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Authored by Megan Lee

A quick Google search (or scanning of JK Rowling’s Twitter account) makes it clear that ethical volunteer tourism is a hot topic in today’s travel climate—and for good reason.

It’s important that we, as individuals who want to spend our time and resources in international service, are doing so in a way that is effective, productive, and sustainable. After all, no one “wants to become that volunteer who has just built a bridge where no bridge was needed.” —Lonely Planet.

So, should we write off all volunteer tourism as the wrong way to spend your vacation or extended periods living abroad?

How to Be an Ethical Volunteer

Let’s Make a Distinction

Visiting a school yard or orphanage for a day? Volunteering for three days? This type of volunteer tourism is exploitative and wrong. Don’t visit vulnerable populations if you’re not willing to do the work of getting involved in the messiness and giving back.

Or at the very least, don’t do so thinking you’ve done a great service to someone in need. This commercialization of charity and philanthropy is problematic, and doesn’t lead to systemic change. So… just don’t.

However for those who do want to participate in ethical volunteer tourism, here are the four steps to take.

Hi Five for international volunteers.

How to Participate in Ethical Volunteer Tourism

A balance must be struck between money and mission, and it can be all-too-easy for an organization to emphasize the former ahead of the latter.

And that’s why you, as a responsible volunteer, would be wise to do some independent sleuthing to ensure your volunteer tourism is ethical. Here are four simple steps you can take to get your volunteer tourism closer to the “ethical” mark.

1. Understand Your Skills

You need full comprehension of what you can offer an organization. Why? Without this knowledge, you’re going to have a pretty hard time completing step #2, and could easily slide into the world of unethical volunteer tourism.

Example skills include

➡ Leadership

➡ Time management

➡ SEO and digital marketing

➡ English / Teaching English

➡ Financial literacy

➡ PR

➡ Engineering Skills

➡ Medical Skills

➡ Planning

➡ Creativity

➡ Community Development

➡ Project management

➡ Construction

➡ Animal care

Pro tip: If you’re not qualified to do the work in your own country, you probably shouldn’t be doing it abroad, either.

Workman put the finishing touches to the Solomon Islands National Health Laboratory.

2. Find a Community in Need Where Your Skills Could be Helpful

Now that you know what you bring to the table, it’s time to start searching out projects in around the globe.

In a perfect world, you’ll be able to find volunteer projects that you’re capable of contributing to in destinations that make you go all heart-eyes-emoji.

But, since you’re a meaningful and ethical volunteer tourist, you know you ultimately should pick the location that would benefit the most from your time and skills.

3. Assess Programs Available There

Now comes the hard-ish part—you know where you want to go and know the that work needs to be done, but you need to find (and vet) the middle-man who can help you organize your program.

Here are the checkboxes you need to tick off for every volunteer abroad company or organization you are considering working with:

Understand their local community involvement

They don’t work with or hire locals to help? Don’t work with them. This should be about exchange and the organization should be committed to uplifting the entire community through providing jobs if possible.

Ask to see proven impact through volunteer work

How have previous volunteers made a difference? Request not only evidence, but also their metrics for project success.

Double check they give you adequate preparation

There will be a degree of training necessary prior to starting the gig, not only for technical skills and work instructions, but also for how to enter the community sensitively. If they don’t train you on best practices for cultural exchange and safety measures, they’re probably not legit.

Review their affiliations with professional organizations

This is a good sign and indicates they’ve met or exceeded standard international measures of legitimacy and quality. You can also check most volunteer abroad companies’ verification status on GoAbroad.

Take a peek at their finances

Transparency is always a major plus. Know where your money will go and how all the stakeholders (volunteers, nonprofits, hosts, and beneficiaries) benefit from your financial investment. When you ask, they should be more than happy to tell you.

Pexels Money

Commit to the Project

Once you’ve gone through the above vetting process, you should be in much better shape to participate confidently in ethical volunteer tourism.

For real though—how much change can you enact if you’re only there for a week? Try to commit to longer-term projects whenever possible, especially if you will be working with vulnerable populations.

For example, there is widespread criticism of working with children for short stints, as it can have a negative psychological impact on their growth and development, leading to feelings of abandonment.

Work Yourself Out of a Job

Keep in mind that short-term volunteer work isn’t inherently bad, it just means that you might need to take a few extra steps to ensure your work is sustainable and contributing to the overall good.

If you can complete an entire project in a couple days—like building new playground equipment for the kindergarten with a couple local hands—then power to you. If your goal is to teach English, well, you try learning an entire language in a week.

