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Authored by Trent Matthews – myfirstbackpack.co

You wake up to the sound of birdsong outside your little stone hut, a fresh mountain breeze entering the space through the hand carved, traditional wooden vents that pepper the gorgeously textured natural walls.

You wriggle out of your snug sleeping bag and step outside to be greeted by the Himalayan mountain range – the tallest peaks in the world rising resplendently from the green valleys far below you. Their flanks glisten in the gently filtered rays of another perfect sunrise. You say to yourself, today I’m gonna help some people, and it’ll be a good day. Best things about volunteering. 

This is life when volunteering, in particular, a work exchange in Nepal; but a similar scenario is attainable anywhere in the world. Replace the Himalayas with the Pacific Ocean; or replace your stone hut with a tent in a lush European forest, or a treehouse in the jungles of Costa Rica. Pros of volunteering.

‘Voluntourism’ is a rather critical term thrown around a lot these days, but in my opinion it can be a wonderful, ethical, and sustainable way to travel, so long as you properly screen the families or local/international organisations with which you plan to work. The best things about volunteering overseas. 

After-all, travel in itself presents some ethical challenges. Consuming valuable resources by flying more than the average person, unwittingly participating in scams or tourist traps that disenfranchise the local population, not paying taxes or helping others in your home country for years on end – the list goes on. So, how to offset this? How can you live a life of travel and still create a net positive benefit for the world? Pros and cons of volunteering overseas.

In my experience, volunteering either in an independent local community project or with an ethical organisation is a great place to start.

The Great and Not-so-great of Work Exchanges and Voluntourism

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The Great

Whether you join a project for six weeks or six months, your head and your own two hands are capable of greatly assisting others. Not only will your overall travel experience be greatly enriched by living with local people in beautiful places, picking up the language, and heading off the tourist trail; but you’ll be helping people who need it – every single day. Good things about volunteering

Volunteering or work exchange can tie in exceptionally well with a regular travel itinerary, and one things that I love is having ‘time off’ from the usual on-the-road schedule of moving to a new place every four or five days. Staying with locals is my preferred mode of accommodation when travelling, and usually when on a work exchange I get to stay with locals for an extended period of time, which is even better. Learning the local language, how to cook dishes passed down through many generations, and being looked after and nourished by generous people is a wonderful experience. Cons of volunteering. 

If you love adventure, volunteer-based travel has you covered. My travel friends and I have camped in the swiss alps, rafted down mighty rivers, mountain biked through the Indonesian rainforest, summited active volcanoes, traversed the deepest slums of Delhi, and woke to Himalayan sunrises in the frigid depths of winter; all as part of volunteering trips. Good and bad of volunteering.

The Not-so-great

Despite the positive benefits of volunteer-based travel for both travellers and the communities in which they work, there are many naysayers out there who believe that volunteering has a negative knock-on effect on local communities. This is unfortunately true in some cases. Bad things about volunteer trips.

Several organisations employ paying volunteers rather than local workers, which therefore has no benefit to the local economy. In addition, many volunteers may not have the necessary skills to carry out their work and therefore create no tangible benefit for the locals. In light of these unfortunate facts, you must research the host or organisation that you plan on volunteering with thoroughly. Negative aspects of volunteering abroad.

I will never work on a project that doesn’t employ locals and pay them a fair wage. Likewise, I won’t work on a project that I do not have the adequate skills to carry out effectively (e.g. medical assistance, working with vulnerable people; but I am a decent farmer, teacher and builder). Volunteer overseas.

Chris Zeiher, from travel publisher Lonely Planet, sums it up perfectly, agreeing that the “onus was on the individual to research and ask the right questions” of organisations before embarking on voluntourism trips. Despite the overwhelming pessimism about voluntourism, mainly online; I still believe that volunteer-based travel can be massively beneficial.

Despite the overwhelming pessimism about voluntourism, mainly online; I still believe that volunteer-based travel can be massively beneficial.

How to Avoid Negative Side-Effects

How to mitigate these potentially negative side-effects of voluntourism? Research your potential projects and the overarching organisations (if any) a lot. Ensure that they are ethical, they employ locals, and that you’ll be put on jobs where your skills can be utilised. Find ethical volunteer trips.

Learn the language, learn about the history of a place, learn the names of all the locals – don’t just be in it for the ‘humanitarian selfie’ with kids whose names you forget. Most importantly, when you find an ideal project, have an amazing time, and know that you are making a positive impact.

How to Get Involved

I’ve volunteered on nine separate projects (most being run by local families) in several countries in my travel ‘career’ to date, and have loved every single experience that I’ve had. I mainly use a network called Help Exchange – a classifieds style list of work exchange projects available around the world, which are often free to join and provide board in exchange for a few hours of your hard work per day. Ethical volunteer organizations overseas.

Though there are several ways in which you can get involved with volunteer-based travel. Another classifieds-style site is Work Away. Together with Help Exchange, these are good places to start when you want a nice, local place to stay; and to make an impact on a grassroots level, with all of your time and effort going directly to bolstering local workers and families.

