10 things to consider before booking your volunteer tourism trip (based on academic research)

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(Last updated on: 05/04/2020)

The world isn’t short of available volunteer tourism projects; however most recently, there seems to be a pitfall of criticism on the harms these projects are doing to the volunteer tourism industry. In this post I will reflect on the things to consider before booking your volunteer tourism trip in order to make your experience worthwhile, both for yourself and for the community you seek to help.

Volunteer tourism provides a plethora of positive opportunities for the host communities; however, we cannot ignore the negative impacts that also come alongside them. Researchers are becoming more aware of the negative impacts volunteer tourism programs can create and it is just as important that the volunteer tourist is just as aware too.

I have tried to raise awareness in some of my recent posts 15 reasons volunteering might not benefit you as much as you think: Negative impacts of volunteer tourism and 26 ways that your volunteer tourism project is doing more harm than good: Negative impacts of volunteer tourism. In today’s post, I put these principles into practice by giving you the top 10 things that you should consider before booking your volunteer tourism trip.

things to consider before booking your volunteer tourism trip

#1 Where will your money end up?

The first things to consider before booking your volunteer tourism trip is what happens to your money!

Higher prices are not always a sign of better-quality projects. One thing we have learned from my previous volunteer tourism posts is that there are concerns on the way volunteer tourism organisations spend their money. Unfortunately, organisations that are very commercialised are financially driven and work towards making heavy profits made from the volunteer tourism projects. However, their profits typically remain inside the business as opposed to being distributed effectively to the cause.

It is important to not just take caution with commercialised organisations, but to pay attention to the small print. When Shannon O’Donnell discovered that 0% of her program fee was passed on to the host community she developed a dual database of organisations called Grassroots Volunteers. Grassroots Volunteering attempts to connect travellers to causes and communities to support decommodify the volunteer tourism industry. I recommend you check your chosen organisation on her site before parting with your cash.

Click here for Request a TEFL Brochure from I to I to see some examples of projects available.

#2 What evidence does the company provide that you will ‘make a difference’?

Volunteer tourism is an industry that has long caused controversy. Recent publications have begun to scrutinise the volunteer tourism industry, shedding light on volunteer tourism organisations and their ability to misrepresent their products to the volunteer.

Volunteer tourism organisations are ambiguous in their description and may lack clarity in exactly what the project requires of you. And just because the organisation appears ethically grounded by its ambiguous description, doesn’t mean it is.

It is important to pay attention to the little details of the project. Organisations should construct their projects based on the requirements and needs of the host community and therefore projects should be planned in advance, don’t be afraid to contact the company and ask for specific details and the context of the project.

See also Volunteer tourism: The reasons why people volunteer

I have heard of terrible examples whereby volunteers have built houses, only for them to be knocked down when they leave and for the next round of tourists to rebuild them again. I’ve heard of unqualified TEFL teachers teaching the same curriculum as the former teachers, meaning that the students simply learn the same things over and over. I’ve heard of children being put into orphanages by their parents in order to make a profit so that the volunteers can work with them, unbeknown that they are, in actual fact, not volunteers at all.

Taking part in a volunteer tourism project can be a fantastic and worthwhile experience, as I outlined in my post on the positive impacts of volunteer tourism. However, it is imperative that you choose the right project, whereby you WILL have the opportunity to ‘make a difference’.

Helena’s book Volunteer Tales: Experiences of Working Abroad is a great read if you want to learn a bit more about some personal experiences of volunteering overseas. She talks about how she felt that she ‘made a difference’ and gives a great insight into what the volunteer experience is like- a recommended read if you’re thinking about committing to a project!

Reasons why people volunteer

#3 Will you have adequate training/induction to teach you essential skills and cultural awareness?

One of the most highlighted causes for concern in the literature is the lack of skills required by volunteers.

Apart from the occasions when volunteers require relevant skills, i.e. to practice medical work, the majority of volunteer tourism projects you will come across will have a minimal or no requirement required at all to participate. And although this may appear very appealing to you if you worry you do not have the relevant skills, you should be aware of the negative impacts that can arise from inadequate training or inductions.

