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How to be a Force for Good on Your Next Volunteer Trip

Grace Lower | Oct 25, 2019

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Scrutiny of voluntourism.

The act of volunteering abroad, popularly referred to as “voluntourism,” has faced its share of scrutiny in recent years. Think pieces and news stories have fueled an ongoing debate about voluntourism’s impact. When confronted with reports of dubious nonprofit practices or the exploitation of locals, ethical travelers must ask themselves: is international service worth it? With the right blend of effort and awareness, the answer can still be “yes.”  

International service isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

What many bloggers and journalists have been criticizing are the harmful practices that volunteer groups deliberately, or unknowingly, facilitate. This is especially true for short-term trips. The troubling effects of poorly planned orphanage visits or hastily constructed buildings can cause more damage than relief.
Does that mean you should throw away your goals of volunteering abroad? Not necessarily. But be very cautious as you make your plans.  While I am far from a voluntourism expert, there’s a wealth of information on websites like The Guardian, Nomadic Matt, and GoAbroad, to name a few. Here are some of the key takeaways for volunteers-to-be: 

Choosing your trip.

When picking an international service project, make sure to do plenty of research in advance. Not only should you read up on the prominent social, economic, and cultural issues facing your destination, but you should try to find out how international relief efforts have alleviated — or contributed to — those challenges. 

Next, learn which organizations are providing aid and volunteers to address these issues. Do these organizations offer volunteer opportunities that align well with your skill-set? When you’ve found a few organizations that could be a good fit, find out their mission, values, and relevant financial information (i.e. how they allocate the funds they receive). Most nonprofits share those details on their website, or should provide it if you contact them. Here are a few questions to ask before committing to a service trip:

  • Why do I want to volunteer abroad?
  • Why did I pick this organization to facilitate my trip?
  • What relationship does the organization have with the local community?
  • How does it affect the local economy?
  • Are community members involved in the organization’s leadership and decision-making?
  • Am I qualified to do this work? If not, will I receive sufficient training?
  • What are the long-term impacts of my work?
  • Where will my money go?

Engaging with locals.

Regardless of where you are in the world, remember that everyone you meet should be treated with courtesy, cultural sensitivity, and respect. In addition to learning a little more about your destination’s culture and social practices, ask the organization you’re traveling with about their guidelines for interacting with locals. Here are a few ways to ensure that your actions are as well-intentioned as your volunteer project:

  • Ask permission before taking photos of anyone — especially children
  • Be sincere in your interactions
  • Remember that people are not tourist attractions
  • Do not touch someone without their permission
  • Understand that some people might not want to engage with you, and respect their wishes

Talking about your project.

While you’re volunteering, it’s natural to want to share updates with the folks back home. Before you post a photo or tweet, think carefully about what you’re communicating. Is your update an accurate, respectful representation of your host culture? Are you promoting harmful stereotypes about the country where you’re staying? Did the subjects of your photo or status agree to have their information shared?

Consider the impact of service work.

The recent controversy around voluntourism has challenged me to consider the impact of my own international service work. While I’m fortunate to have served alongside reputable organizations, I’ll admit that I didn’t put much thought into the ethics and sustainability of my trips. The debate on international service trips has highlighted the value of responsible travel. Good intentions are only part of the equation. The best volunteer trips establish a mutually beneficial relationship between volunteers and the communities they serve — and that’s a cause worth supporting. 

About the Author

Grace Lower

Grace Lower has a love for all things writing and travel. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.

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