Volunteer tourism, or ‘voluntourism’, in which tourists combine a trip abroad with charity work, is an area of the travel industry that has long courted controversy. Recent research on this mode of tourism has found that many companies involved with voluntourism are misrepresenting their products, and that those offering the most expensive experiences are likely to be the least responsible.
Just because a product is volunteer tourism does not mean it has positive impacts. While there are many examples of good practice, the companies that the research found to be the most negative threatened litigation an indication, of the murky world in which many of them operate.
With hundreds of volunteer opportunities offered by both travel companies and charities, how does a potential volunteer know which organizations are getting it right and which ones are, at best, misguided, and, at worst, plain cheats? Here are a few suggestions for potential volunteer tourists to find the right organizations and have an experience that genuinely makes a difference. Get a breakdown of where the money you pay will go: Higher prices aren’t a sign of better quality but pricing transparency is. Good organizations should already be publishing their accounts but it is still rare … but when you ask they should be happy to tell you.
Organization that authentically promote sustainable tourism or does a range of community development projects, will not be averse to publishing its figures. It is not wrong for the organizations to have a margin, but they should not be exploiting the volunteers and communities for profit.
Check how previous volunteers have made a difference: Just because an organization appears to sell itself on ethical credentials does not mean it is. The organizations should be doing a needs assessment for the locations they are working in and establishing exactly what help is required. Projects should be planned in advance, so ask for details on specific goals, the context of the project and how they expect it to make a difference.
Organizations should have open links to their social media sites, where you can get an idea of past volunteers’ experiences; try to contact people who have already been involved.
The organizations that run trust worthy operations will be ready to give clear information about its work. Especially if does its conservation projects really well and successfully works with social enterprises.
Length of the project: Short-term voluntourism is not necessarily bad but it depends on the project. For conservation projects the impact on animals or biodiversity does not depend on developing personal relationships: often they might just need an extra hand on deck to do data inputting, so it will not make much difference if you are only there for a short period.
However, when it comes to any projects relating to childcare, teaching or community work you should expect to be there at least for a few months and definitely be matched according to your skills, otherwise you risk having a negative impact on the people you hope to help. To make a difference you need to spend time at the destination and it is a big investment for your host to train you and get some benefit from your stay.
Community needs come ahead of yours: You came to help, so think about the beneficiaries of your stay first: are they really benefiting? Carefully note how organizations talk about the projects and communities that they are involved with. Anything that belittles or degrades local people should flag up warning signals; poverty marketing is not respectful.
Social enterprises that seem to want to be genuinely ethically run and want to do the best thing, putting back into the communities it works with, should be treating the beneficiaries with respect and dignity. Be aware that any voluntourism involving orphanages should be completely avoided.
An endless stream of visitors to these places can be psychologically disruptive to children who are likely to have already been abandoned. Disturbingly, the desire from westerners to help in orphanages has led some ‘entrepreneurs’ to set them up simply to cater for tourist demand.
Remember, the status of an organization is no guarantee of responsible practice. It cannot be assumed that a charity automatically demonstrates better practice, or that a for-profit business automatically is worse. The credibility that being an ethical business can bring in this market is strong, so organizations like to portray themselves that way, but it cannot be assumed they actually are.