Oh, and one last thing—if a service project is successful, it is consciously incorporating locals into the work and slowly eliminating the foreign need to be involved. You know you’re doing good work if you’re working yourself out of a job.

Tips For International Volunteers

A Few More Tips

➡ Always, always, ALWAYS make sure community needs come before your own. We get that you’re hot and uncomfortable and just want to sit back with a freshly opened coconut, but the work still needs to get done.

➡ Working in an community in need should result in meaningful change and wider perspectives, not just a new profile picture. While it is fun to document your experiences, be sure to do it mindfully and with permission (especially if you are posting photos of others, like children).

➡ Talk to past program participants. It’s easy to tell potential-volunteers that their work will be impactful and useful to the community, but it’s a lot harder for someone who has already done and seen the work to lie to you about it.

Ethical Volunteer Tourism is on the Horizon

Not all volunteer tourism is responsible or ethical, and sadly, there are many volunteer abroad companies and organizations out there willing to take advantage of your ignorance.

You have to be diligent in your search; hopefully, the above tips give you a good place to start. We think international service is incredibly powerful and can lead people to become more compassionate, empathetic, and motivated. And who doesn’t want friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens who are just that!?

Improving the quality of life in developing communities or with marginalized populations starts with you. In order for the experience to be mutually beneficial, take your time in investigating projects and organizations. The world – and your travels – will be better for it!

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Always up for adventure (especially if it involves a passport!), Megan Lee is an international educator, traveler, and writer. She works at GoAbroad, where she is the office push up champion.

Learn more about her perspectives and musings at www.meetmeganlee.com

Photo credits: Solomon Islands construction site (also used as Pinterest image) by Rob Maccoll for AusAID released under Creative Commons by DFAT. Building site in Nepal by Jim Holmes for AusAID released under Creative Commons by DFAT

    23 Comments

  1. Love the topic, love the article, but volunteering need not be abroad, especially if your finances and/or time are limited.

    Often you can find equally rewarding opportunities right down the street, or maybe in the next town. If your schedule is busy with work and family, look local first.

    Or as the old saying goes: Think globally, and act locally.

    • So glad you enjoyed the article JR – totally agree that volunteering at home can be equally as rewarding.

      I like the saying, think globally, act locally, after-all, our good deeds should definitely begin at home 🙂

    • Thanks so much for your feedback, JR! I absolutely think someone who is interested in service abroad should be equally motivated to be engaged with their home communities. Love this little reminder. Thank you. – Megan Lee

  2. I suggest you also look at the underlying politics of these organizations. So many of them have hidden agenda that may run counter to your beliefs. One of the biggest examples: those organizations that provide food and education- and religious indoctrination.

    • Great tip Roy, yes, your values should definitely align, and it’s important to make sure you’re on the same page re your goals and what you hope to achieve.

    • Great additional tip, Roy—this is good general advice for any organization or business that we affiliate with or support financially. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. – Megan Lee

  3. Good stuff Megan. This is why I dig philanthropy above charity; working yourself out of a job is the main goal. Or should be. All should empower people to live freely, and to prosper, on their own. Nobody needs our help. We just give people a tiny boost here and there, and they help themselves.

    Ryan

    • Thanks Ryan – totally with you on philanthropy above charity. Glad we’re of the same mind on working yourself out of a job – the most important aspect of volunteering should be sustainability – passing on our knowledge to help the community continue to prosper on their own.

      I love your perspective.

    • Thanks, Ryan! I recently heard in a podcast that philanthropy also has it’s downsides (i.e. it is often people with financial power influencing research and policy for their own agenda). It really is a complicated world of service, right!? I think the best we can do is try to find organizations that align with our values and are contributing sustainably to change—and agree that the word “help” can be indicative of weird power dynamics that have no place in empowering others. I appreciate your thoughtful feedback. Thank you for reading my article and contributing to ongoing conversation as we all try to do better. 🙂 – Megan Lee