Inadequate training and/or inductions can hinder the quality of work undertaken and completion of unsatisfactory work. Teachers who do not know how to teach will not yield the best educational outcomes of their students. Builders who do not know how to build will not make the strongest houses. I think you get the picture…?

A lack of training on cultural awareness can also lead to problems. It can results in cross-cultural misunderstanding and in some cases, instigate cultural changes. All of these impacts I expressed in my previous post on 26 ways that your volunteer tourism project is doing more harm than good so do head over to the post to read more if you’re interested.

What this shows, is that it is important to identify whether you are provided with training and/or an induction, and if not then I’d suggest reading up on the community in which you are volunteering in, learn their history, trends and way of life before your trip to avoid the possibility of cross-cultural misunderstanding.

#4 What amenities/activities will be available to you?

There is a lot of confusion on the term ‘volunteer tourism’ and what the role actual entails. Are you a volunteer and a tourist? Do you have time to even be a tourist?

There is a conception that during a volunteer tourism project you are a volunteer on the week and a tourist on the weekend, however you will need to research the specific details of the trip that you are considering committing to.

Travelling to a community that has scarce resources will inevitably limit the range of amenities/activities available to you. And although there may not be a handful of activities to get involved in, there will be a chance to observe other cultural heritage and landscape.

It is also good to know things such as what the accommodation are like and what food types are available to you. This is particularly important if you have allergies or specific food requirements.

Be sure to research and explore the community you are travelling to before you go to gain an insight to what is on offer for you when you arrive.

Planning Your Gap Year: Hundreds of Opportunities for Employment, Study, Volunteer Work and Independent Travel is a useful book to purchase during the research stage of your volunteer tourism trip. It lists lots of examples, along with details of the project. This will help you to determine if the project that you are considering is the right one for you!

See also What is ‘begpacking’ and why is it so bad?

#5 Will you be undertaking work that cannot be done by a local?

Although it is common for volunteers to help construct buildings, the chances are that if you do not require relevant skills or experience to volunteer, you will not be undertaking anything that the locals cannot do themselves. Although locals may not be able to teach the due to their standard of English, which is an exception.

Again, as I mentioned in my previous post on 26 ways that your volunteer tourism project is doing more harm than good, when you undertake work that could potentially be done by the local community you are therefore creating;

  • Disruption of local economies
  • Increased dependency.
  • Undesirable power relations created between host and volunteer.

There is a lot of debate in literature on local employment being displaced by free-labour tourists. Volunteers take away the potential work for the local community and this also leads to the idealisation of colonialism. By this I mean the view that global south communities cannot lift themselves out of poverty without help from westerners. Therefore, it is important that volunteer tourism organisations are not displacing locals with free-labour tourists.

things to consider before booking your volunteer tourism trip

#6 Do you have the appropriate skills/knowledge/experience?

Another thing to consider before booking your volunteer tourism trip is whether you are the best person for the job.

Ask yourself whether you have the appropriate skills, knowledge and/or experience as this will determine the level of contribution you can bring to the program as well as the level of impact that you will have. Although it is often not an essential requirement to have the appropriate skills and knowledge, it is in fact valuable for you and for the host community.

Many organisations will link you to a project that suits the skills you can offer, and this is the most ethical solution. If you doubt the skills you obtain then there is no harm contacting the volunteer tourism company and asking them to suggest the best volunteer program for you based on the skills and experience you obtain.

Remember what you may lack in skills and experience you can make up for in knowledge and researching the community and country you are visiting before arriving.

Although your chosen volunteer tourism organisation should provide you with a pre-departure guidebook that will give you access to the necessary information, it is important to do your own research and learn more about the community, its culture, traditions and way of life as well as the Do’s and Don’ts- for example, how to greet the locals, what to wear and how to behave.

The better equipped you are with community knowledge, the better the odds at providing a more positive experience for both you and the host community. You will feel better connected with the host community, you will minimise the possibilities of cross-cultural misunderstandings and support build stronger relationships between the north and the south worlds.

