Avoiding the Voluntourism Trap

We’ve heard a lot lately about the potential harms of voluntourism – how often these programs are aimed at young folks just yearning to get out of the house, how they can perpetuate poverty porn and dependence, how their project are often short-term and ineffective.

But…let me be honest for a minute. I love volunteering. I love being your stereotypical do-gooder. And I love traveling. How do I combine these loves without perpetuating harmful stereotypes and cycles?

Here are a couple tips for making sure your volunteer-oriented travel is a positive experience for everyone involved.

1)   Start local. Before booking with an anonymous organization, look for locally-based nonprofits working abroad. Call them up or ask if you can visit their offices. Ask about already-established volunteer trips they may organize, or volunteer your skills pro bono. If they don’t have any current volunteer needs abroad, ask what their in-office needs are – many small nonprofits rely on volunteers or interns for basic work such as mailing campaigns, social media outreach, and administrative duties. Before committing to a program, go all-out conspiracy theorist for a couple days – check the organization’s ratings on websites like Charity Navigator and set up a Google Alert to find out if they’re involved in any drama. And it’s not sexy, but if a trip isn’t in your future, consider donating the money you would have spent to experts who know what they’re doing.

2)   If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Did you find the perfect trip that guarantees you’ll be delivering bouncing babies in rural Nicaragua – regardless of the fact that you have no medical training? Does your program brag about the turtle sanctuary you’ll be running in a week – no marine biology education needed? If you wouldn’t trust yourself to work that job at home, don’t subject people abroad to your bumbling efforts.  Search for opportunities where you can put your specific skills to use – and if you don’t have a particular skill to share, volunteering abroad might not be for you.

3)   Go the academic route. Many university study-abroad offices offer volunteer-based options or internships abroad. Universities typically form long-term relationships with the programs they partner with, meaning that students can work as part of a sustainable volunteer partnership that will continue long after they leave. If you’re at the top of your academic game, many universities also offer travel grants for students to conduct research abroad. Not only could this lead to novel new solutions or studies, but it could also land you a post-graduation career. Not a student? Don’t be discouraged – larger universities may offer trips for alumni, community members, or friends and family of students.

4)   Make it an internship. If you have upwards of six weeks to spend abroad, look into internship options as well – you can provide necessary technical or administrative support to an organization abroad, and the entry-level nature of internships allows you space to learn and grow without potentially damaging the work of the organization, as someone will likely always be double-checking your work. Larger organizations such as the WHO and UN typically have well-oiled and well-established internship programs that will let you get a glimpse at high-level diplomatic workings, whereas smaller NGOs may allow you more responsibilities and hands-on work, as they have fewer permanent employees.

5)   Search for locally-run organizations. Any organization that you volunteer with should be locally-run or locally-partnered. What does that mean? A big part of why voluntourism is problematic is because it creates a short-cycle brain drain: a great group of volunteers and leaders could come in one month and be gone the next. In order to be sustainable, a project or organization needs to hire and by run by locals, who are most knowledgably about the community they are working in. Locally-rooted nonprofits turn economic growth back into the community, are more likely to be culturally-sensitive, and are overall more effective. If you joining a project means that a local in that community is denied a job, then you are not, ultimately, helping.

6)   Think it over. No, really – pour a glass of wine and be truly, honestly brutal with yourself. What’s drawing you to volunteer abroad? Is it boredom with your current job or routine? A long-term solution like a career switch or enrolling in a college program, though scary, is likely to bring you more satisfaction. Simply feel like you need to give back? Maybe you can find a local charity to work with. Many problems that voluntourists work with – child welfare, emergency response, community rebuilding, conservation – are problems that exist right here are home. Start here. Do you need to “find yourself?” Give yourself permission to be selfish – take a solo trip, read “Eat, Pray, Love,” do the whole Parisian café lifestyle for a while- you don’t need to involve orphanages or torture others with your bumbling construction skills in order to get closer to yourself. Be honest – are you just looking to cover a fun trip abroad with a philanthropic cover? Give the haters the middle finger and book yourself that trip, girl – minus the cheesy Instagram-posed “volunteering” moments.

7)   Bring consciousness to your vacation. I’m reticent to blast all voluntourists as bad, because I do genuinely believe that many go with good intentions. I also think that travel is the ultimate eye-opener, and great understanding of other cultures is essential to our global society. However, you can open your mind without perpetuating poverty porn. When booking a vacation, whether domestically or abroad, think critically about the choices your making. Is your mode of travel the most eco-friendly option? Are your accommodations green-minded, and do they employ local workers at fair rates? I’m all for kicking back with a pina colada, but the whole point of visiting a new place is to learn about it. Nerd out with the travel guides, try out a few phrases in the local language, and find authentic and responsible entertainment options. All-inclusive resorts will rarely open your eyes to anything other than just how many frozen drinks your belly can hold.

8)   Think critically.  If, after considering all these options, you still find yourself drawn to a volunteer trip abroad, I only urge you keep a critical, open mind throughout the process. Learn as much as you can about your organization and the work you’ll be doing. Continually ask yourself – is this photo perpetuating a stereotype? Are my actions potentially harmful in anyway? What happens after I return home? Where exactly is my money going? How would I feel if I stranger acted like this in my community? With a compassionate heart and a critical mind, your experience will surely be eye-opening and educational.