Voluntourism, or the act of traveling to a foreign country to do charitable volunteer work is on the rise, and one of the fastest growing travel trends today. This $2 billion a year industry involves 1.6 million volunteer tourists traveling abroad – not to bask in the sun or sightsee, but to build orphanages, teach English and do a myriad of charitable deeds. Despite its seemingly fantastic outcomes (Americans experience other cultures! Young people are exposed to new conditions! Third world countries receive things they need!), there are definitely some things to consider before you make your next vacation a “voluntour.”

Here are the three most important questions to ask:

“Who is benefiting the most from my voluntour?”

As painful as it is to admit, sometimes the person you are benefitting the most with your “voluntour” is yourself. Many young people choose to do one because it enhances their resume or college application, without considering the good (or not-so-good) they are actually doing. Before going, ask yourself if the host community you are visiting is really gaining something from your presence or if it might be more valuable to send money to a non-profit organization that empowers individuals in developing countries to improve their own conditions.

One expert suggests that sharing knowledge such as teaching English is a valuable contribution, but that doing manual labor, such as digging wells or building homes could actually be hurting the economy of these impoverished areas. When wealthy tourists do construction, they are preventing local workers from getting much-needed jobs, or learning skills they could use to find employment for their families.

“What type of volunteer work is the best use of my skills?

Have experience with accounting? Engineering? Medicine? These are useful skills that are needed in impoverished countries, and should be used to empower citizens of your host country.

There’s a fine line between volunteering and poverty touring. Before going on a voluntour, make sure to assess your skills and utilize those before you choose the organization you want to support. Many young volunteers offer skills and experiences that organizations don’t take advantage of, because it is not mentioned.
The project should fit your skills, and you should engage with the host country in a way that gives a lasting contribution. Often, organizations create projects specifically for volunteers, which is not productive or helpful. Be sure you employ your best skills. And if you don’t have any that are in demand – consider donating money to help fund those that do to make a lasting impact or volunteer locally. Chances are, there are a lot of good deeds to be done nearby.

“How will this trip make a difference to the world or to me personally?

This question should be asked before, during, and after your voluntour.  Many people feel that voluntouring is a form of colonialism, but others disagree. Isn’t going and spending a week improving a small corner of the world better than sitting poolside?

Well, it depends.

Be sure to choose an organization that empowers their host communities to find meaningful employment, utilize buildings or shelters created with them and seeks to instill valuable skills. Whether that is teaching English, using medical know-how or assisting medical professionals or teaching hygiene and childcare, it should be done in a respectful manner, with the understanding that empowering is different (and better!) than giving. Upon your return home, determine how you will utilize the things you learned on your voluntour to continue giving back in a meaningful way and improving your own community.

Overall, voluntourism can be a wonderful, valuable contribution to a community in need – if it is done right. And if you determine that it’s not for you? No worries. There are plenty of other ways to help by offering donations or serving your local community, wherever you are.

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About The Author

Hey I'm Mandy. Writer, traveler, wife, mother, author, woman, over-sharer. I like to talk about the grit of travel, the beautiful, and the people that I meet. Oh yeah - and traveling with kids.