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Voluntourism – Is It Right for You?

By Cynthia Hogg April 02, 2024 Lifestyle

Over the past decade, there has been a sharp increase in the number of travelers who wish to contribute in some meaningful way as part of their travels. This is known as voluntourism. To meet this demand, there have sprung up innumerable “volunteering” organizations seeking to match travelers with various destinations and interests.

Go ahead and Google the topic. You’ll be amazed how many opportunities there are, even post-Covid!

But along with the spike in interest in this kind of travel, there has been a spike in the number of concerns connected with it. This article sparked a furious online debate about some of the drawbacks to voluntourism.

The Drawbacks of Voluntourism

What could possibly go wrong, you might wonder, with wanting to volunteer your time to help others whenever and wherever you travel?

Which Organization to Choose

First of all, there are so many organizations that have jumped on the bandwagon, it is challenging to sort through them all to pick one you can be sure of. There are outright scams preying on eager and earnest travelers, but there are also well-meaning ones who have rushed in too quickly to capitalize on the market. Often, they have failed to do the necessary prep work to make it successful and sustainable for all parties involved.

So how do you know? Even reviews are not always trustworthy. Not only that, but prices are all over the map. (Pun mildly intended.) Some charge volunteers next to nothing, whereas other program charges are quite steep. Price is not necessarily indicative of a bargain or of high quality, but how do you know?

Does Your Volunteer Work Help?

Beyond that, there is concern about how often this kind of travel is genuinely helpful. Most trips of short duration do not make much impact and can actually be more harmful than helpful, especially when volunteers are not properly trained or sufficiently familiar with the culture.

There are stories of volunteers who wind up taking precious time away from the regular staff who must train (or entertain!) volunteers, in exchange for what? A few hours, a day, or maybe a week of questionable help, at best. (Also see previously linked article.) Then – snap! snap! – a few pictures are posted on social media and the volunteers are gone.

Most reputable organizations (and some governments) have completely eliminated any volunteering with children in orphanages because of the many problems inherent in this kind of short-term interaction. Even the indomitable JK Rowling has weighed in on the subject.

The Sustainability Ratio

The final concern is what could be called a “sustainability ratio.” What is the ratio of genuine help provided related to the total cost of the trip when travel and training are figured in? Might the time and money have been better spent in a different way? Increasingly, those in the field are saying the answer is often yes.

So, before you pack your bags:

  1. Be clear about your motives.
  2. With all the reservations about voluntourism abroad, why not consider domestic opportunities first.
  3. Don’t expect too much. You are not going to change the problems at your destination in a few hours, a day, a week, or even a month. Most problems are complex and long-standing.
  4. Do your research. Connecting with a reputable company with a good track record can make “all the difference in the world” for a successful trip.

One of the best places to start is with a reputable website that acts as a clearinghouse for vetted programs. They have already weeded out scams or poorly-run programs. I would recommend, but there are probably others.

So don’t let this article discourage you if volunteerism is a passion of yours. Just make sure you are using your head and your heart when you plan.


Let’s Have a Conversation:

Have you done a volunteering trip abroad? Where did you go? Which organization did you choose and why? Do you think you accomplished something on your volunteering trip?

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Watch The Last Tourist documentary before volunteering! There’s some talk about voluntourism in it. It’s a great docu that all travelers must watch.

The Author

Cynthia Hogg is a freelance writer in western Michigan who contributes regularly to Sixty and Me and Senior Perspectives magazine. She loves to travel and spend time with her grandchildren, especially combining the two. She is the editor of the newly updated blog

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