4 Questions to Ask Before Voluntouring

A small farm high up in the mountains on the border between Montenegro and Albania, where I was honored to be able to contribute my filmmaking skills to help the community fight for their children’s right to education.

A small farm high up in the mountains on the border between Montenegro and Albania, where I was honored to be able to contribute my filmmaking skills to help the community fight for their children’s right to education.

To be able to travel is a great privilege, and some travelers want to use that privilege to give back to the communities they’re visiting. The rise of voluntourism has made it easy to book a volunteer experience with just a few clicks and a reasonably fat stack of cash. What starts as a good intention to contribute to local communities and make a positive impact often causes more problems than it solves.

Jobs are scarce in many communities around the world, so the uptick in unskilled laborers from predominantly western countries who are willing to pay money to work is causing organizations to not hire as many locals. It’s an easy decision. Why pay someone to do the work when someone else will pay you to do it? Voluntourism is taking jobs away from locals who are often more skilled and better suited to the role than the volunteer is. The local understands important cultural factors and will be there long term. Voluntourists disappear as quickly as they come because many voluntourism programs do not require long term commitments. A few days or weeks is not enough time to really learn the ins and outs of a project, a community, and the work that needs to be done there.

When volunteers leave, they’re frequently leaving behind more problems than they’ve solved. Volunteers with no construction skills who travel to build houses in poor communities ultimately build unstable and often unsafe structures. Volunteers who visit orphanages (never do this, seriously, just don’t. The Guardian has a great article on voluntourism that goes in depth into the negative impact of orphanage volunteering, among other things) contribute to a harmful institutional system. Many voluntourism trips focus more on the volunteer’s experience than the impact on the community, but there are good ones out there. The way we choose to spend our money is powerful, so if you’re considering doing some volunteer work on your next trip, ask these four questions before you pay to take part in one of these programs:

  1. What are my intentions?

    Why do you want to volunteer abroad? Be honest, no one is listening. Choosing to take part in voluntourism is usually ego driven and that’s understandable. Who doesn’t want to feel good about themselves, and feel like they’re doing something good for the world? Our ego has a say in most things we do, but if your ultimate reason for wanting to volunteer abroad is because you’d feel good about yourself for doing something good, don’t. The cost of your “do-gooder” vacation is likely much higher than you are going to be able to see while you’re there.

  2. What skills do I have to offer?

    Do you have a unique skill set to contribute to the cause? Are there locals who have these skills who could do the job instead of you? If you aren’t qualified to build a house in your home country, you are not qualified to build a house abroad. This holds true across all fields. If you have no medical experience you wouldn’t volunteer to be a medic abroad, so why would you volunteer to work with disadvantaged children if you aren’t a social worker or child psychologist? This doesn’t mean you have no skills to contribute at all. Are you a filmmaker? Awesome, reach out to a trusted organization and see if they could use some help documenting their work and spreading the word. Are you a web designer? Help these non profits revamp their websites. Are you a chef? Volunteer your time cooking for the team. If you don’t have a high level skill to offer and you genuinely want to make a difference, take the money you were planning to spend on a voluntourism trip and donate it to the cause instead. Labor is almost never in short supply, but money can make all the difference.

  3. Where is my money going?

    It’s normal for an organization to charge volunteers a fee that covers the volunteer’s living expenses, and a little extra to help pay the full time staff (who are ideally locals.) When you see an organization charging significantly above the cost of living for your time there, that’s a red flag. Any reputable organization working with paying volunteers will have a breakdown of where your money goes on their site. If you can’t find this information, send them an email and ask, but if they can’t give you a breakdown of how those funds are spent, walk away. Don’t waste your time on an organization that is more focused on making a profit than making a difference.

  4. How does the organization work with the local community?

    Support organizations that support the local community. Choose to volunteer with organizations that hire locals, take the local culture into account, and funnel profits back into the local community. Most organizations will have information about the way they work with the community on their website. If they don’t, again, walk away.

There are plenty of organizations with volunteer programs that are legitimately helpful. In many cases, the money a volunteer spends on the program helps keep the organization afloat. Unfortunately, there are some far more ethical than others, so if you have your heart set on volunteering and doing good on your next trip, make sure to do your research so you can rest easy knowing that your presence is creating a legitimately positive impact.

Monetary donations are always sorely needed, so if you want to make a difference, strongly consider donating to your chosen cause if you can’t offer the skills or extensive time commitment that they need. If it’s simply an authentic cultural experience and connection with the community you’re after, make an effort in your travels to have genuine interactions with locals instead. Make a point of getting to know them as people. Being invited into someone’s culture will always be a more worthwhile experience than paying to be there.