and cage them. I have seen a few whoppers out there. You gotta feed 300 kids you don’t have time for that. lol.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Reblogged this on Studio Everywhere and commented:
    So true. This blog asks many great and uncomfortable questions.
    For us our project http://www.studioeverywhere.org is about so many things. To a large degree it is about forcing us out of our safe little comfort zones and helping us to in gage with the larger world populace, children specifically. The warm fuzzies are a huge bonus! Whether or not we actually change any lives besides our own we may never know, but I think just interacting with and showing love, in our case through art, is worth the effort every time. – Michael Orwick

    Liked by 2 people

  14. So true. This blog asks many great and uncomfortable questions.
    For us our project http://www.studioeverywhere.org is about so many things. To a large degree it is about forcing us out of our safe little comfort zones and helping us to in gage with the larger world populace, children specifically. The warm fuzzies are a huge bonus! Whether or not we actually change any lives besides our own we may never know, but I think just interacting with and showing love, in our case through art, is worth the effort every time. – Michael Orwick

    Liked by 1 person

  15. A very relevant and important post for me at the moment. I want to go to Italy to preferably work as a psychologist, but find obstacles no matter where I turn. For that reason I started to think about volunteering instead. I was a bit overwhelmed by all the different organizations, and the feeling is still here. But finally I found a post that might help me to choose, if I don’t get a normal job! Thank you 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  16. You have raised some really valid concerns. This is an item on my ‘bucket list’ however I have always stopped as I have yet to find something that is helpful to the community rather than just making myself feel good. I also feel that with some companies they are sell holidays with warm fuzzies.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Very interesting post – I never thought of it in the perspective of the children and having someone abruptly leave them. It’s an interesting take on why you should choose the right kind of opportunity. I have yet to volunteer abroad but I do plan to and when I do – I’ll be sure to do my research!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was a turning point for me to put myself in their position and imagine it was happening to my children. I find it condescending that we consider whatever we offer to be good enough for them and they should be grateful for anything. Everyone deserves the best treatment and opportunities that we can facilitate. I hope you do get a chance to volunteer overseas and I hope this post has been helpful in highlighting things to consider before you go.


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  19. I really enjoyed reading this article! I am in complete agreement that many people claim to be going on volunteer or community service trips when in reality, they are going for themselves. I traveled to Africa (Limpopo, Swaziland, and Mozambique) with my older brother through his University and noticed that many of the other students we traveled with would go to bars and drink at night, sleeping til 12 or 1 the next day. I couldn’t believe they would sleep through the scheduled activities when most of them would never return to Africa. I also love that you mentioned social media and posting pictures as a main motivation to travel. Nearly every person I traveled with posted pictures of the African kids we were involved with. I often wondered if the pictures are to gain support and help for these kids or attract attention to themselves. However, I truly believe that spending time and showing love to these children impacts their lives in a great way. The excitement on the faces of these children when we showed up moved me. And although I will most likely not see them again, I believe the month I spent with them was worth it, and I’d like to think the kids would agree. These organizations should use all resources to treat these poor children, but I don’t think a building has to be built to make an impact on their lives. Researching the organization is very important, but I believe there are many ways to impact the lives of people that have less than us, and giving time is as important as money.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for your personal perspective on this issue. I enjoyed reading about your experiences. Were you working with children in a school or orphanage setting? I think the impact would be different. In a school, the kids would have steady homes (presumably, or at least mostly) and so different faces at school would not have such an impact. In an orphanage, I still believe that constantly changing carers, or if not ‘carers’, people interacting with them anyway, can’t really be a totally good thing. I would think they would find it very destabilising.


  20. Excellent points, Heather. When I lived in Khartoum, Sudan and worked as a consultant with the schools, voluntourism was just gaining a toehold in developing nations. At that time the programs were often sponsored by former Peace Corps workers who knew what they were doing because they’d walked the proverbial “mile in their shoes.” Their efforts generally ticked all the boxes in your checklist and their programs benefitted the community. The voluntourism market has expanded greatly since then, with mixed results. The points you make will help volunteers decide on a program … and if it’s really what they want to do. Congratulations on being freshly pressed – richly deserved. All the best, Terri

    Liked by 3 people

  21. This was a very useful read. Once I’m finished my masters I plan to volunteer more. You brought up some valid points I never thought of – really brought more insight so thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

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  23. Thank you very much for sharing these advice with us. At the moment I’m volunteering in Israel for a year and what I experienced were only positive reactions by locals. I work for an organization helping families with people with mentally disabilities. There are lot of places who acutally need volunteers to survive. There is for example a hospital which needs volunteers as nurses otherwise they couldn’t care for so much patients.

    There is one thing you mentioned shortly but I want to add something. The duration of volunteering is also very important. I know volunteers who loved their work so much, that they stayed up to two year in a project. If you really want to help effectivly you should think about volunteering longer than just a week or ten days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment, Lena. I agree with you about the length of volunteering when it comes to assisting in areas such as health, education and childcare. However, I think it is feasible to do a short stint if it involves construction of something the community wants and needs, provided there is a roll over of teams coming in and the project is completed in a timely fashion. In my case, we are rebuilding the school in one of the villages and there will be a number of teams working on the project. Each team will do as much as they can in the time they are there and then the next team will pick up where they left off and continue. There is a local foreman to supervise the project and provide consistency. I think this is okay for this kind of project.

      Well done on your volunteer work in Israel. I am sure your skills are very welcome and the community very much appreciates your help.

      Liked by 2 people

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  25. Voluntourism is such a complex issue isn’t it? Is your motive more tourism than volunteering? Who is getting the most benefit? Why not volunteer locally? So many good comments in the above posts. I certainly agree that there are too many organisations that charge high “sign up” fees, mandatory donation amounts and also excessive travel costs. Before embarking on two voluntourism trips in 2015 I read Lonely Planet’s “Volunteer: A Travellers Guide to Making a Difference” which was interesting but did not help much! The best advise I can give is do as much research as you can on your selected project/organisation, be prepared for anything including disappointment but above all do not give up and not do anything – the experience will make a difference for the better, even if it is only for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s incredibly complex and more stories keep coming out about the downsides. But research is key. I took five months to find a project I was happy about. I like your comment “be prepared for anything including disappointment”. That is also a key point – to be open about the experience. Going with preconceived notions will only lead to disappointment. Thanks for your insights, Simon.


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