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.
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
➡ Time management
➡ SEO and digital marketing
➡ English / Teaching English
➡ Financial literacy
➡ Engineering Skills
➡ Community Development
➡ Project management
➡ 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.
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.
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.
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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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.