When I decided to go abroad, I knew I wanted to do more than just travel and be a tourist. I wanted to interact with the community and do something productive and, hopefully, meaningful. I was in the process of completing a program in Nonprofit Management through UCLA-Extension, so I thought this journey could be an opportunity to gain some experience in the nonprofit sector. I then began researching options and before long, I was accepted into a YMCA program in Colombia, and then also had some ideas for other volunteer options in other countries. My worldwide foray into voluntourism was about to begin.
“Voluntourism” has risen in popularity over the past decade, as people want to make a positive impact while exploring new countries. Having spent over a year travelling the world as a voluntourist, I recommend this incredible way of traveling, albeit with some caveats that I will discuss later. I have found that in the places where I volunteered, I have lived a more authentic experience with the people and culture. If voluntourism appeals to you, I’ll share some of what I’ve learned to help you make the most of it.
To begin, here are the main options for voluntourism that I am familiar with. If you can commit to an extended period (usually six months or more) and/or have a needed skill set, you can find programs that will cover most, if not all, of your expenses, and maybe even pay you a small stipend. This was what I did with the YMCA in Colombia, but the most common version of this is teaching English, which may need TEFL or similar certification. And, although not really considered “voluntourism”, there are also the even longer term programs such as the Peace Corps.
If long-term programs aren’t viable for you, and you are looking for something more on the timeframe of a few weeks, you basically have two options: going through a fee-based organization or trying to find a local volunteering opportunity on your own. A fee-based organization will have local partners overseeing the volunteer programs, while the larger organization acts in a support role, especially as you plan for your trip. Your fees will usually cover your lodging and most, if not all, of your meals, as well as administrative costs and funding for your local project. Finding a program on your own can result in a variety of opportunities. You may find a volunteer opportunity but must cover all expenses yourself. Other times, you may find an opportunity that will offer lodging and food in exchange for your services and a commitment of at least 2 or 3 weeks, but no fees required.
The next step, and possibly the most important one, is to research the organization, program, and community. Some fee-based organizations are not much more than tourist agencies, with little or none of your fees and efforts really helping the community. Also, be careful of programs that may actually be counter-productive. For example, I am wary of orphan programs. There have been scandals in India and Cambodia where “orphans” were being rented so that unsuspecting fee-paying volunteers could work with them. Additionally, a revolving door of short-term care-giving volunteers can lead to further abandonment issues for the children. This is not to scare you away from these programs completely. Just items for consideration so that you can find the best placement for you. It is extremely important that you investigate to make sure that the organization is truly working to benefit the community or cause you wish to help. Otherwise, everyone would be better off if you just took a regular vacation.
This is also one of the benefits of using a larger, well-regarded placement organization. Usually, they will ensure that their partner organizations are actually beneficial for the local community or cause they are supposed to serve.
Finally, we need to set expectations. You are not going to change the world, or even the local community, in only a couple of weeks. It is important to remember that your role should be supporting those on the front lines. This may mean that you won’t always get the Instagram worthy pictures with smiling children or cute baby animals. Instead, you may be doing the much more helpful behind the scenes work of cleaning and repairs that have been neglected because there haven’t been the funds or time to do such work. But know that these unpublicized tasks are greatly welcomed, beneficial, and appreciated.
Along those lines, in all honesty, sometimes, the most important assistance you will offer is the fee that you pay. Some local nonprofits in these voluntourism hotspots are beginning to see it as a revenue stream; which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even if the work you do isn’t all that critical, but the money is being used to further a cause you support, and you gain appreciation and experience in the process, it is a win for everyone involved.
Gaining cultural and travel experience; and spending your time and energy in service to someone or something are incredible aspects of life that should be encouraged. Voluntourism, for all its positive and negative attributes, is a way to combine those aspects. If it is done correctly, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience, both for you and those you wish to help.
Here are some resources to help you on your voluntourism adventure. The first four links are websites/organizations I used on my journey. The others links have more information, including discussion of voluntourism with more eloquence than I can muster.
If you would like to discuss voluntourism with me, feel free to reach out to me directly!
IENA (www.iena.org): The organization where I found my YMCA-Colombia placement. They have a variety of long-term programs.
IVHQ (www.volunteerhq.org): Respected organization with many fee-based volunteer programs around the world.
Workaway (www.workaway.info): A website where travelers can find lodging and food in return for working part-time, usually at farms & hostels, but some nonprofits as well.
GivingWay (www.givingway.com): Similar to Workaway but focused on nonprofits.
How Stuff Works Entry on Voluntourism: A good in-depth overview of voluntourism. https://adventure.howstuffworks.com/voluntourism.htm
http://www.voluntourism.org/ : A good resource website full of information, tips, links, blogs, webcasts and other resources regarding voluntourism.
Some articles about voluntourism, including the pitfalls, things to consider, and how it can be improved: