My Take On Volontourism. Why It’s Not A Bad Thing.



Recently, in a travelers group that I’m in, someone was looking for ideas on how to help their children become “true global citizens”. This was a traveling family, and the poster was concerned that her kids might come to think of the world as just a ‘continual string of resorts’. She had worries about “colonizing travel’. Asking for advice, she stated clearly that ‘voluntourism’ wasn’t an option, as they were well aware that this practice often does more harm than good. Well.

As much as I agree with the premise of wanting to help your children become true global citizens, I strongly disagree with the disregard for volunteering abroad. Yes, I too am very much aware that there are ways and places to volunteer that are not very helpful. I also agree with the negative view on voluntourism opportunities, where the emphasis ends up being more on the tourism part than on the volunteering part. For sure. But maybe we should just back up a little bit, and start at the beginning.

What Is “Voluntourism” Anyway?
Volunteering has existed for ages. People do volunteer work everyday, all over the planet. You obviously don’t need to go traveling for this. However, the fact of volunteering abroad has become increasingly popular, with people sometimes paying skyrocketing amounts to be allowed to “help” with this local project or the other. And this is where the concept of ‘voluntourism’ starts.

Naturally you will find several definitions of the term, but in general, voluntourism refers to people engaging in short term helping somewhere. Anything from a single day to a few weeks maybe. This short term perspective is in fact essential to the problem. Any short term engagement is likely to be much more superficial and less effective than a long term commitment. Logically, if you are present for three days somewhere, or even a week or two, you will have much less time to really understand the background and context of the project and to be trained in whatever needs doing. Also, if there are human interactions involved, trust and complicity just don’t reach the same levels. These things need time to be nurtured and grow. And if children are involved, even greater caution needs to be taken.

Because of the growing popularity to visit orphanages and such,
this is precisely an area where voluntourism has received a lot of bad press. A quick google search will turn out heaps of articles calling out the practice of the rich westerner “doing good” in poorer countries and the points made are certainly valid points. Personally, I have no doubt that the majority of voluntourists have an authentic wish to make a difference for the people they travel out to help. It’s not people’s motivations that are the problem, the problem is in the concept itself.

BUT. Because there is a but, and it’s a huge one. While the orphanage issue is definitely a real one, it would be foolish to throw the baby out with the bathwater and simply lump all voluntourism together as inherently bad. Yes, as a general rule, long term commitments are often preferable. This is not to say though, that short term programs can’t be of real help. Even a couple of hours spent collecting trash on a local beach, as part of a voluntourist holiday, will have a lasting impact. At least THOSE plastic bottles and cigarette butts wont be lying around anymore!

It seems to me, that the essential aspect here is two-fold and that the legitimacy of voluntourism lies within two things; the mind-set of the person volunteering and the type of volunteering in question.

Regarding the mindset of the volunteer, I think we shouldn’t devalue peoples wish for making a difference, nor their desire to concretely undertake actions that make them feel they are actually DOING something about an issue they care about. Also, for most people volunteering, it’s not about being a rich helper-savior riding in on their white horse, somehow being superior to the people they help. I think this underlying story, present in a lot of negative opinions on the subject, is a typical straw man that is both unhelpful and untrue. This might have been the case in earlier times (think colonialism) but to me, holding on to and perpetuating this idea, negates the true motives of most people today and undermines the cause of volunteering as a whole.

Personally, I do volunteer work with my kids when we’re stationary – why wouldn’t we continue to do this when we’re on the road? To me, volunteering is about having a helper’s heart and wanting to contribute to the community, to society, to the world wherever you are. On a side note I’m also a firm believer in the necessity to evolve beyond the consumer society – and bartering (work in exchange for lodging for instance) is a big part of this.

Regarding the type of volunteer work that one chooses, it is easy enough to be aware that there are caveats and potential problems to take into consideration. Meaning that before you choose to join a program or offer your help somewhere, you do a bit of research and a bit of personal reflection on the how’s and why’s, and from there make an informed choice about what to do and where to go.

Our family volunteered at SOS El Arca in Mexico. Such a rewarding experience.

So How Do I Choose A “Good” Volunteering Opportunity?
From my point of view, it is with volunteering as a traveler, as it is with many other offers aimed at tourists: there are awesome, ethical, sustainable and helpful options – and there are questionable, unscrupulous, profit-driven ones. And then there are all those in between.

It is hard to say, as a sort of check list, what makes a volunteering option a good one. I think it depends on a lot of parameters. Some things to consider, might be whether or not your presence puts any extra charge on the project and if it does, does your contribution outweigh this? What kind of impact does your help have (or not)? Who seems to benefit from the things being done? Could (or should) your job have been done by a local? If yes, why isn’t it? What does volunteering at x or y project bring YOU and why are doing it?

I think, if you can strike the right balance between actually making a difference, actually being of real help while also going away with the feeling of having contributed to something (which we all like!) then you have a good starting point. Social and ethical considerations might mean it’s better to pass on some opportunities, but you’re still left with an incredible amount of totally legitimate options, even in the voluntourist realm.

What Kind Of Volunteering Could A Family Do Then?
Volunteering can be so many things. Helping out at a soup kitchen. Caring for stray dogs at a shelter. Visiting a home for the elderly and socializing with the residents. Picking up trash in a park. Handing out flyers for a charity event. The possibilities are seriously endless. It doesn’t even need to be organized. If your family decides to bring a large trash bag to the sea and clean up a mile of beach while you’re there, you are in a sense volunteering, as you are giving of your time unpaid. Yes, you may call this simple civic behavior, but the action is the same regardless of the label. I mention this as an example to encourage you to reflect on the mindset that drives the volunteering act.

Where Do I Start?
One way of getting involved, is to simply reach out to a charity or other in the area where you are. Don’t be afraid to be bold. Have some ideas of what YOUR family can contribute with and be open to what might be needed. Another way of doing volunteer work is to join an organized program. These will often demand more caution as to their usefulness and legitimacy, but this does not mean there aren’t great ones out there. Be mindful and do your research.

Specifically for a traveling context, there are platforms such as wwoof or workaway. The principle here is food and board in exchange for a certain amount of work hours per day, typically five. Workaway is a general platform, connecting hosts with volunteers, and features all sorts of volunteering opportunities. From babysitting or homework help, to language exchange, wildlife conservation projects, off-grid construction work or yoga retreats.

Up until now, the volunteer “work” that we have done as a family, has been very light. Pitching in as kitchen helpers at a social café, cuddling cats at a shelter, helping out at a sports event, collecting trash, cleaning, dog walking and bathing….only very short term or one-off experiences so far. In fact, we have only just dipped our toes into the great sea of volunteer work!

I definitely want to dive in deeper though and incorporate volunteering into our travels much more going forward. From my perspective, it is a great way to give back to the community, to practice empathy and generosity, to learn about different cultures and to gain new skills and knowledge. All things that are important to me as a mother in raising my children 🙂

Do you have any great experiences with volunteering? Let us know in the comments!

love & light

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