Volunteering and Voluntourism: The Good, The Bad, and The Questions You Should Ask


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If you are interested in volunteering internationally or going on voluntourism trip, what are the ethical considerations you should be aware of? Which questions can you ask to better ensure that your actions and any financial contribution are aligned with your values and expectations? That you don't end up doing unintended harm with your goal of helping or “doing good”?

That’s what this article aims to unpack. But first, a story.

Ethical volunteering

As we rounded a busy Port-au-Prince street corner on our way to the southern coast of Haiti, I checked my messages and noticed a Tweet from one of our readers, a young woman:

@umarket I'm planning a trip to Haiti to help at an orphanage. Do you feel safe? Sort of worried. Would be nice to hear from someone there!

On all accounts I was in a position to respond, but I turned to Cyril, our Haitian guide, and asked: “What do you think?”

“I would advise her to be very careful, perhaps choose to do something else,” he said.

He wasn’t talking about her physical safety, though.

“Especially after the earthquake, many of these orphanages were set up just to make money from foreign volunteers. Traditionally in Haiti, we didn’t have orphanages. Once people realized they could make money from this, the orphanages began to appear. In some cases, the children there actually have parents.”

While we’d encountered and read of orphanage tourism before, especially in places like Uganda, Nepal and Cambodia, our conversation outside of Port-au-Prince lent currency and context to a sad reality: although we can set out to do good through service, contribution and volunteering, we can sometimes inadvertently do harm instead.

Cyril concluded, “There are plenty of good organizations in Haiti. And there are ways to volunteer that don’t involve orphanages. She should just be careful.”

Volunteering is a good thing, right? But will it really help the people you aim to serve? Should you still volunteer if your service might do harm? Are there questions you can ask before you go to figure it all out?

We didn’t wish to squelch this young woman’s urge to serve, to contribute, to engage, to give back. We support and celebrate such altruistic inclinations. However, circumstances — the socioeconomic landscape, unscrupulous agents, and even our own intentions — can conspire to inadvertently harm the people and communities volunteers set out to help.

This is why awareness of the possible unintended negative consequences of volunteering and voluntourism is so important. And if you think this only affects a few people, think again. The volunteer “industry” is currently estimated at $2.8 billion in annual revenue, and is expected to grow as more people seek volunteer experiences each year.

Just as in our piece Should Travelers Give to Children Who Beg?, we attempt to tackle a complex, nuanced topic loaded with shades of gray. Feel free to skip ahead to what interests you most:

Note: This post was originally published on August 6, 2015 and updated on December 12, 2018 with additional resources and tools.

Voluteering and Voluntourism: Defining the Terms

Let’s start by defining a handful of key terms. We understand that definitions are not sexy, but as we explained the event to colleagues and friends, we recognized the risk of their misunderstanding and misuse.

Ethical Volunteering, Experience in India
Audrey listens to the stories of a microfinance group in West Bengal, India.

1. Volunteering (Volunteer)

Many of us are familiar with the concept. Volunteering involves actions ‘performed with free will, for the benefit of the community, and not primarily for financial gain’ (Leigh et al., 2011). In essence, we give our time and skills to benefit others.

Note: For the purposes of this article, we assume international volunteers heading from developed nations in the “West” or “Global North” to developing or transitional economies often referred to as the “Global South.” However, we believe the considerations we address apply no matter your origin or destination.

2. Voluntourism (Voluntourist)

A munge of the terms “volunteer” and “tourism” used to describe short-term volunteering placements of tourists as part of their overall vacation or travels. In many cases, the volunteer placement is not specifically connected to the voluntourist’s specific skills and involves a limited time commitment. In other words, the placement is often designed more with the intent of providing an experience to the tourist rather than fulfilling a specific need within the host community.

Volunteering vs. Voluntourism
Volunteering and voluntourism are often used interchangeably, though a significant distinction exists. Voluntourism is when the primary purpose of the trip is to travel, but includes a volunteer component. For example, you travel to Kenya on safari but spend time — from a few hours to several days — at a Maasai village teaching English. Volunteering is when the primary purpose of the trip is to work or to serve. Though a volunteer may travel as part of her experience, her service to the community is the primary reason for the journey. One example: my 27 months as a Peace Corps volunteer in Estonia.
Volunteering in the Peace Corps
Reuniting my English class from my Estonian village four years after I volunteered.

