Lend a hand: Is volunteering abroad the right thing to do?

Long read

In 2015 the voluntourism industry was reckoned to be worth $173m. That’s a lot of money from people who are essentially sidestepping a normal holiday in order to help others - from spending days learning about conservation to six month stays building schools, tracking turtle numbers, teaching or looking after orphans. 
Quite rightly in the last couple of years, there’s been a debate about the authenticity of the volunteers' help required and whether the impact of of well-meaning but essentially under-qualified people being parachuted in to build, teach or care was even positive.

Georgina Wilson-Powell 20 February 2017


The world’s not short on savvy operators keen to make a quick buck out of a growing interest in sustainable travel, conservation and giving back, and investigations have uncovered a range of scams, such as the Nepalese orphans rented from their real parents to be cared for by volunteers, netting the scammers a healthy but well meant pile of cash. Sadly, they’re not the only ones.

Steve Gwenin, CEO at GVI (who has worked on projects in Fiji, Costa Rica, Laos and Mexico among others), reckons you have to be project-wise when it comes to booking a volunteering experience. GVI has run community and conservation development projects since 1998 and partners with charities such as Save the Children and the WWF.

“We’re very careful with the projects we choose, we make sure they have set objectives (whether it’s five months or five years) and we have an exit plan so we can assist them, achieve the goal and move on - we’re not just helping out for the sake of it,” he explains.

Willy Oppenheim at Omprakash sees the issues as being more widespread, essentially just commercialising a volunteering project, can lead to problems,

“If the host organisation’s income stream is based around people coming out to help, then they’re incentivised to invite you to come, whether they need you or not, whether you’re actually helping or not,” he says. “The lack of direct correspondence between an organisation and a volunteer is crucially problematic. There’s a million dollar industry built around selling placements - the middle man is selling you a trip so they need to tell you you’re helpful.”

Omprakash started as a list of organisations in India that needed help, personally vetted by Oppenheim after he found the entire volunteering experience lacking in authenticity and too commercialised. A decade later it now spans 40 countries with job listings for 160 organisations.

“You don’t buy an opportunity from us and you’re not communicating with me,” he explains. “You’re applying directly to these different organisations which crucially have the power to reject you."

"There’s no point going abroad to help ‘poor people’ and think you’re going to save the world...but there’s nothing wrong with identifying what you want to get out of a trip and focusing on something specific"

Do your research

While that sounds pretty daunting, it’s essential that if you want to volunteer that you really sift through the data surrounding a chosen charity or project and assess the local partners the operator is working with to ensure it’s above board.

“If it’s a brand new organisation then it probably won’t meet our standards. This isn’t the Yellow Pages, we don’t just list anyone,” says Oppenheim. “We need to see mission statements, company organisation charts, a track record of achievement and a financial sustainability plan. The point is if the organisation revolves around charging money to volunteers then it’s a non-starter to us.”

But aside from just making sure your worthwhile experience is not actually a scam, a wider look at whether volunteers take jobs away from existing labourers or local professionals is a valid concern. From Haiti to Indonesia, well meaning volunteers have been drafted in to pay to do a job local people might have been paid to do.

“You need to look closely organisations who are working with quality local partners and what they’ve achieved,” says Gwenin. “There are a lot of organisations involved commercially but how well do they know their projects on the ground and how high up their agenda is doing good?”

Everything you need to know about Volunteering Abroad

Don't volunteer just because you dream of helping without knowing who and what you want to help

Omprakash negates this issue in a different way, by making sure that each volunteer not only applies for a set role, they’re interviewed by the on the ground organisation to ensure they have the right qualifications to be helpful, rather than just full of good intentions.

“The placement model doesn’t work for us. If I want to intern in an organisation in Chicago then I apply to them and am rejected or accepted by them. So why is it different for an organisation that needs help abroad? You don’t just want to pick something vague, enter your credit card details and click apply,” says Oppenheim.

For GVI, Gwenin has narrowed down the range of projects the company assists with and pins its objectives to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals and tracks its progress at the local level to ensure it’s fulfilling its mission.

“All of our projects are directed by local organisations, NGOs and agencies - they’re directing the work they need done but our teams manage the volunteers so we’re not taking work away from people on the ground,” he explains.

Gvi 1
“The point is if the organisation revolves around charging money to volunteers then it’s a non-starter to us”

Consider cost vs support

The two companies’ approaches also differ in the way they view the value attached to an experience and the support that’s on offer for each volunteer. While GVI believes that low costs are driving less honest placements and place a financial value on your experience because it balances out the work and resources you’re taking away from someone else, Omprakash believe that cost shouldn’t factor into it at all.

“It’s not about paying for organisations to find you something to do,” Oppenheim says. “Our model is such that we don’t fly chaperones round the world or a have a huge office to administer applications. We don’t need to pass any costs on to the customer.”

In line with the company’s ethos, volunteers make all their arrangements directly with the organisation they’ve been hired by rather that using local or international partners or support staff.

“It might lead to moments of cross cultural misunderstanding but that’s the point, that’s what travel is about,” he says. “In the event an emergency in Nepal for example, I don’t want help from a chaperone who has been to the country three times, I want help from my local host who has spent their whole life there.”

“Unless you’re experienced in cross-cultural communication and logistics or have a particular skill you’re going to need a support network and have resources to help you,” says Gwenin. “I think it’s good for the volunteers to have international support and western style health and safety measures, which aren’t always there if you just work with a local partner.”

Be realistic

From checking your own privilege to the level of support, it's obvious there are complex issues surrounding voluntourism.

It doesn’t mean just give up and not bother. 

One counter to a lot of these issues is to be realistic. No one is going to change the world in two weeks by helping to build a school.

“There’s no point going abroad to help ‘poor people’ and think you’re going to save the world. All of that is related to this large neo-colonial assumption that the world is full of desperate people waiting for you to rock up for two weeks,” says Oppenheim. “But there’s nothing wrong with identifying what you want to get out of a trip and focusing on something specific."

Gvi 2
“"60% of our staff come out of our alumni so if you want to get involved in this field professionally then it’s a proven route to work"”

Think about you

Voluntourism in 2017 isn’t just about helping to create practical solution to a problem. There’s a growing focus on the personal development it allows the volunteers themselves. It’s now seen as a showcase for extrapolating soft skills in order to improve employability, especially among a millennial audience.

“We’re going more towards education than just volunteering alone. After price, this is what more and more people want to focus on,” explains Gwenin.

Both companies are turning the spotlight on how to engage and educate the person going away as much as the practical benefit of their experience at their destination.

At Omprakash, each volunteer for its educational Edge initiative has a three part programme for before, during and after the trip that includes reflecting on the power dynamic of modern volunteering, the history of international development and using research methods to document their experiences.

“Instead of coming home with just a sentimental narrative and the fact they had a good time, they come home being able to talk about the core issues and challenges and can take further action,” says Oppenheim of his educational programme.

GVI sees the voluntourism sector as an essential funnel to get more people interested in environmental work both in the public and private sector. And let’s face it, the environment needs all the eager brains it can get.

“In the next century we’re going to face the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced - and whether we survive or not is down to how innovative we are,” says Gwenin. “60% of our staff come out of our alumni so if you want to get involved in this field professionally then it’s a proven route to work."

Its educational internships earn volunteers academic accreditation with a number of universities across a range of fields.

“We used to see a lot more volunteers just coming out to do good for the sake of it but now people want to get something more concrete back, which is good because it means they will stay involved in the sector.”

Want more? Read our 5 minute guide to volunteering abroad.

Join the community for sustainable living, ethical fashion and eco travel

Posted in Travelling


Share this article