So You Want to Travel to Volunteer? Be a Sustainably-minded Decision-maker Before You Go*

Traveling to volunteer has had a lot of press coverage lately, but unfortunately most of it focuses on the negative impacts of this activity. Critics suggest traveling to volunteer (also known as volunteer tourism or voluntourism) can, for example, promote White Saviour thinking or mismatched projects that are not sustainable. However it does not have to be this way! To avoid negative consequences related to travel volunteering, volunteer tourists should become sustainably-minded decision-makers before making any commitments to go. Here are four top considerations to think about.

Personality traits and motivation. Prior to proceeding with a favourite project, travel volunteers should examine what personality traits they possess, and question how these traits might behave in a traveling to volunteer setting. How outgoing am I? Am I flexible? Can I be calm if a situation becomes unruly? If you think you are easily stressed by day-to-day living, you might need to examine how you might act if challenged in a foreign context. In addition to understanding your personality traits, you should decipher what is motivating you to go and whether the particular journey is well-aligned with this motive, or whether a different one might be more appropriate. Some popular motives to volunteer outside of one’s community include wanting to experience a new culture, adding to a resume, and giving back to society.

Skill to project matching. While thoughtfully reflecting on personality traits and motives for going, volunteer tourists should seek organisations that intentionally match volunteers’ skills with community projects. This is important to understand because program to skill matched volunteers are likely to be repeat volunteers, which can lead to sustainable community impacts. In 2017 I spent just over 5 weeks researching the US based nonprofit Daraja Music Initiative that focuses on music and conservation education with select Moshi, Tanzanian youth each summer. This organisation, like many others, is a good example of a sending entity that intentionally seeks skilled volunteers to match their community initiative. As a result, not only do multiple passionate volunteers return each year, but deep relational community bonds have been formed.

Local community collaboration. It is not enough to find a skill-to-project matched opportunity, a pre-trip volunteer should understand how the organisation (who is featuring the opportunity) works with the local community. Who, for example, is leading the project? Is it community run, or internationally driven? In addition, is the organisation partnering and collaborating with other community organisations, and/or international agencies or working independently to push their own agenda? Collaboration generates knowledge through the process of group interaction and shared problem solving. It is one key concept of sustainability.

Objectives, measurements and reports. The traveling volunteer who is a sustainably-minded decision-maker, looks for organisational projects that have clearly defined project objectives, measurable objectives, and if past project reports are available for viewing. In other words, does the organisation’s website feature project impacts, and if so, how were they measured? It is important to keep in mind any project reports or informational updates on websites should include impact stories from community members’ perspectives as well.

Once one considers these different elements, one is in a better position to assess which alternative, if any, is most appropriate. Although it may seem somewhat anticlimactic to suggest, sometimes the best option is to stay home and look for other ways to support a community project, such as volunteering online or close to home.

*Blog post taken from December 2018 article in Green Living Arizona magazine


International Volunteer Tourism: Growth and Future

It is clear more and more travellers want “giving back” volunteer opportunities either as the focus of their entire vacation or as an add-on piece of a longer trip. Hence, the focus of this website! This post aims to discuss how international volunteer tourism has grown, and how the demand for volunteer tourism trips will continue to change the tourism industry.

According to a recent NPR radio program, more than 1.6 million tourists are spending over $2 billion dollars to participate in foreign volunteer trips, and the numbers of volunteer tourists continue to increase. Besides participating in growing tourism industry trends such as AirBnB – one recognised brand of the sharing economy, or slow travel trips that understand “doing less is actually more,” millions of people are drawn to “paying to work” vacations because they are purportedly known to help disadvantaged third world communities. However because this activity is not actively regulated, many host destinations are not benefitting as much as volunteer tourists may hope. This is likely because the experience is packaged as a consumer driven project rather than a sustainability focused host community development initiative.

While volunteer tourists may have their heart in the right place, the demand for volunteer tourism experiences that make a lasting impact to host communities will continue to change the tourism industry. Volunteer tourism sending organisations and community planners will need to realise that volunteers must be matched according to their skill set, or as in the case of “orphanage tourism,” understand that orphan detachment disorders typically occur because of episodic presence of caring adults. Demographic groups such as Millennials known as “loyalty seekers” who like to take extended meaningful trips because of the unappealing thought of participating in mass tourism, and Baby Boomers looking for a voluntourism experience during their cruising holiday, need to be studied to ensure their activity contributes positively to development in these communities.

The question is, how will the industry continue to respond to this growing tourism subset? And, how will international volunteer (tourist) preferences and ethical stances shape the industry? It appears ethical stances of groups and individuals, for example, have already given their stamp of disapproval towards orphanage tourism as a form of volunteer tourism. Time will tell how the phenomenon of international volunteering will progress. But one thing appears to be true, this type of tourism is not going away any time soon!