Labels: Is There Really a “Best” Traveling Volunteer?

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?

*Featured image by Jazael Melgoza (Venture With Impact)

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