"Voluntourism" or Are we really helping?

Updated: Sep 1, 2019

Volunteering abroad can have a massive impact while giving you the best experience! Particularly when you get the chance to grow and learn. Read more about why service-learning is important from an educator's perspective.


"Some volunteer opportunities that can actually harmful communities"


However, we also have to be careful. Sometimes we don't realize that we are not actually helping. In fact, there are volunteer opportunities that can actually be very harmful to communities. These kind of volunteer opportunities are often called "voluntourism". The idea behind is that people don't volunteer because they want to help but because they want to feel better about themselves - and are willing to pay for it.

How to avoid that and to make sure we are doing good - I have created a list of things to consider when volunteering abroad.

Of course, people who volunteer abroad can change lives. Operation Smile, for example, provides free surgeries for children with cleft lip and palate. These are life-changing operations. It allows kids to eat healthier, communicate and live the lives they deserve.

At the heart of Operation Smile's mission are the volunteers - many of them doctors and surgeons who use their holidays to do these surgeries for free.


"To date they have changed thousands of children's smiles and lives"

Another thing to get out of the way:

I have been a "voluntourist" myself. I have volunteered abroad, hoping to have a positive impact but I must admit that I probably didn't. Saying you volunteered makes you sound like a great person. Moreover, it looks great on your resume and looks great on an Instagram feed.


"You may have had a great holiday, but that doesn't mean you left the place better than how you found it."

In many cases - that's fine. There are many people for whom volunteering is, in fact, a transformational experience that helps people set the right priorities in life. However, it is also important not to fool yourself: you had a great holiday, but that doesn't mean you left the place better than how you found it.


The problem is - there are "volunteering" opportunities where you actually risk leaving the place worse than when you found it. Let's try to avoid that.


Things to consider when volunteering abroad

1. Why do you want to Volunteer abroad?

"You can help people in your own country better than to people whose language you don't speak, whose problems you don't fully understand and

whose culture you are unfamiliar with."


Let's be real here: everywhere there is a need for a helping hand and the more skills you have, the better help you can be. In your own country you are familiar with the context of the social issues, the history, language and the culture! Chances are that you are going to be a much better help to people in your own country than to people whose language you don't speak, whose problems you don't fully understand and whose culture you are unfamiliar with.

Read my blogpost about how to find volunteer opportunities where you love.


But sometimes we just want to get out - and that's absolutely fine.

Volunteering abroad is a great way to have a cultural experience, do good and and grow. Moving forward you should, however, have the humility to say that this is not a solely altruistic endeavor. And you know what, that's fine! It's great that you want to have fun but you also want to do something good. It's just good to move along with some self-awareness.


2. Does the CO2 and cost of the flight justify the trip?

Many people in our generation agree that climate change is the biggest threat to our generation. We all need to do what we can to reduce carbon emissions!

Many climate change activists ask people to reduce the amount they are flying.


You should ask yourself? Is the carbon emissions worth this service trip?

And on another note: If you donated the money that you are spending on the flight to the organization or their mission instead, would that perhaps do more good than your help?


Again, these are questions to consider. I am not advocating for everyone sticking to their own countries. However, critical thinking and reflecting is important!

3. What skills do you have?

The surgeons in my Operation Smile story are a perfect example how they have matched their skills (as doctors) to deliver a service (surgery) the organization wouldn't be able to provide (for free) without them. Well, if you are not a trained doctor (yet) it doesn't mean that you do not have skills that people could benefit from. Here are some examples:

  • Social media: many organizations need help fundraising and could always use someone tech savy who can help them boost their outreach

  • Film-making: are you good with a camera? Consider making promotional videos for Nonprofits/NGO's (that's something I have done for Sky School)

  • Finance and numbers: know how to use a calculator? Paperwork and reports take time. Time that organization-leaders could use for way more meaningful things - you help them gain that time!

Maybe you are starting to realize why speaking the language is an important factor in your value to a service organization. You may also realize that most of what I have just mentioned above, actually doesn't require you to be present in person.

However, I also don't want to give the impression that you cannot help in small ways. When I was in Philadelphia I volunteered at events where I helped with registration, helped clean up or did face-painting for children - none of which required a special skill - just my presence.

A more important question may be:

4. What skills do you not have?

When I was in High School I was supporting an organization, that does amazing work in Cambodia. One of the services my school provided was that volunteers would go to Cambodia for a week and build houses.

This sounded amazing, however, it has limitations: "It's more of an experience for you than it helps them", I was told. "I know that local carpenters sometimes have to tear the houses down after the volunteers leave, because (let's be real here) kids and the average adult doesn't know how to build a freakin' house".


"It's more of an experience for you than it helps them"


A recent New York Times article talks about a similar dilemma. I was thinking that the amount of money these "house-building"-groups spend on flights would have probably been better invested into paying the Cambodian carpenters (thus providing them with jobs!) to build the houses.

If you think critically about many volunteer opportunities - errors in logic of where time and money are spent vs should have been spent are common. But hopefully, at least the learning that the children and families gained on their trip in Cambodia helped them to understand the world better and thus make more sustainable, ethical decisions throughout the rest of their lives.