3. Global Service Learning

Service Learning is an educational approach that integrates meaningful community service and instruction. The “meaning” part is driven by a service experience that exposes the participant to broader issues such as common human dignity, self, culture, social responsibility, and socioeconomic, political and environmental circumstances. (adapted from Hartman & Kiely, 2014 and UNCFSU's definition)

Note: For consistency and brevity, we will use the term “volunteer” as shorthand for individuals engaging in any of the three activities above.

4. Host Community Organization

The group on the ground that receives the volunteer and works with her for the benefit of the local community. Host organizations are typically located in socioeconomically challenged areas of Africa, Asia, or Latin America.

5. Intermediary Organization

Let’s face it, for someone sitting at her desk in New York City, it's tricky and time-consuming to sort through volunteer host organizations in villages around the world. That’s where intermediary organizations step in. Think of them as agents, middlemen, organizers, or third-party providers that place volunteers. These organizations can be non-profit or for-profit, and their adherence to ethical practices varies widely.

6. Sponsoring Organization

A sponsoring organization encourages, advises and occasionally organizes its members to participate in volunteer or service learning activities. Some examples include study abroad offices at universities, church groups, and community-based service organizations. Sponsoring organizations will often work with intermediary organizations to coordinate volunteer placements.

Two-Way Benefits of Volunteering and Service

There is a reason why volunteering has become so popular. Ideally, a volunteer experience involves an exchange — of culture, skills, humanity and point of view — so that each party benefits. It reflects our evolving human need to:

  • Connect, to develop and feel human connection.
  • Learn from local people in a foreign, unfamiliar context.
  • Contribute. To give and to give back. To add value to and provide benefit to others.
  • Grow. To continually challenge, adapt and evolve ourselves. To feel transformation and shifts in our perspective.
  • Create meaning. To give greater purpose to our lives. To understand ourselves, the world and our place in it simultaneously.

Benefits to the Host Community

Perhaps the potential benefits of volunteering to host communities are obvious. That's also why it’s important to restate them.

1. Transfers Needed Skills

Volunteers may possess certain skills and know-how that a host community needs, from computer skills or English language teaching skills to advanced engineering or medical skills. The goal of the volunteer experience is to transfer her skills to individuals in the community in order to help close a gap, thereby illustrating everyone’s favorite empowerment and development proverb, “Give a man to fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for life.”

For example, last year in Rwanda, we met a group of retired teachers helping to develop instructors and improve instruction at a college in the capital city of Kigali.

2. Provides Necessary Funds

This is an important benefit, perhaps because it is often overlooked when examining the ethical landscape of volunteer programs. Organizations in developing countries or transitional economies often struggle to find sustainable sources of funding. Collecting fees from international volunteers (who essentially pay for their experience, room and board) is one of the ways some organizations choose to operate and survive financially. One illustration came to us by way of an organization in Moshi, Tanzania called Give a Heart to Africa, whose volunteers pay fees that provide the ongoing funding for the organization and the free adult education classes it provides to local women.

Volunteering in Tanzania for Women's Education
English class at Give a Heart to Africa, taught by an American volunteer.

3. Bonds the Community to the Volunteer and the Wider World

Think of this as the intangible positive force for good, the magic factor of ethical, thoughtful volunteering and global service. Embedded in one’s international service is the idea that someone outside of the host community cares, and that the community itself is part of a fabric, connected to the wider world. In the best of circumstances, the relationship of volunteer to community reinforces that we are all human and that our commonality vastly outweighs our differences. Zikra Initiative, operating inland from the Dead Sea in Jordan does this nicely by reinforcing the concept that everyone has value, something to share and something to learn.

READ MORE: How to Use Social Enterprises to Improve Your Travels…and Make a Difference

Benefits to the Volunteer

When I was in Peace Corps all the volunteers would joke in the brightest moments of self-deprecation and self-awareness, “When you join Peace Corps you think you’re going to save the world, but you soon realize that the person who benefits most from the experience is you.” Having said that, I'm proud of my contribution not only to my host organization, but to others in the community with whom I remain friends to this day.

So what are some of these benefits to the volunteer?

