Volunteerism, Not Voluntourism

The Dangers of Volunteering

Volunteering is a popular way to travel.  In Europe, taking a gap year after finishing college to travel is very common.  Many students choose to spend all or part of their year volunteering overseas.  But it’s not just young people who travel and volunteer, I’ve met people of all ages during my travels who are volunteering.
Not surprisingly, voluntourism is now an industry.  For a fee, you can have a complete volunteer experience arranged for you, including a placement to match your skills and interests, an orientation program, weekend excursions, room and board, Western toilets and more.  

My work space while volunteering at Nature’s Healing Home

Sounds great, at first, but voluntourism has earned a bad reputation for many reasons.  Exorbitant fees are charged for the privilege of volunteering and it is doubtful if most of the funds ever reach the people you think you are helping.   Another problem is that organizations may spend much more time and resources assisting volunteers rather than focusing their attention on the work they are doing for their communities.  The focus shifts from helping those in need to meeting the needs of international volunteers.
If you are working with children, you may be doing more harm than good.  Children are often treated more as tourist attractions than human beings by well-meaning volunteers.  Orphaned children see a parade of volunteers passing through, growing attached to some, only to see them leave a few days later.  Volunteers leave with hundreds of photos of themselves with the children to post on Facebook or Instagram.  In the worst cases, children are intentionally used as props in order to elicit more sympathy and donations.

I even had a chance to volunteer as a photographer at a fancy resort for a day.

Why I Volunteer

There are some who object altogether to rich Westerners volunteering overseas.  It would be far better to donate money rather than risk disrupting the lives of those you are trying to help.  Although I understand this point of view, I believe there are effective ways to successfully volunteer overseas.
Volunteering for me is a way to immerse myself in a culture, meet amazing people, understand my place in this world, travel cheaply and enrich my own life – while trying to help others.  I have no problem acknowledging that volunteering is as much for me as it is for those I want to help.  The hard part is not making it all about me at the expense of others.  What’s most important for me, then, in choosing a volunteer opportunity, is that my experience will not have a negative impact on those I am trying to help.  I cannot always be sure that it won’t, but by doing thorough research into each opportunity, I can hopefully meet my goals.

My visits to the Sikh temple only happened because I was invited by my hosts where I was volunteering.

Volunteer Resources

I am often asked how I find out about volunteer opportunities overseas.  Here is a short list of the most helpful sites I have found.  Each of these organizations focuses on matching volunteers with opportunities without charging fees (or in some cases a very minimal fee).  These websites simply provide information and ways for volunteers to communicate with each other.  It is still up to the volunteer to contact organizations individually and do further research.  The sites also include reviews from previous volunteers, so it is easy to get an idea of what to expect and if it is a good fit for you.  
I will update this list as I find more useful websites.  Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about volunteering overseas.

Get closer to the locals by volunteering.

Helpx – I used this site to find my volunteer opportunity at Nature’s Healing Home.  There are many farm and hostel volunteer locations on this site, but a variety of others are available as well.  A small fee is charged to join the site, but you can read about volunteer opportunities without joining.
Omprakash – I used this site to volunteer in Honduras and Nepal.  It is easy to contact other volunteers through the site to find out about their experiences and get recommendations.  There is no fee to use the website.  
Workaway.info – This site was recommended to me by my “year abroad advisors,” Anthony and Jean.  It is easy to save profiles that interest you, contact potential sites for volunteering, and even communicate with other volunteers through the site.
Do Good as You Go – This site focused on “volunteer opportunities for independent travelers around the world.”  I have had several discussions via email and Skype with this organization and highly recommend them.  They have a smaller number of projects compared to other organizations because they thoroughly investigate each project to make sure it is focused on achieving its goals and can use volunteers in a meaningful way.  They have several unique projects involving photography, using technology, curriculum programs, travel by motorcycle and more.  
UBelong – I learned about this organization from another traveler but have not used them myself.  They do charge fees, but they are much less than other organizations and they provide services such as airport pick-up, orientation and a mentor.  
Grassroots Volunteering – I discovered this site just recently and wish I had found it sooner.  It is a goldmine of just the type of volunteering I like to do (sustainable, free or low cost, thoroughly vetted organizations, meaningful impact).  I am still digging into the site, but so far like everything I have seen.
Housesitting – I haven’t tried this yet, but there are several sites for finding housesitting jobs while traveling.  Usually this involves signing up for a site and paying a membership fee, then browsing through the available housesitting jobs and applying for the ones you want.  In exchange for a free place to stay (and a house all to yourself), you usually are required to take care of some pets and/or do some light gardening while the owners are away.  There are many places to search for these opportunities, but here are a few of the most popular ones:  MindMyHouse, housecarers, TrustedHousesitters, and Nomador.

