Voluntourist, volunteer tourist, digital nomad volunteer, volunteers who travel, international volunteer, the traveling volunteer, paid-to-volunteer-experience-when-traveling, finding a free- place- to-live-in-a foreign-community-while volunteering adventurer, and the list goes on. There are so many terms to describe the person volunteering outside their home-front, and within this activity, so many elements attached to it such as: length of time, cost, skills needed (or not) and what project(s) to volunteer for. However, there is another topic lurking within this mainstream societal topic that should be addressed.
Is there a “best” traveling volunteer?
I think most people would agree, to be known as a Peace Corps volunteer, for example, is a good thing! They have historically provided a valuable service to the community so their reputation is well deserved. But what about the one time event volunteer, such as the beach-cleaner-upper? The travellers that “only” spend an afternoon outside their vacation time to volunteer to clean up a local beach over-run by trash? Is their contribution to the destination community less valuable than work of their Peace Corps friends? Typically this type of minimal volunteering or what I call “soft volunteering” on a predominately tourism-focused trip is viewed as less worthy. But why?
Contemporary society says there’s a “best” and labels all such activities.
Last fall I wrote a blog post about various terms (labels) to describe the activity of traveling to volunteer and if any one of these labels really matters to the general public. Then, now months later, it appears it still does. The term voluntourism, for example, has a stigma associated with it and is labelled as bad. On a recent discussion board, in a free-accommodation-for-volunteering-site, a poster said they were not a voluntourism site because they only featured volunteering opportunities that provided free accommodation. After some reflection I replied – a volunteering opportunity with free accommodation does not necessarily mean it is better.
I say a “best” depends on community impact.
Oh I agree. To spend a large sum of money to essentially pad a sending organisation’s pockets is not what I support. I recognise (and support) community projects that utilise long term skilled volunteers and agree with the same discussion-board-poster who implored people should not be “paying for a poverty experience.” Many labels have been rightfully applied to many organisations because of how they’ve conducted themselves and exploited marginalised communities. But by applying a mismatched or ill-informed label on an entire group of volunteers unfortunately cheapens the effort of a traveling volunteer’s community give-back based on the negative activities of some. This is not doing us (common planet dwellers) any good. So, what is a solution?
The “best” traveling volunteer is well-informed and participates in dialogue.
Being an educated and dialogue-seeking individual may be a flippant answer to what is a “best” traveling volunteer… but, I cannot get away from the importance of this. If people, whether traveling solo to volunteer or in groups, armed themselves with more information about, for example, accessible community reports that show objectives met by the sending organisation, understanding the cultural context in which they will be working with, or creating a dialogue with community members once in (and out of) country, I believe this will change popular media’s labelling of traveling volunteer activity as “all things bad.” How? Because active engagement between all traveling volunteer players (community, organisation and volunteers) will ultimately focus on the most important recipients (and drivers) of any development project: the community.
I believe the traveling volunteer has the power to change current negative labelling through the purposeful actions they take before, during, and after a volunteering experience. Ultimately it is what the traveling volunteer chooses to call out, focus on, and move forward with that will change the narrative.
Will you be that “best” traveling volunteer?