Another perfect example (and probably the most common) for voluntourism is the following: (spoiler alert: I am the voluntourist here):

About two years ago, I went to Laos where me and my friends volunteered with an organization that taught English to kids in rural areas.

Although all of the volunteers had the best intentions, they frequently rotated (volunteers usually stayed only for a few weeks), thus causing children to change teachers and syllabus often (imagine having to go through a year of algebra with a different teacher coming in every month - a teacher who has no idea what the students were working on the day before - you would go crazy). So sustainability in this service site was a big problem.


"Sustainability in this service site was a big problem."


The funny thing was: the kids in the more advanced classes spoke English really well. Most of the volunteers, including me, assumed that was because of random interactions with the teachers more than structured classes.

I had to realize: just because I speak English does not mean I know how to teach it - and the fact that I didn't speak a word of Laotian, of course, didn't help.

NOTE: This doesn't mean all organizations that teach English are not doing great work. I am just sharing my experience to heighten your awareness and think critically: are you really having an impact?

So what should you do?


Try to look for volunteering opportunities whose needs match your skills. And if they don't - don't impose yourself.

5. Do you want to work with kids?

This is very close to my heart. Because my answer will always be: Yes, of course! I love working with kids and it has been a central part of my life ever since... well, ever since I wasn't a kid anymore :)


"You could actually cause serious harm to vulnerable children"

However, working with kids is the kind of volunteering that you can fall into the biggest traps with. Although the idea of being surrounded my cute little 4-year-olds whose lives your presence is changing is heart-warming, you could actually cause serious harm to vulnerable children. They form bonds with loving volunteers who come. And when they leave these bonds are broken. Over and over again. You don't need to study psychology to understand that constantly forming and breaking bonds can be seriously harmful.

So please. Avoid orphanages. Check whether the organization you are working for has a child protection policy or limits the time that volunteers are able to spend with children like SLV Global.

In fact, the problems with orphanages are much, much bigger than what I am touching on here, watch this incredibly inspiring TED talk or watch this short video to learn more.)

6. #Why are you doing this?

Are you here to mainly make a difference or to boost your resume, Facebook feed or not to feel too bad when you think about all the poverty you see when you travel?

If it's the former - great.

"Put the camera down. Just leave it."

But then keep it to yourself! If you are making a difference - you will know it and don't need the validation of your friends.

So put the camera down. Just leave it.

Why? Watch this video

Or check out this website.

7. Check the organization you'll work for.

If you can: talk to previous volunteers and ask critical questions.

The fact that universities love students who have volunteered has lead to an entire market on travel-volunteering opportunities, but not all of these organizations want to help you or the community. They may just want to make money.


"They may just want to make money."


If a volunteer organization asks for money this can be a warning sign: many organizations need it and know that volunteers are willing to pay to hang out with cute kids and feel good about themselves. You can always donate money, but you could be wasting your time and your skills could be needed elsewhere.


"You can always donate money, but you could be wasting your time and your skills could be needed elsewhere."


However, just because there is a fee attached to the program doesn't mean that the organization is bad. In fact, it is very sensible that people who spend time on coordinating volunteers need to be paid. Moreover, it's okay that part of your fee could be to support the project you are working on - if I was running an organization I would do the same. But ask questions about how that price is broken down: does it perhaps cover your accommodation and living costs? Then it makes sense. Just ask :)

This organization, that I haven't volunteered with but I would love to actually work for, seemed really dodgy to me in the beginning because the fee for the program is really high. However, I looked through their Responsible Volunteering Policies and particularly their regulations in regards to working with children really resonated with me. Information like this can indicate that the organization is legit and that your time spent there is going to be worthwhile - not only for you.

8. Make sure you are safe.

Yes, if you are volunteering somewhere you should certainly not expect to stay in a five-star hotel. (Please don't, you do realize how ridiculous that its)


But at the same time make sure you have proper medical insurance, you know where the closest hospital and embassy/consulate is. You may want to seek out a contact from your home country that lives where you want to volunteer and who can help you in an emergency situation. Don't take any unnecessary risks.

9. Be in the moment.


"Be fully present"


When you are arriving at a volunteer experience, be fully present. Leave your phone in your room. Consider not bringing your laptop. Try to learn the language, ask questions, be respectful and engage with the local community (not just with other volunteers). Most importantly: don't look at the people you are helping as victims but as people that give you the immense privilege to connect with them and experience their culture.


"Don't look at the people you are helping as victims but as people that give you the immense privilege to connect with them and experience their culture."

Reconsidered volunteering abroad but still interested in just traveling?

Check out this responsible tourism checklist. Or check out how to volunteer online!

Want to volunteer abroad but don't have any contacts or ideas where to start looking? Check out my other blogpost about how to find volunteer abroad opportunities.

Please note, though, that just because a website directs you to a program doesn't mean that it's sustainable and ethical. Using online search engines to find volunteer opportunities is a great way to start, but be critical - and use your brain!


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