1. Satisfies one’s altruism

On the most basic level, volunteering satisfies our need to serve, to give of ourselves, to give back.

2. Improves existing professional skills and develops new ones

When we imagine service, we may be tempted to consider it a one-way transfer of skills from the volunteer to the host community. However, the development of the volunteer’s skills is often accelerated by encountering new problems and contexts in the field. This arguably applies universally — from construction to medicine, from engineering to education. For example, I taught economics and business at a local high school in Estonia, and helped local students create business plans and prepare for business fairs. This not only improved my speaking and presentation skills, but it also gave me added confidence.

Volunteering with Kiva, microfinance in Guatemala
Using our photography skills to share the story of Kiva borrowers to help raise funds.

3. Develops emotional intelligence

An immersive volunteer experience can develop a raft of personal and professional “soft” skills including cross-cultural communication and empathy. Both are critical to understanding the inner workings of our globalized world…and ourselves.

School in Bangladesh
Navigating a sea of questions from young students at school in rural Bangladesh.

4. Develops situational creativity and problem solving skills

When you find yourself in an environment and culture very different from your own for a sustained period of time, you’ll likely develop a certain kind of emotional elasticity and flexibility. You might also encounter problems you’ve never before imagined, and fashion solutions you never could have imagined, either.

5. Become a global citizen, shift your outlook and perspective on the world

So many of your existing assumptions, stereotypes and fears come into question, and many of them fall away. Working together with local people in vastly different cultural, geopolitical and socioeconomic circumstances can broaden your view not only of the region where you serve but also of the wider world.

This process is deeply instructive; we’ve witnessed friends steer new directions in life after a volunteer or immersive learning experience.

Creating New Connections, Turkmenistan
Challenging assumptions and building new bonds in Turkmenistan.

6. Enhances your resume or CV

Whether you wish to be accepted into a graduate school program or to groom yourself for a professional opportunity, an immersive, relevant, practical volunteer experience on a resume can strengthen your personal story and make you a substantively stronger candidate.

Japanese Students
Dan helps a group of Japanese students complete their English class assignment.

A Way to Support International Educational Opportunities for Disadvantaged Youth

If you are interested in providing disadvantaged youth in the United States an international learning experience that incorporates these benefits, please consider supporting the Foundation for Learning and Youth Travel Exchange (FLYTE) initiative launched by our friend Matt Kepnes. FLYTE is raising funds to support five international group trips for students selected from lower income communities in the United States.

How Volunteering Can Cause Harm: Causes and Effects

Given all the “good” surrounding volunteering, how can there be so many drawbacks? And what are the forces at work that create an environment where serving can do harm?

We’ll address both here.

Note: By no means is this an exhaustive list of concerns. Nor is it meant to be applied broad brush to every organization you might work with along your volunteer journey. These are considerations you ought to be aware of so you can make better, more informed decisions.

The Unintended Negative Consequences of Volunteering: 4 Causes

1. First, a word: Money

When an organization's very existence becomes dependent on money from volunteer fees, it’s hard not to imagine various agents falling prey to conflicts of interest. It’s a twist on the principle agent problem, or the fox and the henhouse. Some intermediary organizations provide a service by connecting volunteers with opportunities and communities in need. However, the commercialization of volunteering can sometimes lead to projects that address the wrong needs, manufacture entirely new ones, and divert resources and attention from where they are needed most.

2. The Pressure to Impress (Profiles and CVs)

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a growing pressure to fashion a compelling social and professional profile. Sometimes it’s to impress schools or prospective employers. Now more than ever, demand exists for the distinctive and exceptional in one's CV — in the form of “story”, “transformation” and “experiential” dimensions to set a candidate apart and underscore her apparent preparedness, worldliness or emotional intelligence. For a short clip on this destructive cliche, listen to “the mission that changed my life” vignette from 7:20-8:10 on How I Got Into College.)More generally, this applies to social profiles, when we try to impress our friends and peers with stories of heroic, exceptional and triumphant international experiences and contribution.

In itself, all this isn’t entirely bad. That is, until volunteering becomes a selfish short-term checkbox exercise that inadvertently disregards the host community and their real long-term needs.