I wasn’t house sitting, but I got to meet some great dogs while volunteering.

Read before you go . . .
The article “7 Reasons Why Your Two Week Trip To Haiti Doesn’t Matter: Calling Bull on “Service Trips” and Voluntourism” goes into great depth about the issues related to volunteering overseas.  Not everyone agrees with the author’s point of view, but she does give many resources that provide more evidence for questioning the effectiveness of most volunteer opportunities.  I highly suggest reading this and other sources for more information.
Remember, when you search for volunteer travel opportunities online, you will most likely not see these smaller, nonprofit organizations listed.  You will get pages of organizations that say they are doing good and offer “free and low-cost volunteer opportunities”, but if you dig deeper those claims become questionable, and you will be paying thousands of dollars for a short-term volunteer experience.  So, if you are interested in volunteering overseas, do your homework (or contact me for more free advice).  

Become a part of the family by volunteering.

Comments (18):

  1. Vicky Ann Deledda

    March 20, 2017 at 10:35

    To the self taught guru: nice job posting, although I find it much easier just following you. Others can certainly learn a lot from your advice. Always remember your open air work spaces and wonderful families that you’ve met. Safe travels, forever….

    Reply
    • Tim Flanagan

      March 24, 2017 at 00:45

      Thank you. I can’t forget these experiences.

      Reply
  2. Sharon Eash

    March 20, 2017 at 11:46

    Excellent!

    Reply
    • Tim Flanagan

      March 24, 2017 at 00:45

      Thanks, Sharon.

      Reply
  3. Diane Gallo

    March 20, 2017 at 12:36

    I have been looking for volunteer opportunities in India and it seems like one of the most legitimate ways to find an experience is to go directly through the NGO and not bother with a “placement organization”. I have found many of these organizations require at least a two month commitment but it makes sense that if you are going to really complete any meaningful work, ideally you need time .

    Reply
    • Tim Flanagan

      March 24, 2017 at 00:46

      I agree that it’s usually best to spend some time in a place if you really want to help, but there are many places that will take volunteers for a week or so. Good luck with your plans!

      Reply
  4. Linda A Wight

    March 20, 2017 at 13:08

    Good job Tim!

    Reply
    • Tim Flanagan

      March 24, 2017 at 00:47

      Thank you, Linda.

      Reply
  5. Susanne Murphy

    March 20, 2017 at 14:53

    So enjoyable to read of your experiences and your insightful reflections upon them!

    Reply
    • Tim Flanagan

      March 24, 2017 at 00:47

      And it’s great to read your comments. Thanks!

      Reply
  6. Anthony Ogilvie

    March 20, 2017 at 20:40

    We use workaway.info for our travels. There is a small annual fee, it has opportunities throughout the world and allows direct interaction between the person needing assistance and the traveler. As with all of these sites you need to do research to make sure the opportunity meets your needs.

    Reply
    • Tim Flanagan

      March 24, 2017 at 00:49

      How did I forget Workaway? It’s one of the first sites you taught me about and I check it all the time. I’ll update the list above to show it. Thanks for the reminder.

      Reply
  7. Lori

    March 21, 2017 at 06:34

    Well done, Tim!!!! You’re an inspiration!

    Reply
    • Tim Flanagan

      March 24, 2017 at 00:49

      Thanks, Lori. Good luck this weekend!

      Reply
  8. anne

    March 21, 2017 at 07:36

    Wow Tim you should really consider writing a book about all of this!

    Reply
    • Tim Flanagan

      March 24, 2017 at 00:50

      I’d need to take another year off to do that – maybe someday.

      Reply
  9. Connie Gardner Rosenthal

    March 22, 2017 at 20:12

    Tim
    I’m always happy to see an email saying you have another blog post. I am enjoying sharing your adventures with you. What fun it looks like you are having! Good for you!
    Connie

    Reply
    • Tim Flanagan

      March 24, 2017 at 00:53

      Thanks, Connie. It’s great to hear from you!

      Reply

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