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Voluntourism – How to Find an Ethical Project?

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“Voluntourism” is a portmanteau of “volunteer” and “tourism”, describing tourists that combine a trip abroad with volunteer work. The idea is often met with scepticism and has caused a lot of controversy. One reason for this is that researchers have found that some of the companies involved with voluntourism are misrepresenting their products, i.e. trying to make a profit out of volunteers that come to help. But with hundreds of opportunities offered by agencies, charities and grassroot projects, how does a potential volunteer know which organisations are ethically a good choice and which ones are unhelpful to the very communities they claim to help?

During my bachelor’s education, I considered volunteering abroad. However, I was overwhelmed and shocked by how difficult it seemed to find information on projects. Much of the international volunteer industry seemed ethically ambiguous to say the least. Most projects I found charged thousands of dollars which in the end discouraged me from joining any program at all. Nevertheless, there are many ethical options out there for everyone interested in volunteering, however finding them is tougher than it should be. It is the very nature of this dilemma that motivated me to join Team Social Work, a social enterprise dedicated to making the voluntourism market more transparent

Step One: Be realistic

Make sure you have realistic expectations about what to expect to experience on your trip and what you can accomplish

  • You came to help, keep that in mind throughout your stay. This does not just mean that first you have to think about the beneficiaries of your stay first and put the community needs ahead of yours, but also remember that your efforts are ultimately for the community you’re serving, despite the pivotal role you can play. Your ultimate goal should be to to assist them with their vision, whichEducationh ever part you may play in it.
  • Remember that change takes time. If you’re only going to be there for a short period, then the chances are that you won’t be there long enough to witness the impact your efforts will have on the community that you have elected to h
    elp. Nevertheless, consider the bigger picture to appreciate that your contribution has made a significant contribution and indeed a difference.
  • Last but not least – don’t underestimate the importance of a smile or other acts of kindness. They can have a bigger impact than you might realise.

Step Two: Choose a Good-Fit Type of Volunteering

A lot of volunteers have only a few weeks of their time to donate to a project and are worried that they can’t make a difference in such a short period. So how can you make short-term voluntourism worthwhile?

Short-term voluntourism isn’t necessarily bad. It really depends on the project that you want to volunteer for. As a general rule of thumb, you should always ask yourself whether or not your position at the project is effected by a personal relationship. E.g. within a conservation project, your duration of stay will have limited impact on the animals or biodiversity; often these projects need an extra hand, so it won’t make so much difference if you are only there for a short period. If you want to volunteer with a project that involves community development or working with children, carefully evaluate whether your short term stay will be useful to them or if you will do more harm than good. You might help to build a school in a few weeks, but you won’t become a counsellor for traumatised children. In any case, be sure that you are matched according to your skills.

Step Three: Ask the Right Questions

To ensure that you are joining an ethically sound volunteering project, the organisation should be able to provide you with answers to your questions. But what are the right questions to ask?

Before getting in touch with someone at the organisation, think about the following:

  • Many projects will provide you with a great vision of what they are trying to achieve, but only genuine projects will be able to provide you with details of how to get there. Ask whether or not there has been a needs assessment establishing exactly what help is required. Only projects that plan ahead will be able to make a lasting difference, so be sure to enquire about specific goals and why these are of importance in advance.
  • Take careful consideration over how the communities and projects are talked about by their relevant organisations. If they are degrading the locals they claim to be helping and belting their situation, then this should be sending you warning signs – taking advantage of their poverty to market the volunteering project in question is not respectful in the slightest.
  • Furthermore, every project should break down where the money you pay will go, and how the money from past volunteers has made a difference to the community they are working in. If they don’t, I recommend reconsidering your choice.

Get in touch with someone who has volunteered there beforehand: 

  • We live in the age of social media, so make sure you use it to your advantage. Sincere organisations should provide links to their social media sites. Use them to get in touch with former volunteers of the projects and ask them for their personal experience.
  • Make sure to ask what the exact nature of their volunteer work was, and what level of volunteer support they experienced. If the program description doesn’t match what former volunteers describe, you should be cautious and ask the project why this was the case.

Have you been on a volunteer holiday? Share your views and experiences in the comments below.

Steffi Kohl is Head of Marketing & PR for Team Social Work - The Volunteer Platform. She is an avid German traveller and a passionate advocate for volunteering abroad. In her current position she supports Team Social Work, a Social Enterprise that aims to create transparency in the volunteer market by providing a platform on which social projects and volunteers can connect. You can find out more about this initiative on teamsocialwork.com. If you want to read more about volunteering abroad, check the TSW blog which features humorous stories, useful tips, and stunning pictures from volunteer adventures across the globe.

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