  4. Good advise Meg, as always. This is a difficult topic to bridge. Like others such as ethical and sustainable tourism practices beyond just volunteerism (animal encounters, etc) there is often a lot of grey area and a lot of people with good intentions that get convinced into bad ideas. I love that you give specific advise. I always believed that giving is the ultimate selfish gesture, but I wished there was more of that. I know well as I spent a summer in Honduras in 2003 helping out. I thought I would help but in the it is obvious that you can only truly help on things that are one-off and that you should never be a teacher for a month. Schools need a teacher who will stay all year not for a couple of months. I have remained a part of that organisation since then, coming up to 15 years now sponsoring between 5-8 kids education yearly. Because I got to know the project and I could see where the money is going, 100% to the community so I donate it with a clear conscious that it is doing truly good and not getting lost in the administration and the salaries of well-off people who get drivers, personal cooks and mansions they wouldn’t have back home. The value of my time there was not really in helping out there and then but in the sensitisation and the proximity to a reality that would have escaped me in the West. I have helped much more in the years after than in those 2,5 months. And I surely got more out than they did. 15 years on I still remember it warmly and vividly and I still spread the word about the organisation’s effort

    • Hi Mar, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree that this is an area where people with good intentions can be easily convinced into bad ideas. Or taken advantage of as a means to make a profit.

      So glad to hear that you had a memorable experience in Honduras, and have continued to support the project beyond your initial commitment of time for two months. You’re right – societies don’t need one off volunteers who sweep out as quickly as they came in, and usually this form of volunteering is more beneficial for us than it is them. They need really sustainable projects, from people who can really commit their time, and they need people with transferable skills who can pass those on to achieve self sufficiency.

      It sounds like the organization you worked with is doing a really great job in Honduras. It’s really great to hear of amazing efforts that are achieving a lot 🙂

  5. Great tips! So important to understand before making this kind of trip.

    • Thanks Monica, glad that you enjoyed the post – yes, very important to make sure you know the ins and outs of ethical volunteering before heading over. The point of course is to make the most positive possible impact 🙂

  6. As a journalist from Africa with a husband in the INGO field we have seen so many starry-eyed volunteers who want to “save the rhino” or “end world poverty” but who turn out to be a bigger burden on the organisation they want to help than anything else. This is a great reality check that I wish more wannabe volunteers would read before setting off to “make the world a better place”.

    • I can definitely see that – it’s sad because many are well intentioned, but don’t have the awareness. And I think volunteering overseas has been pushed for so long as a “memorable experience” that perhaps many people do need a bit of a reality check and a sit down to think through their priorities.

  7. This is a great post. Working with children overseas as a volunteer is something I always wanted to do. Especially since I work with children here in my full time job. I love the feeling of making a difference. There is a lot of great info here that I did not consider and now I need to think about it more. I have a specific set of skills when it comes to child development but is that the type of skills a country overseas needs? Lots of info to consider.

    • Glad you enjoyed it Christopher – working with children overseas sounds like it would be a great fit for you as a professional, many countries need volunteers with child development skills, and I think you would be warmly welcomed.

      Definitely needs research though, the thing about working with children, as I’m sure you’ll understand, is that they really need committed volunteers – Megan mentioned For example, the negative psychological impact on their growth and development from volunteers who appear and then disappear after their short stint is up.

      With skills like yours, you would be a very sought after volunteer all over the world 🙂

  8. I was happy to read this post as I’ve never really understood how anyone could think that volunteering for a day could make any difference at all! In Guatemala. its very easy to support local community projects as many of the language schools have partnered with local NGOs who can use long term help. The type of help needed ranges from practicing English to helping with grant writing. The latter can be very beneficial and can create long term change by establishing sustainable funding sources.

    • So glad you enjoyed the post Michele – I agree with you, it’s very difficult to make any sort of impact if you’re only visiting.

      Glad to hear that Guatemala has some great sustainable projects up and running. And it sounds like they’re really focused on teaching practical skills which is incredible – I really loved Megan’s analogy that we should be working ourselves out of a job. Setting local communities up for the best chance of future success should be the ultimate goal of volunteering.

  9. I love this guide, thank you so much! Ethical volunteering (I don’t like the term “voluntourism”, but I must admit it is sticky) is coming into the mainstream consciousness, and that’s really great, but I feel like it’s usually spoken about in really abstract terms, and there’s very much a sense among novice travellers that it’s “too hard” to figure out so “best not to do anything at all” (in case they “do it wrong”). This guide is really straightforward, and it makes doing due diligence on volunteering opportunities seem accessible and do-able. Really great work, thank you SO much for sharing!

    • Thanks Sheree – so glad you enjoyed Megan’s tips and found them straightforward and easy to follow.

      Sad that the negative aspects of voluntourism have made many people not willing to get involved at all – hopefully we can spread awareness that it is very easy to organize an ethical volunteer project, and not difficult to practice your due diligence. I think people just need to know what questions to ask and what to look for 🙂

      So glad you enjoyed the post!

    • Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

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