Last Updated on May 8, 2022 by Audrey Scott
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, desired impact and expectations? So 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.
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 impacts of volunteering and voluntourism is so important. And if you think this only affects a few people, think again. The volunteer “industry” was estimated at $2.8 billion in annual revenue (2014), 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.
Table of Contents
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.
1. Volunteering Definition
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 more 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 Definition
Voluntourism is a combination 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 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.
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.
5. Intermediary Organization
Think of intermediary organizations 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.
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 to help people find volunteer/voluntourism placements.
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.
Benefits of Volunteering to the Host Community and Volunteer
Ideally, a volunteer experience involves an exchange — of culture, skills, humanity and point of view — so that each party benefits. Volunteering 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.
How Volunteering Can Benefit 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, when we visited Rwanda, we met a group of retired teachers helping to develop the skills of local teachers 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.
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, a social enterprise 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.
Benefits of Volunteering 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.
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.
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 develop 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.
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.
How Volunteering and Voluntourism Can Cause Harm: Causes and Effects
Given all the “good” surrounding volunteering, how can there be so many drawbacks or potential negative impacts? 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 that are truly in need. However, the commercialization of volunteering and voluntourism 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 (Social Media 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 media 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 and voluntourism 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.
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 and creates a program that doesn’t address a real need. In the end, both the host 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 what they want 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.
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 and support 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.
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 child advocacy organizations go so far as to advocate avoiding any service with children.
It's important to be aware of child welfare issues when volunteering or traveling in other countries. There can be unintended negative impacts on children, even when you think you are “doing good.”
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 negative consequences of their free labor on the community: it took jobs away from local people.
Today, they raise money 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. In other cases, however, volunteer labor deprives the local trade economy of the opportunity to develop and increase the number of jobs.
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.
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. Just as its possible to travel more responsibly, there are certain decisions you can make volunteer more responsibly.
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.”
Yes, and…if you wish to optimize your volunteer experience without negative impacts, 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 volunteering 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? Or because you just want to help?
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.
However, in some circumstances two weeks is enough time to have a meaningful volunteering experience that also contributes. For example, we recently volunteered for around two weeks with Refugee Support Europe in Ioannina, Greece. Because of the way their operations are structured, we found it a fulfilling and immersive experience in that limited time commitment.
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
- Omprakash EdGE: a pre-departure volunteer and global service learning online curriculum that includes interaction with and advisory from mentors around the globe.
- Advice for volunteering by the Child Safe Movement, including alternatives.
- Learning Service is a great resource (sign up for their library!), including their recently released book.
- How Not to save the World – This 20-minute radio segment on BBC really lays out some of the problems embedded in voluntourism, especially connected to unskilled youth going abroad. A really good listen.
- As Volunteering Explodes in Popularity, Who is it Helping Most?
Volunteering in Orphanages: Why Say No
- The Love You Give – watch this short documentary produced by Better Care Network and the ReThink Orphanages coalition that provides former orphans a voice to tell their stories and how volunteering in orphanages can unintentionally break up families and cause a negative cycle.
- ReThink Orphanages: This network is dedicated to discouraging orphanage volunteering and offering responsible travel and volunteering alternatives that support families and communities better. Read their white paper Orphanage Volunteering – Why Say No for a sobering look at the “industry” around orphanages and the potential harm to children from volunteering, especially from short-term volunteers.
- ChildSafe has a list of vetted organizations around the world focused on keeping families together.
- Powerful article in The Guardian: Volunteers are fueling the growth of orphanages in Uganda. They need to stop.
- How to Really Help Children Abroad: Great practical advice in this article about ways to support disadvantaged children abroad without volunteering in orphanages and continuing the cycle.
Resources and Articles on Finding Ethical Volunteering Opportunities
- Grassroots Volunteering: A database of social enterprises and vetted host organizations that accept direct inquiry and volunteer placements
- Omprakash: A database of over 150 pre-screened partner organizations for people to find their own volunteering opportunity directly.
- Child Family Health International (CFHI): offering ethical medical volunteering opportunities in nine countries for undergraduate, pre-medical school, medical school and post-medical school students.
- DIY Voluntourism: A Manifesto
- Volunteer Vacations: How to Find the Right Project
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 life.
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.