Leigh Shulman, speaking of her own experience taking on volunteers at CloudHead, an NGO she co-founded in Salta, Argentina, puts a fine point on it: “It’s been my experience that about 1% of the people who want to volunteer are actually qualified to do so. And of the rest of the 99%, a very small percentage truly want to do the work. I think there's this weird image people have that if they volunteer they are ‘good people.' So really, the act of volunteering becomes selfish.”

3. Unprepared or untrained volunteers don’t have the skills needed

This is one part cause and another part effect. Sometimes intermediaries place volunteers in situations they are not prepared to handle. Perhaps they don’t have the emotional or cross-cultural skills, or even worse, they lack the professional or technical skills. There are stories of pre-professional medical volunteers treating patients or administering medical care without proper training. Not only is this dangerous, but it can be deadly.

School Projects in Bolivia
This time, Dan is being taught…how to properly wash his hands. Potosi, Bolivia.

4. The community has not been consulted

If no one asks the local community or host organization what it really needs, even in passing, how is it possible to help? This sounds obvious enough, but sadly it happens repeatedly that an international NGO or local organizer assumes they know, creates a program that doesn’t address a real need, and the community and volunteer end up disappointed. For example, it may sound like a great idea to build a new school for a community. But if you were to ask that community they might say they prefer to keep the current building, but would prefer money to pay for additional teachers or books instead.

You never know until you ask. However, your questions might not yield the results you'd hoped for.

READ MORE: Child Welfare in Travel: 10 Do’s and Don’ts for Engaging Responsibly

Unintended Negative Consequences of Volunteering: 5 Outcomes

1. Resources are diverted from real problems and new problems are created

Perhaps the best examples are the ready-made orphanages created to exploit crises and the public’s desire to help. Money is often required to recover and rebuild, but the flip side is that the mere presence of money can also be gasoline to the fire of greed. This is the philanthropy world's resource curse or paradox of plenty.

How to stop it? Awareness is good start. And in the case of orphanage tourism, focus instead on programs that transfer valuable skills to parents so they can earn their own money and take care of their own children. Not as easy and sexy as an orphanage, but certainly a better foundation for long-term change and development.

We suggest you watch The Love You Give short documentary with stories told of how volunteering in orphanages can unintentionally break up families and cause a negative cycle. This film is produced by Better Care Network which is part of a coalition called ReThink Orphanages, a leader in trying to prevent institutionalization of children. It's eye opening and it's real.

Volunteering with Kiva, Microfinance in Guatemala
Investing in projects that develop a mother's skills so she can earn more for her family.

2. Intermediary groups keep the placement money for themselves

It’s not unheard of for sizable amounts of money to be paid to an intermediary organization for a volunteer placement, only for little to none of that amount to end up in the hands of the host organization or host family. This happened to Shannon O’Donnell, a colleague and friend of ours. After paying an intermediary organization for a volunteer placement to teach at a monastery in Nepal, Shannon later discovered that none of the placement money was passed on to the host organization that housed and fed her. In order to help other volunteers avoid this type of experience, she wrote the Volunteer Traveler's Handbook and developed Grassroots Volunteering, a database of volunteer host organizations who accept direct inquiry and placements.

3. Children can experience negative developmental effects

There are studies that show that the effect of a constant stream of new, friendly faces, whose quickly-formed bonds of attachment are regularly broken when they leave, can negatively affect early childhood development. Some organizations go so far as to advocate avoiding any service with children in foreign countries.

4. Local economy deprived of paying work

When we met Adrianne and Rick, they told us how when they first volunteered in Cambodia over 10 years ago it seemed a good idea to use their labor to build homes and schools. However, they soon realized the unintended consequences of their free labor on the community: it took jobs away from local people. Today, they fundraise at home in Canada and use the proceeds to buy materials locally and to hire local painters, carpenters and handymen to do the work.

This isn’t to say that all construction projects are bad. Sometimes, there’s a genuine lack of skilled or willing labor, but in other cases, volunteer labor deprives the local trade economy of the opportunity to develop and evolve.

5. The community and individuals are harmed due to incompetence

In extreme cases of ill-conceived volunteer placement, a volunteer with insufficient training or professional skills has a life in her hands that she has specifically been placed to treat or save. In other cases, the host organization wastes valuable working around the unskilled volunteer.

READ MORE: Should Travelers Give to Kids Who Beg?