See also What is tourism? A definition of tourism

#7 Is the volunteer tourism company for-profit? What are their motives?

Volunteer organisations that are commercialised more often than not have a motive for profit, especially when the organisations are from a foreign ownership. With the number of volunteer programmes out there today, it is difficult to distinguish genuine organisations from commercialised ones.

The more commercialised the organisation, the likely the organisation is contributing to the commodity of the industry and is an organisation for-profit. When the volunteer tourism company is for-profit, their motives become hazy and reflect the needs of the volunteer tourists more so than the locals. This is because they need to encourage as many volunteer tourists as possible to ensure they are making a heavy profit.

When an organisation is motivated through consumer numbers, they ignore and overlook the priorities of the host community and this is great cause for concern in the volunteer tourism industry. At all times, the local community should be their main priority and their motivations should reflect their relationship to creating a better life for the locals.

#8 What is the relationship like between the volunteer tourism company, the tourists and the locals?

More often or not, local voices go unnoticed whilst foreign interest is prioritised over locals. Most volunteer tourism programmes are commercialised and/or are run by foreign ownership, therefore there is no telling as to what the organisation’s exact interests and priorities are. This is often reflected in the relationship between the organisation and the locals, as well as the tourists. 

When an organisation becomes more commercialised, their relationship with the local community is disjointed, and by this I mean that the organisation’s goals are more self-centred and for profit-focussed. The relationship with host communities is not their main priority.

Therefore, it is important to join a volunteer program that listen to the voices of the host community in which they operate in as that should in hindsight be the ultimate sole focus for the organisation.

#9 What is the business approach of the volunteer tourism company?

Another thing to consider when booking your volunteer tourism trip is the business approach of the volunteer tourism company. What is its profit status? Is the organisation non-profit or for-profit? This will determine its business approach.

Ideally you are wanting to join a program that has a business approach which is non-profit, as this means that the sole focus of the organisation is the host community. Whereas for-profit organisations are focused on the well-being of the company and the volunteer tourist.

It may seem all well and good having an organisation that is focused on you- the volunteer tourist, but this is due to the money in which you can offer the company, without volunteer tourists, the organisation has no strategy of making a profit.

Again I would recommend looking into programs recommended by Grass Roots Volunteering.

#10 Are there reviews from previous volunteers to prove that what is advertised matches actual experiences?

It is important to look into the organisation that you have chosen to volunteer with, and it is just as important to look into the reviews from previous volunteers. Often what organisations advertise and what they actually offer are two completely different things.

My suggestion is to do your research before agreeing to book with a specific organisation. Look out for local reputable organisations that demonstrate strong relationships with the host community. Trip Advisor can be a great source of information for this.

For example, based on the reviews and experiences provided by past volunteers, Volunteering Solutions seems like a popular program choice for volunteer tourists. You can check out volunteer reviews and experiences here at Volunteering Solutions.

Conclusion

Although in modern society, it may prove tricky avoiding volunteer tourism organisations that create unwanted impacts, there are things you should know and consider before booking your volunteer tourism trip to illuminate your own negative impacts.

Heather talks about her experiences as a volunteer working abroad and identifies the differences between volunteering and touring in the TED Talks video that I strongly recommend you watching to avoid the possibilities of adding to the more harm than good in the volunteer tourism industry.

Do you have anything to add on this topic? Any questions? Drop them in the comments box below!

Additional reading on volunteer tourism

There are some excellent resources on this topic. Here are a few of my recommendations.

Studying or working in volunteer tourism? I recommend that you consult the following texts:

Looking for an easy read? Here are some books that you might enjoy over a cup of tea:

Want more like this? Here are some of my other posts that may interest you:

1 Comment
  1. Victor Kazoba

    I would like to be tourist though financially I’m not capable so if it is possible please connect me with your so that we reach in many place where there are various tourist attractions including in my country Tanzania.
    Thank you

    Reply

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Hi, am Dr Hayley Stainton

I’ve been travelling, studying and teaching travel and tourism since I was 16. Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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