Voluntourism (a form of tourism in which travelers volunteering their time and skills to the places they visit) has recently been at the center of a debate. To most people, volunteering abroad sounds like a great idea. But, like anything else, not everything is butterflies and rainbows when it comes to the service-related travel industry.

Due to its recent growth in popularity, you’ll hear more and more cases about how even the most eager and selfless travelers have been prey to volunteer-abroad programs that have done more harm than good. Of course, that’s not to say you should boycott voluntourism altogether (you bought those round trip flights already, yikes!). At its core, with the best of intentions, voluntourism is a great way to see the world while simultaneously giving back. But, by being aware of some of the problems surrounding voluntourism practices, you can be an educated voluntourist. Read on to see what you can do to ensure that you’re doing the right thing while volunteering and traveling abroad.

Voluntourists Go for the Wrong Reasons

Self absorbed young people taking selfie pictures of themselves on beach vacation

Some poorly-informed tourists decide to volunteer abroad because they want a cool new profile picture that will garner praise on social media. Others might go with good intentions, genuinely believing that their tiny influence can make a massive impact over the span of a few days. While this is truly a noble goal, it’s unfounded. In order to really make an impact while traveling, or in your own communities, you’re going to need to work at it for much more than a week. There are some situations where any help is better than none. But be informed and keep this in mind as you set out to plan your next volunteer travel experience.

Plan to volunteer when traveling? Start by looking for cheap round trip flights to your destination!

People Have Inaccurate Impressions of the Local Communities

Unfortunately, people tend to exaggerate the bad when they’ve had a less-than-pleasurable experience abroad. So, if you listen to some of these stories from tourists, there’s a chance that you might have a bad impression of certain destinations. The more these stories are spread around, the more people believe them.

It’s extremely important that you get a very realistic idea about how things are in the area that you plan to serve. And no; searching hashtags isn’t enough. Remember, people on social media are often offering a perspective that benefits them. Try to find a way to reach out to locals on your own. It could be people from the community who are not associated with the volunteer programs or even previous volunteers that have served in that area. Dig around for local news articles and see what they’re saying. Make yourself aware of the true needs of the area where you want to serve before deciding if it’s the right fit for you. You’ll also want to know more about the audience that you’re serving in general. Even if there are not millions of orphans roaming the street, you want to be equipped to serve the audience that is in need and plan to contribute your skills and time based on facts rather than perception.

Programs Can Sometimes Mismatch Skillsets

Volunteer teacher reading to a class of preschool kids

Many people who travel abroad are not properly trained to do some of the tasks required for the humanitarian efforts they want to be a part of. Obviously, there are exceptions, like medical students going on a medical mission trip or programs like Doctors Without Borders. Or other programs that require some basic manual labor such as painting, restoration, serving meals, etc., that many can do. But what about those young, bright-eyed college students that are often inspired to travel and volunteer around the world with a limited set of skills? Or all the teaching-related volunteers that have no experience working in schools, education, or child development? If you have a knack for working with kids, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should volunteer to teach them. Similarly, if you haven’t developed expertise yet while in the midst of your studies, it might not be the best idea to volunteer for something that requires a highly skilled professional. Sadly, many organizations will allow anyone to do anything in order to meet their quota or prosper financially. As a responsible voluntourist, you should seek opportunities that allow you to utilize your skill set properly. It’s understandable that you want to learn something new on this service trip as well, but the bulk of your duties should be doing something that you’re absolutely qualified to do.

Volunteers Can Do More Harm Than Good

It’s no secret that voluntourism is a popular way to travel. But it often tends to peak in the aftermath of a natural disaster. If a destination has just been devastated by an earthquake, tsunami, or hurricane, sometimes the last thing the affected community needs is an influx of visitors. When it comes to an emergency situation, while you may think people need help and relief quickly, it’s important that you slow down and do a bit of research to find out what essentials are needed. All of these situations are unique. Yes, there are times that your presence and the extra helping hands are vital, but there are also sometimes when it’s truly best if you simply send monetary support or supplies, because a donation toward rebuilding post-devastation may go much further than a devastated destination having to host you as a guest. Make a conscious effort to travel at the time that you’re needed and not at the time that it’s most convenient for you.

Not All Voluntourism Programs Are Well-Intentioned

tourists arguing outdoors

It’s sad to say, but while many travelers have the best intentions, some volunteer programs simply don’t. Drawing on everything from the naivete of tourists to the sympathy they can evoke through a few heart-wrenching photos, some organizations have been rumored to scam people into paying astronomical amounts of money to participate in their programs while limiting the tourists’ exposure to the realities of the surrounding communities and the area itself. Do your research and ask questions! What skill level would be right for the volunteer position? How much does the program’s presence impact the local community’s daily life? Can you follow up on the progress of the program that you plan to participate in after you’ve left the destination?

More About How to Volunteer & Travel the Right Way

We can’t emphasize it enough — the best step to a good experience volunteering abroad is doing your research and here are a few ways to do just that!

Spend some time really thinking about why you want to volunteer abroad. Is there a particular community you want to go to? Why do you feel drawn there? What do you hope to get out of the volunteer experience, and what do you hope to do for the local community? Answering these questions can really help you determine if voluntourism is truly a good choice for you.

Find a program that matches your skills. If you’re a child development specialist, finding a trip that involves work with children might be a great idea. If you’ve worked as an engineer for 10 years, you might be better off looking for a trip that needs your construction expertise.

Research the area you’ll be visiting. Learn about any cultural practices that are different from yours, and how you can be respectful of these differences while you’re there. This also includes learning how people dress in the area you’ll be visiting and packing clothes that will help you blend in respectfully.

While you’re traveling, take extra steps to take care of the area. Make an effort to clean up litter while you’re walking around. Purchase local, handmade souvenirs made by local artisans. These acts alone make a huge impact.

Make it a priority to find a tried-and-true program and volunteer with the best intentions. Spend a considerable amount of time looking into programs, reading reviews, and comparing different companies. Not only should you follow up on the projects and areas after you leave, think about how you can continue to support the efforts from afar. By doing all of these things, you’re sure to be one of the true change-makers that do voluntourism right.

Lastly, share your story. Tell the truth about the area that you visited, what they need more of, and how you personally contributed. Sharing knowledge about how to volunteer and travel the right way will not only educate eager travel and volunteer enthusiasts; it will make a huge impact on the voluntourism industry as a whole.

 

Have you ever volunteered while traveling? Do you believe that you were matched with a program or project that was truly effective? Tell us about your experience in the comments.

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About The Author

Tali Love
Lifestyle Influencer & Travel Writer

Tali Love is a seasoned solo traveler, trip planner and travel writer. She owns and operates the blog Talilove.com, there she writes about all things lifestyle and travel. Tali loves spending time in nature, good wine, theatre and documentaries. Find her and say hello on Instagram @with_love_tali or Facebook @withlovetali.