Questions to Ask Before Volunteering

After all this, you may be wondering what to do next to better navigate the volunteer waters. The following questions are intended to help you evaluate whether a volunteer opportunity will fit your goals and objectives and whether or not it’s an ethical, sound volunteer placement.

You might also be thinking: “Man, these guys are really raining on my parade. All I wanted was to do some good and have some fun.”

Travel Social Enterprise in Jordan
Trying to make shrak, traditional bread, during an experience with Zikra Initiative in Jordan.

Yes, and…if you wish to optimize your experience without harming anyone, you must ask questions, including ones that might make you — and others — feel a little uncomfortable. Legitimate, ethical organizations will appreciate your queries. Those who ignore, dismiss or otherwise respond defensively should give you pause to reconsider.

Questions to Ask Yourself before Volunteering

1. What are my goals for volunteering?

Really. Let’s be honest here. What do you hope to get out of the experience personally and professionally? Is this something to look good on your CV or resume for graduate school? Or to gain additional experience or to hone a particular skill? Or to challenge yourself by immersion in a culture and environment beyond your comfort zone?

Perhaps you’re more likely to save the world if you’re honest as to who you are serving: you, the community, or ideally, a combination. You shouldn’t feel bad if you wish to derive benefit from a volunteer experience, but be frank with yourself to guide the decisions you make. This awareness will help you find a program that best uses your skills, fulfills your goals, and delivers benefit to the host community.

2. What do I hope to contribute to the host community? What skills will I bring to bear?

It’s crucial to manage your expectations and the community's regarding your skills and impact.

3. Which of my skills do I hope to improve? How?

These could include professional skills and “soft” personal growth and life skills.

Questions to Ask Volunteering Intermediaries and Host Organizations

1. Will the host community really benefit from my presence? How?

Does the program work together with community leaders to develop projects that meet real needs? Will the community benefit from something lasting and sustainable? Or are they simply making room for volunteers like me without investing of themselves in the process?

2. Are there any circumstances where my lack of experience can harm the host community?

This is a particularly important question to ask where elements of personal safety may be involved, like medicine or civil engineering. Some extreme examples of these include: “Am I expected to deliver medical care when I don’t have the experience or qualifications to safely perform my role? Am I expected to build a bridge or design a water filtration system beyond my qualifications?” Think before you commit.

3. How much time is really needed for me to have a positive impact on the community?

This is a challenging one, as we all have tight schedules and limited amounts of time. If you are looking for a deep, immersive experience with a culture and organization, it’s unlikely that a week or two here-or-there volunteer placement is going to help. There’s a reason why many host organizations will not accept volunteer placements shorter than three months. By the time the volunteer is “up to speed” and contributing, it will be time for her to return home. The result: more work and rework for the host organization and community.

4. Where is the money going?

If payment for your volunteer experience is involved, where is that money going? How much of it goes directly to the community? What sort of training or transitional support will you receive from the intermediary or host organization for that placement fee?

These days, it’s not unusual to pay a fee for a volunteer experience. However, one of your goals ought to be to maximize the contribution to the host community organization.

5. Will my presence take away jobs or learning opportunities for local people?

This is important, particularly if the project has a building or construction component. What is the rationale for volunteers supplying labor in place of local workers seeking paid employment?

6. Are there ways to contribute other than by giving your time and skills?

The answer to this question is often yes. There are plenty of opportunities to raise funds or frequent social enterprises on the ground who support community organizations and marginalized communities with their profits. In fact, following a natural disaster it’s actually best NOT to book a flight and volunteer since money is usually more effective in the hands of vetted local or international organizations on the ground.

Volunteer and Voluntourism Resources

If you are interested in reading or learning more about ethical volunteering and opportunities, here are a few resources you might find useful.

Awareness of Ethical Volunteering Issues: Resources and Information

Volunteering in Orphanages: Why Say No

Resources and Articles on Finding Ethical Volunteering Opportunities

Moving Forward: The Future of Volunteering

If you are considering volunteering, we understand these issues might at first seem a little daunting. However, awareness of them places the power in your hands — the power to give careful, deliberate thought to the consequences of your decisions and actions. Ask questions and you can vote with your feet to choose an opportunity you’ve properly researched, that is vetted and matched at its core to the good intentions residing in your heart.