Alternatively you can look into not-for-profits such as THISWORLDEXISTS (a small Australian company with whom I help to build schools in Nepal) and Trek to Teach; or even larger NGOs like CARE or UNDP.

Ask around and research properly before committing to a trip, as ethical obligations can vary between organisations. Having said that, I’ve never had a negative experience when volunteering for any of the above companies!

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Trent Matthews is a serial traveller and the resident nomad over at myfirstbackpack.co, an online backpacking equipment store based in Sydney. They aim to bring the best in travel gear to their fellow Aussie travellers, and to encourage more people to get outside and see the world. Their blog contains articles about gear, practical travel advice, destinations, and ethical travel.

myfirstbackpack.co work with ethical suppliers where possible and are a member of One Percent for the Planet. Follow them on their blog, facebook, twitter, and instagram.

Photo credits: Featured photo by Australia High Commission, Suva via DFAT. Pinterest image with two women by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). All other photos by myfirstbackpack.co.

    48 Comments

  1. I really like your suggestion of not working for an organization that does not employ locals/pay a fair wage for them. I also think that volunteerism has the potential to be more harmful in third world countries (where the locals NEED that income, etc). I WWOOFed in Switerland and it was a phenomenal experience, but I also wasn’t being taken advantage of, I wasn’t replacing someone elses’ potential job etc.

    • Great point LeAnna – I think that voluntourism is something that people jump into all too quickly without really thinking through the potential consequences, especially as you noted, in third world countries where you could be taking the position from a local who needs the income.

      Glad to hear you had a positive experience in Switzerland; volunteering and work exchange can be so rewarding, we just need to not accept placements blindly without having first done some proper research :)

    • Glad you liked the article LeAnna – it definitely pays to do the right research. WWOOFing in Switzerland sounds divine! – Trent from MFB

  2. Great post, I had never thought of the negative consequences of volunteering so this is incredibly self to me as I hope when my Son is older to FINALLY volunteer where it’ll make a difference.

    • Thanks! Glad Trent could cover some of the most important points for you; definitely check into any of the volunteer or work exchange organizations he listed as a starting point for when your son does decide to go. Each of these are wonderful organizations to support :)

    • Glad you liked the article and that it gave you the inspiration to positively influence your son’s future decision! – Trent from MFB

  3. It’s really good to see such a balanced article on this subject, there’s a lot written with a strong view from either side but not so much with an open discussion. It has become more difficult to sort the valuable opportunities from the opportunistic operators but with all travel we research widely and talk openly with others about the places we plan to visit so it only makes sense with volunteering too.

    • Hi Toni, so glad to hear you enjoyed the article. Yes, I believe it’s so important to put a balanced view point out there, and Trent did a fantastic job at starting with an open discussion.

      It really can be quite difficult nowadays to figure out which companies run ethical projects and which companies do not. Hopefully we’ve helped raise a little bit of awareness here with this post at least as to the questions people should start to ask :)

    • An open discussion was most definitely the intent, Toni :) Glad you enjoyed the article. – Trent from MFB

  4. We have talked about volunteering somewhere, and we had not thought about the negative impact volunteers could have a local economy, especially when you think you are “helping”. Thanks for the insight and the recommendations. We are going to check out Help Exchange and try to find some opportunities that are truly mutually beneficial.

    • Glad Trent could introduce you to Help Exchange Drew – great place to start when it comes to opportunities with ethical project placements.

      Hope you find what you’re looking for … happy volunteering!

    • Hi Drew, HelpX is super fun – I’m so happy that this inspired you to check it out. Glad you enjoyed the article. – Trent from MFB

  5. I’ve been thinking about volunteering overseas a lot lately so this was a very good read. I love it when someone points out the good and the bad. It helps you construct a more accurate picture :) I think i’m going to go have a look at help exchange website now :)

    • Glad we could point you in the right direction Claire :) Feel free to reach out to either Trent or I if you have any further questions about organizing a trip. Help Exchange is a wonderful organization, hope you find something you like :)

    • Hi Claire, I bet you’re super excited to start your volunteering adventures! Glad this article was inspiring and informative for you. – Trent from MFB

  6. I have often thought of volunteering, as it would be a unique way to integrate in a community, but as you say the knock on effects are quite extreme. Thank you for this article. I have bookmarked it as I a leaving for CA (again) next month and it will definitely come in handy-

    • So glad the article was helpful for you. Just ensure that you research as much as you can before you commit to a project. Cheers, Trent from MFB

  7. It’s so important to research organizations before volunteering. Unfortunately I have seen too many instances where well-meaning tourist dollars paid to help are being pocketed by less than genuine endeavors. People are so keen to help that we do need to remind people to make sure of things like the organization paying local workers fairly, and the ratio of profit to charitable use of donations. Never-the-less there are some genuine volunteer opportunities and you’ve given some great tips to help people establish where they should spend their time and money – and where it will help the most.

