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)

Skilled Traveling Volunteers: Does It Really Matter?

Not long ago I had a conversation with an individual who was thinking about traveling to volunteer. They were struggling with elements related to this activity, such as, how much money it would cost; the necessary time off from work; and what skills (if any) would be required. Although the conservation varied, the discussion tended to stay focused on the topic of skills-based volunteering. Many questions emerged. Should they consider utilising their skills, or would a great attitude be enough? Do community projects really need skilled volunteers, or does it really matter? While there may be some merits associated with needed unskilled labor in some contexts, such as clearing trash from ocean-side beaches, according to academic research, skills-based volunteering does matter. Here are top four reasons why.

Satisfied Volunteers. Traveling volunteers who are skill-matched with a community project tend to be more satisfied overall with the volunteering experience than those who are not matched because they expect their skills will meet specific project objectives. When project objectives are met, they likely feel a sense of satisfaction because their work made a difference to the community. On the other hand, take for example, a volunteer who is expected to work on a construction project when they do not have the skill set to do so. As a result, a build might take longer than necessary (or in extreme cases, aspects needed to be redone), produce higher costs (if walls need to be repainted for example, then more product needs to be purchased), leading to volunteer (and community) dissatisfaction with the process. For skilled volunteers and unskilled volunteers, satisfaction/dissatisfaction levels tend to appear on opposite sides of the satisfaction spectrum. Skilled volunteers are also likely to become repeat volunteers, which most likely leads to sustainable community development.

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Hives For Haiti: Mango Tree Permaculture Class

Build Capital and Lessen Dependence. Highly skilled traveling volunteers are effective at building local and organisational capacity, producing noticeable social capital, and creating community partnerships. Projects utilising expert volunteers leans toward being community driven, meaning the community has had input into the type of project needing expert foreign volunteers. In addition, expert volunteers may find themselves as catalysts for partnership development between community-driven projects. Due to skilled volunteers contributing to local capacity and social capital building, community partnerships have the potential to create community empowerment. An empowered community may, in turn, stop long-term colonial-like dependency on foreign assistance.

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Venture With Impact

Development Outcomes. Clearly defined project objectives and measurable goals should be accessible for skilled volunteers, so they can make knowledgeable decisions about who they may volunteer with, and where the activity takes place. Accountability and transparency of project reporting tends to be linked with specific development outcomes and highly desired skilled-to-project-matched volunteers. Simply said, skilled volunteers are one of many driving forces in keeping an organisation accountable for development in a foreign community. Skilled traveling volunteers also have the propensity to be interested in understanding individual community member perspectives on how a project, for example, is personally impacting them. Project organisers understand skilled volunteer interest in community voices and respond with reporting community member impact stories.

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Hives For Haiti: Garry Training

Sustainable Program Development. Sustainable development is much more than a green thinking type of development, it is, according to a popular featured in the 1987 Brundtland Report, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” When traveling volunteers offer their skills to a community, they are not only impacting the current generation of community members but future generations. Skilled-to-project matched volunteers tend be part of the sustainability thinking group. They not only base their decisions on the transparency of development outcomes, but look for projects that are mindful of social, economic, and environmental sustainable community impacts. Project creators/managers who desire these sustainably-minded-skilled volunteers, consider these criteria when developing a project. As a result, the community benefits not only from sustainably-driven volunteers, but the subsequent program is developed with sustainability objectives in mind.

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Venture With Impact: Lisbon by Joel Filipe

It is apparent skilled traveling volunteers, matched with projects that support these skills, makes the most sense for community development. Not only are skilled volunteers more satisfied with their experience, but projects, developed with skilled based volunteers in mind, have the tendency to build social capital and lessen community dependency on foreign assistance. Skilled volunteers also have powerful influence over sustainable project development outcomes for current, and future, community members. After all, people who decide to volunteer nationally or internationally, want to know they actually made a difference in that community. What better way, than to use their skills to do so.

*Article first appeared May 1, 2019 on Venture With Impact website.

Brundtland, G., Khalid, M., Agnelli, S., Al-Athel, S., Chidzero, B., Fadika, L., … & Singh, M. (1987). Our common future (\’brundtland report\’).

Hernandez‐Maskivker, G., Lapointe, D., & Aquino, R. (2018). The impact of volunteer tourism on local communities: A managerial perspective. International Journal of Tourism Research20(5), 650-659.

Knollenberg, W., McGehee, N. G., Boley, B. B., & Clemmons, D. (2014). Motivation-based transformative learning and potential volunteer tourists: Facilitating more sustainable outcomes. Journal of Sustainable Tourism22(6), 922-941.

Lough, B. J., & Oppenheim, W. (2017). Revisiting reciprocity in international volunteering. Progress in Development Studies17(3), 197-213.

Lough, B. J., & Tiessen, R. (2018). How do international volunteering characteristics influence outcomes? Perspectives from partner organizations. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations29(1), 104-118.

Perold, H., Graham, L. A., Mavungu, E. M., Cronin, K., Muchemwa, L., & Lough, B. J. (2013). The colonial legacy of international voluntary service. Community Development Journal48(2), 179-196.

Thomas, R., & Long, J. (2001). Tourism and economic regeneration: the role of skills development. International Journal of Tourism Research3(3), 229-240.

 

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!

 

 

 

Volunteer, tourist? Does the label really matter?

There is a debate in academia and within general public spaces about what volunteer tourism means. Is it a person who travels to volunteer outside their home community, or is it a traveler with a passion for volunteering?

According to a popular definition penned by Wearing (2001), volunteer tourism is “those tourists who, for various reasons, volunteer in an organised way to undertake holidays that might involve aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments, or research into aspects of society or environment” (p. 1). With respect to the word voluntourism, it may be understood to mean “the conscious, seemingly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination and the best, traditional elements of travel – arts, culture, geography, history and recreation – in that destination” (Alexander & Bakir, 2011). Simply said, there appears to be two components of volunteer tourism/voluntourism: the tourist/traveler, and the act of volunteering.

Many people who travel to volunteer feel offended to be called a volunteer tourist. To them, this label does not adequately describe their motivations to travel to volunteer of their time, energy and often large sums of money to make a difference in a far-from-home community. Others are not so bother by the label as their primary motivation is to travel and see other communities in the world by volunteering a few days in the midst of a vacation.

But one thing should be made clear. The community in which the traveling volunteers spend hours or possibly months in are made up of people just like you. They probably do not care what the visiting volunteers are called. What does matter are the attitudes traveling volunteers bring to the community, long term impacts of the project, and particularly the connections made between themselves and the traveling volunteer. Ultimately it is through the interactions between the traveling volunteer and individual community members that life transformations are made, creating a rippling effect long after the volunteer goes home.

Alexander, Z., & Bakir, A. (2011). Understanding voluntourism: A Glaserian grounded theory study. In A.M. Benson (Ed.), Volunteer Tourism: Theory Framework to Practical Applications (9–29). Abingdon: Routledge.

Wearing, S. (2001). Volunteer tourism: Experiences that make a difference. New York: Cabi.