When you do, you'll find that you also have the power to make a real impact, not only on the lives of the people and communities you aim to help, but also on your own.

If you have questions regarding volunteering or voluntourism, please leave a comment. Our goal is to make this an ongoing resource for all those interested in ethical volunteering and global service.

About Audrey Scott
Audrey Scott is a writer, storyteller, speaker and tourism development consultant. She aims to help turn people's fears into curiosity and connection. She harbors an obsession for artichokes and can bake a devastating pan of brownies. You can keep up with her adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about her on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

40 thoughts on “Volunteering and Voluntourism: The Good, The Bad, and The Questions You Should Ask”

  1. I used to work in the human rights field. The overall concept of voluntourism is beyond my understanding. Having to pay to help a community is nonsense, then again, as you rightly point out on those occasion people mostly pay for an experience. But then, why attaching the label “volunteering” to it? I don’t like it… I also know that real NGOs and charities and international organizations that take their work seriously not only don’t ask for fees in order to volunteer, but either pay their “volunteers” or support them in various ways, and select them through a long and difficult process. It certainly happened to me.

    The key to joining a good programme is to research about the organisation. It has to be reputable and its mission clear and visible!

    Reply
    • Claudia, thanks for your comment and you bring up some great points. I do know that some volunteer placements, esp. with big and real NGOs/organizations, are very legitimate, meaning that the placements require very specific skills and time. if you had asked me a few years ago I would have agreed with you that the concept of paying to volunteer was beyond me. However, in the last few years I’ve softened my view a bit as I’ve seen small and good NGOs who don’t have the funds to 1) support volunteer costs of room and board and 2) needed volunteer fees to survive.

      The challenge for the volunteer today is to be honest in why he wants to volunteer in the first place, what skills he really has and how to best to use them in the local context. Sometimes that takes a lot of work to figure out, but we hope that these questions can help.

      Reply
      • Firstly, I just want to say how much I enjoyed this post! Absolutely spot on. I have saved it to share in the future when I inevitably get entangled in debates on this topic!

        Claudia – I understand what you mean, but the problem is it’s not skilled, useful volunteers who are looking for placements, it is 18-25 year olds with no applicable skills who want to volunteer (particularly with animals and children). For this reason, many small NGOs charge fees as it is the only benefit they gain from having a transient, untrained worker for a few weeks.

        Reply
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  3. Very informative post! I always liked the idea of volunteering but have always been hesitant. I want to make sure I’ll actually benefit the people I’m trying to help. Maybe one day I’ll find a good fit for my skills.

    Reply
    • Meggie, you’re welcome! Glad you found the piece informative. Agree that trying to find the right volunteer placement and organization can feel daunting at times, especially as there are so many considerations to be sure you are indeed benefiting the host community. But that you are aware of these issues is really important, and will help you find that good fit one day. It’s a wonderful experience — for everyone — when that right volunteer match does come together!

      Reply
  4. What a super informative post. This is something that I think a lot of people struggle with this one as even if they know there is a bad side to this industry they don’t necessarily know where to look for that information.

    I’ve had lots of friends come to me about this issue and ask for advice and even then I find it difficult.

    I read this interesting article about why, even if orphanges were filled with children, they are simply bad places we shouldn’t be supporting because in and of themselves they are harmful to children and we should be encouraging programs list foster parenting over and above that.

    Reply
    • Britt, thanks! Like you, we find it difficult sometimes to give advice on this because we want to encourage people to volunteer and give of themselves and their skills for the benefit of others, but also know that there are many things to watch out for in choosing an ethical and good match for a volunteer placement.

      Completely agree re: orphanages and supporting programs that invest in parents to help them earn more money and can better able to take of their children. Several of the articles linked above talk to this as well.

      Reply
  5. Hi Audrey, terrific post, lots of very useful information here! My husband and I are permanent travellers, and also work on volunteer conservation projects around the world.
    Thanks so much for all this good information.
    Happy travelling! Danila

    Reply
    • Danila, thanks for adding a link to our piece to your helpful piece on this topic! As you wrote, there are many considerations to for figuring out the right project match for a volunteering experience. But asking questions help you get closer…

      Reply
  6. That’s true, not all volunteer organizations have the funds to actually do what they set out to do. This is a well-thought out article regarding volunteer work. Thank you for sharing this article.

