How to Find Ethical Options to Volunteer on Vacation

Laura Lopuch

Called one of the fastest growing branches in the tourism industry, voluntourism is a hot market.

You might be wondering: “What the heck — did you misspell a word, dear author? Voluntourism is not in my Webster’s Dictionary.”

Voluntourism is a niche in the travel industry that’s fraught with ethically gray areas.

A general definition is: working as a volunteer on your vacation as a tourist. Perhaps you want to get deep down and personal with a community in a destination where you’re taking your holiday. Possibly you’re traveling on a Gap Year and want to give back. Or, maybe you’re simply on summer break from school and combining travel with making an investment in a region sounds appealing.

What you need to know is that voluntourism — with its mix of charity and tourism ventures — is a super profitable industry.

In 2008, Tourism Research & Marketing estimated that 1.6 million volunteer tourists are spending more than $2 billion each year. That’s big money. While it’s hard to accurately estimate how much that number has risen in six years (no new stats were to be found), it’s likely substantial.

Thanks to celebrities like Ben Stiller, Bono, and Jessica Biel, volunteering while on break from major projects, the popularity of this type travel is skyrocketing.

What is “Voluntourism” Exactly?

Simple definition: when you donate your time, energy, and maybe finances — occasionally mixing in your physical prowess — to a community outside of your usual geographic haunts. Usually fueled by altruistic feelings of giving back and helping those in need.

Think of it as similar to the missions trips that Christians traditionally take… only now you can hook up with a travel agency, or company specializing in this niche, to connect you with your volunteer base on the other side.

I see why volunteering as we travel is on the rise. While on a journey, it’s easy to make comparisons between your life and the lives of those living in the country you’re trekking through. Sometimes that feeling manifests in gratefulness for your life, country, and freedoms.

Other times, you want to make those people’s lives better. By pulling them out of crippling poverty. Building new houses in the aftermath of an earthquake. Giving them food or school supplies so both mind and belly are nourished.

Pros of Volunteering on Vacation

What’s the #1 reason why volunteer travel is so hot? Our desire to make a meaningful impact in our world.

From dust we were created and to dust we shall return, but how can I mark my time on earth by leaving a fingerprint on someone’s soul? Or, create a lasting change in a community that improves lives long after I’ve gone?

Volunteer travel is an answer to that call. Typically focused on humanitarian and environmental projects — like building houses, providing food, or school supplies, or working with endangered populations of animals or people — volunteers sacrifice their hard-won, barely-used vacation time to better a community half-way around the world.

Think of the volunteers who flocked to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to help out. Or, those who went to Haiti after the huge earthquake to build houses. Think of how many lives have changed because one doctor used his skills to bring medicine and aid to a village desperately in need of it.

I get that. But where is the balance between teaching a man how to fish, instead of catching fish for him?

Cons of Volunteering on Vacation

Lurking behind the glossy celebrity photos and full color brochures of voluntourism travel agencies is a dark side.

Remember that $1.9 billion dollars a year?

That equals huge incentive for exploitation.

In Cambodia, for example, the system routinely exploits children by tearing them away from their parents and putting them into an “orphanage” to attract well-meaning tourists who are allowed unsupervised in their rooms. In South Africa and Indonesia, it is not uncommon for children to be put into orphanages to get education and food because their parents can’t provide for them.

What is not advertised is the harsh reality that when you volunteer for a few weeks at a true orphanage and bond with the emotionally broken children, abandoned by the people who were supposed to love them the most, emotional devastation is the on the ground cost. When your flight ticket comes, you leave them, and hearts shatter all over again.

Consider the fact that some Ghanaians are less likely to purchase health insurance since, every few months, foreign volunteers bring medical supplies.

Too often good intentions end up creating dependency between the tourist volunteers and the host community.

Many times a voluntourism agency, or company, focuses on the benefits you’ll reap from donating your energy and resources, rather than the impact you’ll make on a community.

The result from that misguided focus? Shoddily-built homes, blindness to economic impact, and a lack of attention to the real root causes of poverty.

Volunteering on your vacation should never be a way make yourself feel better about that darned expensive plane ticket to Timbuktu. A week’s labor in a “needy community” ought not be a balm to ease your guilt about your nice lifestyle, fancy car, or jeans that cost enough to feed a child for a month.

Frankly, for many, voluntourism feels like a way to pat one’s self on the back: “Good job,” for connecting and learning about a new culture by immersion and the selflessness of giving back. When really, it’s often just another ego boost and a self centered attempt to create a personal celebrity out of the realities of someone else’s everyday life. You’re stuck balancing between two yawning chasms with your path narrowing. (Keep reading — you’ll find out what those two traps are.)

Anytime you offer help, you’re risking harming the very person you’re trying to lift up. The temptation is great to do something for them rather than get to the root causes and provide tools instead of bandaids.

Teach a man how to fish.
volunteer on vacation

How to Ethically Volunteer on Vacation

Good news: it can be done!

And, you can do it right, without harming the community you want to help.

Even better: you can sidestep the twin traps of dependency and self-back patting.

Investing in a person or community is empowering — for both parties.

But, for it to succeed, it must be done right and with an ethical organization. For example, during a recent retreat, the Tortuga team volunteered at a soup kitchen in Montreal. They were in town for a weekend and wanted to thank their host city by investing some hours and effort into the local community. For them, volunteering at a soup kitchen was appropriate for a short burst — in partnering with a well established, locally run organization they made sure the work they were doing was what was actually needed, and that none of the effort was wasted, or damaging to the community.

I will never forget the mornings during Thanksgiving that I spent serving turkey, stuffing and gravy at a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. After a morning of giving and seeing the immediate results of helping (fully belly, big smile), there is a lasting emotional reward.

What to Look For in a Voluntourism Organization

Keep in Mind

Your skills and resources:

If you can’t swing a hammer, don’t volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. Instead, look for a way to serve within your skill set without taking jobs from within the local community. For example, if you’re a teacher by trade, teach children how to read, or mothers about nutrition.

What life looks like for the community after you leave:

The true goal of volunteer work is to leave a place better than when you found it. Not dependent, not waiting on the next foreign voluntourists to troop through and rescue them, and not damaged, emotionally, physically, or financially. But, really, truly better.

Long-term emotional impact for who you’re helping:

If there’s a danger of bonding too deeply — and you’re only there for a short while — perhaps rethink that opportunity. Be mindful of the emotional impact, especially when it comes to vulnerable populations. Also, consider carefully the economic impact.

11 Ways to Volunteer on Vacation (Ethically)

TL;DR

You can combine volunteer work and travel, but be mindful of the impact you’ll have on the community. If you’re in town for a short time, a one-day volunteer project like with an animal conservatory, or food bank, could be perfect. When looking at longer term opportunities, do your research and carefully vet the organizations you’re considering as you weigh the long term impacts.

Keep in mind:

Image Credit: plaits via Visual hunt, Visions Service Adventures