    • Absolutely Vikci; it’s sad that there are so many organizations out there who will take advantage of well intentioned tourism, though definitely something we all need to be aware of.

      But there are definitely a huge range of genuine volunteer opportunities despite this, and I’m glad that we can spread awareness to help people tell the difference between an ethical placement and one which is not.

    • Agreed 100% Vicki. So glad the article was helpful for you, and thanks for the great feedback. – Trent from MFBm

  8. Having volunteered in different parts of the world, I so agree with you on this. You have actually echoed my words. :-)
    It’s very important to choose the kind of work you’d want to do or capable of. Also, the place.

    Coincidentally, today’s my post is also an experience of voluntourism.

    • So glad to hear you’re also a keen international volunteer Nisha – and glad you could relate to Trent’s tips and advice.

      Will jump over to check out your post too :)

    • Glad you enjoyed the article Nisha – great minds think alike! I’ll be sure to read your post, too. – Trent from MFB

  9. Sounds like a rewarding experience for the right type of person with plenty of travel time on their hands.Would be a great way to immerse yourself in the local culture and get to know the people’s real way of life.

    • Absolutely Mark – there are so many wonderful ways to travel these days, and opportunities for voluntourism make it very practical to combine a love of travel with a passion for helping local communities around the world.

      As you said, a fantastic way to truly immerse yourself in a new culture too :)

    • It sure is Mark – glad you enjoyed the article. We really do recommend responsible volunteer-based travel! – Trent from MFB

  10. These are fantastic tips, especially looking to see if they employ locals. It’s sad when volunteering programs harm the community instead of help, despite everyone’s best intentions.

    • Thanks Jessie – I absolutely agree. I think that people head over and jump into volunteering with the best of intentions, but they don’t realize that their presence could often be doing more harm than good. So important to recognize unethical opportunities and start boycotting them in place of projects which will actually help.

    • It sure is a shame Jessie, but there is plenty of hope out there thankfully! Glad you enjoyed the article. – Trent from MFB

  11. I’ve personally never volunteered abroad, but it can seem so polarizing and have detrimental effects to local culture and commerce. Research would definitely be key – thanks for the awesome suggestions on where to look!

    • Let us know if you have any questions if you’re thinking about your first experience Cat. Always more than happy to help … Glad Trent’s post was insightful :)

    • So glad you enjoyed the article Cat, good luck with any and all future travels :) – Trent from MFB

  12. I have heard plenty about Voluntourism but I haven’t tried it myself. Reading through your post gave me lots of new and fresh insights about it. Although I am not sure if I could do this myself, I would like to try this too someday.

    • Glad we could offer some fresh insights for you Karla – when you find the right project it can be a really rewarding and wonderful experience; for both you and the host country.

      Highly recommend looking into work exchange or voluntourism, especially now that you know the right questions to ask :)

      Happy travels!

    • Glad that you’re open to trying it one day, Karla – it can really be an amazing experience that can benefit others; if done right. Have fun! – Trent from MFB

  13. Really good information. I’ve thought about this myself a few times and I don’t know if I’d have thought to check out who they were employing. Good to know!

    • Thanks Penny! Glad you enjoyed Trent’s post … and I’m glad we could set you up with the knowledge of what to ask to make sure it’s an ethical placement :)

      Happy travels!

    • Hi Penny, glad you benefited from the article. Best of luck with any and all future travels! – Trent from MFB

  14. I think it’s great that you’ve shown both sides of the story. Sometimes it seems that the companies that arrange the volunteers make one heck of a lot of money – and that doesn’t seem right. I agree research is crucial.

    • I agree with you Leigh – it’s incredibly sad that there are some companies out there who realize they can profit off this industry and charge ridiculous over inflated rates and pocket the proceeds.

      If we can continue to raise awareness about the consequences of taking a placement with these kind of organizations hopefully we can start making some real positive change in the world :)

    • Glad you enjoyed the article Leigh, and that you agree with our points. Cheers! – Trent from MFB

  15. Really informative piece. It is so important to know both sides of the argument and to do extensive research on any program that you might be considering.

  16. Volunteering is an amazing feeling, it gives you stress free life and open your heart and brain. If you ask me about negative effects I have not faced yet and do not think that I will face it because volunteering term is a symbol of positivity.

    • Absolutely Carol – I’m glad to hear that you haven’t faced negativity in your experience volunteering. Keep up the great work :)

    • Thanks for sharing Carol! So glad to hear you had a positive experience. Keep it up! – Trent from MFB

  17. One problem is also that voluntourism companies have close connections to review and advertising platforms which make it hard to find a good program based on reviews: http://www.responsible-volunteering.com/?p=394

    We have written a series with absolutely new findings and industry insights about this problem. You can follow us on our Facebook page for more updates on voluntourism.

    • Great point too Sebastian – always good to seek out reviews from a variety of sources and make sure you’re on the lookout for any red flags in someone’s writing as to whether or not it’s a fake review.

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