    Reply
    • Hannah, very true – it’s really important to understand the importance of funding and money for organizations when thinking about volunteering. Glad you enjoyed this article and found it useful!

      Reply
  7. i have project that requires volunteers in the field of health, teaching and entrepreneurs mentors. St Bridget Child Development centre is in rural western Kenya in Busia county.

    Reply
    • Hi Dennis,
      I’m afraid that our website is not really the best place to try and find volunteers. You may want to contact Omprakash (listed in the resources) or a similar type of website that lists host organizations interested in volunteers with specific skills. Good luck!

      Reply
  8. I have long experience of working with NGOs in different parts of India. In seventies we used to receive volunteers from philanthropic agencies such as Christian Aid and professional volunteering agencies such as American Peace Corps and British VSOs. Since our NGO was involved in rendering technical services in Natural resource management benefiting the poor, we always used to receive professionals as volunteers. Our funding requirements were met with by Donor agencies. Never was there a single instance of volunteers paying to the NGO and there was no confusion in people’s mind about definitions of volunteering. I do not think there need to be any even today. Right now I am involved in an ethical travel initiative http://www.traveltocare.in. I had very bad experience with volunteers who gets free food and lodge for just doing some insignificant unskilled job. Most of them were young boys and girls who primarily wanted a cheap holiday. I also get altruistic minded travelers who pay for their experience and the money helps the community. I can understand a traveler paying for his/her experience. then he/she is not a volunteer. He/she pays and gets what he/she wants. Where is the volunteerism in it.? So please do not confuse those who are very clear about the meaning and spirit of volunteerism.

    Reply
    • Madhavan, thanks for your long and thoughtful comment. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer many years ago, so I am glad to hear you had a good experience working with the organization. I agree that it’s better when funding for the volunteer comes from an outside source (e.g., like the U.S. government for Peace Corps) so as to not have conflict of interest with the host NGO or community. I do think that today the demand for volunteering exceeds the opportunities (and funding) available with organizations such as Peace Corps or VSO, which is one of the reasons why some people are paying for the volunteer placement. I have seen where this is done very well — where the volunteer is skilled and really working hard and the host organization is benefiting not only from the skills, but also from the financial support. However, I do agree that most times it doesn’t work well as the person paying feels it’s an “experience” he’s buying rather than volunteering in the spirit as you mentioned. Where it gets confusing is that the same word – volunteering — is used for both types. So perhaps we need new terminology?

      Reply
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  10. Thank you for such a wonderful, intelligent article! I just volunteered overseas for the first time in Kenya and this is really helping me with digesting my experience.

    Having paid to volunteer, I did encounter the conflicts of interest that so many others here have commented on. The host organization was transparent about how my money was being used, but it sometimes felt like they wanted volunteers more for their money than their skills and “need to be flexible and independent” was used as a sort of excuse for them not having set plans and goals. On the other hand, I could witness that they have indeed made life better for their community – and I certainly grew from the experience – so the time and money spent was worthwhile.

    Reply
    • Brooke, thanks for sharing your experiences as a volunteer and glad that this piece helped in processing. Volunteering is certainly not a black and white situation, but the important thing is that you feel that your time and money was going towards a good place.

      Reply
  11. That’s pretty comprehensive! I did post-disaster research on volunteering in both Sri Lanka and Haiti. If there’s one thing volunteers need to remember its their reliance on others. This may be whoever is funding them, is certainly the host organisation in the country and is most emphatically the people they are there to work for. I loved the guy, who I never met, who arrived in Colombo after the tsunami and set himself up as in informal volunteer exchange at the airport: ‘welcome to Sri Lanka with your backpack and your skills and your commitment to help others….. Ah, this village might be able to feed you and benefit from your woodworking expertise’. Such signposting is invaluable and Jayne Cravens has written much about this and other volunteering-related subjects: http://www.coyotecommunications.com.. I would never underestimate the security aspect (and if you’re willing to cross-refer I recently wrote a blog about my time in Haiti on thebeardedstranger.world).. Keep up the good work!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Jonathan, for the reminder that the volunteer will be relying much on the host organization and local people, and how open they are to this will likely also impact their experience and how much they are able to do. Yes, security issues should be taken seriously and the host organization should be able to provide objective information on this. The last thing any host organization wants is for their volunteers to be a threatened.

      Reply
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  15. Hello!
    Like many others I wanted to take part in a volunteer project in Africa this summer. However, after a little bit research, I can definitely no longer say which company is trustful and spends the money meaningful.
    I am a medical student in my 2nd year. Of course it would be great to work in a hospital, learn something and maybe get you know a foreign culture as well.
    I know that I am not going to be a very useful helper in a hospital, as I do no have the experience and knowledge of a “real” doctor.
    However, is there no chance I can help by doing the things I can in a country such as Uganda?
    I considered taking part in a health program of Love Volunteers, a quite big organization from New Zealand.
    Has anyone experience in volunteering with this company? They are not quite expensive actually compared to other volunteer companies (250$ registration fee and 860$ for accommodation, food, …).
    It would be great if someone who has a little bit experience could help me!

    Reply
    • Hi Lisa,
      It is really challenging to try and figure out which organizations and projects operate in a way that truly benefits the community and has local involvement. I don’t know anything about Love Volunteers, but we did meet the founder of CFHI (https://www.cfhi.org/) last summer at an ethical service learning/volunteering conference we facilitated. Their programs are primarily geared towards medical students and the founder began this because she found herself in a position many years ago where she wasn’t yet a “real” (i.e., pre-professional) doctor but was put in the position to treat patients as one and felt she was doing harm to patients. So, their programs are grounded in volunteering in hospitals and institutions around the world up to one’s abilities and under supervision of local doctors. Hope this info helps!

      Reply
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  17. Hi Audrey, great article on a very complex and hard to explain topic. I run an adventure for a cause company taking people to Tanzania & Kenya. Explaining the above is one of my biggest challenges so I’m glad I found this article because now I can refer people to it. I think for all the great intentions people have when they travel or volunteer in developing countries, they really don’t realise how much long-term harm they can cause; mostly because no-one has ever educated them. Thank you for taking the time to provide such an in-depth analysis.

    My challenge to anyone who wants to make a substantial difference in a developing country… sponsor a student to complete their education. By doing this, you’ll empower these young people to solve the issues that they face everyday. This is the greatest gift you can give these children, their families, their communities and yourself – especially when you visit on graduation day. Education is without a doubt the best way to fight poverty.

    Reply
    • Nathan, thanks so much for your kind comment and hope that this article can help explain some of these complex issues to your clients or other people. As you said, it’s great to see good intentions and we hope that these only grow, but there needs to be greater awareness of the different ways that the desire to “do good” and really do short and long-term harm.

      Education as a way to fight poverty. YES!!!

      Reply
  18. Hi Audrey, I really loved the article you wrote talking about te stakeholders and the overall way to approach volunteering. You also addressed the arguments about volunteering abroad and I just have one question: Since this website is by you and your husband, so was this article written by only you or by both of you?

    Reply
    • Thanks, Grace! Glad you found this article useful and comprehensive!

      Good question you ask re: authorship. All articles are touched by both of us. Usually one person will do a draft and the other will edit. As we have different styles of writing, this allows our readers the best from both of us 🙂

      Reply
  19. This is a really important point. I work for a non-profit that manages development programs in 12 countries. We rarely bring in volunteers because it changes the local cultural dynamic. If it is a community that really needs certain outside expertise, it can be a great experience for all. Otherwise we focus on training the locals in whatever necessary skills – even sometimes sending them internationally for education and training.

    Reply
    • Kimberly, great point you make regarding spending resources on training locals or even sending them abroad for training vs. bringing in foreign volunteers. That is so much more sustainable and those skills will stay in the community, even if the person decides to transfer jobs or organizations. Thanks for sharing your experience!

      Reply
  20. Just wanted to say thank you for this post! It’s such a tough subject to approach, and I keep diving deeper and deeper into it. This was an amazing post for someone who is already researching this topic but also someone who has maybe never thought about this before.

    I will definitely have to check out the resources listed at the bottom as well.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Danielle! This certainly is a complex and complicated subject so we tried to tackle and break down the various issues and considerations the best we could. Glad you found the article informative and hope the resources were useful!

      Reply

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