How to Choose a Voluntourism Experience

By Pamela MacNaughtan on November 10th, 2015
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Voluntourism has the power to make a positive impact on the lives of everyone involved, it acts as a reminder that we, as human beings, have the ability to help each other, and hopefully make life a little better for each other in the process. There are, of course, negatives, and there are no shortages of people on the internet standing on a soapbox, preaching about the damaging effects of voluntourism; and while not all of their points make sense, there are a couple points that are valid, and worthy of consideration.

In the world of voluntourism there is a need for organizations to be more selective in terms of who they choose as volunteers, and at the same time there is a need for volunteers to be realistic about their skills and abilities, before they apply for voluntourism opportunities.

Years ago, when I was in management with a national bookstore chain, I learned the importance of hiring the right people, and not hiring people simply to ‘fill a gap’. Why? Hiring people to fill a gap, instead of making sure they have the right skills, costs the company more money in terms of training hours, wages, and time spent.


“Wouldn’t it be revolutionary for voluntourism companies to turn away volunteers when they don’t have the right skills or time for a project? “

In many cases those bad employees, the gap-fillers, are kept on for long periods of time; how could you possibly let them go when they are filling a gap that needs to be filled? By taking time to hire the right person, the company saves money, and benefits from the skills and talents the employee brings to the table.

When organizations take the time to find the right people for the gaps that need to be filled, everyone benefits. Unfortunately many organizations are simply ‘filling the gaps’ in an effort to keep things running – even if things are not running smoothly.

“Wouldn’t it be revolutionary for voluntourism companies to turn away volunteers when they don’t have the right skills or time for a project? The companies could set a precedent of the needs of a community coming before the desires of a volunteer. In many cases, the money spent by an overseas volunteer would have likely had broader impact as a locally-run tour — a tour that teaches would-be volunteers about community issues, one that uses locally run guesthouses to infuse money into the local economy, and one that creates deep learning opportunities and facilitates cultural exchanges.

And when the circumstances are right, when that volunteer possesses the winning combination of skills and a proper time-frame, they should have easy access to a range of projects that have built nuanced solutions hand-in-hand with the local communities and local organizations. These projects can span all the niches: construction, teaching, conservation. It’s easy to point to construction projects and assert that in most cases locals are more skilled, but that overlooks the fact that foreign volunteers usually pay for those very materials. Unskilled English teachers may not be terribly effective, but in many schools the classes go untaught without foreigners donating their time.” Fixing Voluntourism: Building the Ark, by Shannon O’Donnell

Motivation and self-evaluation


volunteer motivation
When applying for a volunteer position it is important to be upfront and honest about your skills and abilities; Can you actually lay bricks for a house, or are you guessing that your years of Lego experience will somehow make being a brick-layer an easy task? Can you tend a garden if every plant you’ve ever owned has died in a matter of days?

It’s not just about skill and experience, it’s also about asking yourself what you’re willing to do: Are you okay with waking up early every morning? Will you clean out laterines with a small rusty shovel? Can you handle the heat? How about bugs, insects, and things that go bump in the night? Can you survive without a wifi connection, and possibly without power for days at a time.


“It’s not just about skill and experience, it’s also about asking yourself what you’re willing to do”

There are countless instances of volunteers arriving at a project, discovering it was too hard, or not what they thought, and then they simply leave and the organization is left with a gap to fill, and at times not able to help the people that desperately need their help.

“Voluntourism is a bit similar to an internship. You get to learn something about a new place, about a new people. In return you are expected to contribute your own share. Ideally everyone involved comes out better off.

In practice it can be hard to make it really work. Between administrative overhead, recruitment efforts and selection as well asrequired training, a lot of organisations prefer long term volunteer commitments to make it work. When I volunteered at Goodwill, an organisation that teaches English and job skills to disadvantaged women in Bangkok, that was their primary concern: Would I stay long enough to make it worth their time?” Karsten Aichholz, a digital nomad in Bangkok

Finding the right fit


volunteer fit
Once you know what skills and abilities you can offer, and what you are willing to do and sacrifice during your voluntourism assignment, it’s time to look for projects.

When researching voluntourism projects it is important to take your time, read the organizations website to make sure their values fit your own, read reviews by other volunteers. Look into grassroots projects, as these generally have a greater impact on the communities they serve due to smaller overhead.


“Look into grassroots projects, as these generally have a greater impact on the communities they serve due to smaller overhead.”

Websites like Planeterra Foundation; which has a partnership with G Adventures, lists grassroots projects that have been properly vetted, and while the purpose of the website is to generate donations for those projects, it can be a good place to research the type of projects you want to be involved with as you travel; and in some cases you can search for the projects on Google, and the reach out to them about possible volunteer opportunities.

Your values and the values of the projects you’re interested in working with need to match.

Why you should pay to volunteer


volunteer pay
Paying to volunteer is something that many travelers have difficulty accepting; you’re volunteering your time, why on earth should you have to pay for that? Every voluntourism program has costs; including the cost of housing you, and feeding you during your stay with the program.

The money paid often goes towards paying for your room and board; it also helps to ensure that the program continues to run smoothly when volunteers decide to leave early because they underestimated the program, or the role they would have during the program.


“Every voluntourism program has costs; including the cost of housing you, and feeding you during your stay with the program. “

While in Chiang Mai a few years ago I made the choice to volunteer for a week with the Save Elephant Foundation which operates Elephant Nature Park. The cost of the program was $400 for the week, a lot of money when compared to what it cost me to live in Chiang Mai for a week, however, friends who had volunteered at the park were quick to point out that the money I was spending was not only going towards my room and board, but also being used to buy food and medicine for the elephants.

My week at the park involved helping to bathe and feed the elephants (on the first day), preparing their food, cleaning out the mud pit, and various tasks around the park. In the evenings the volunteers hung out, and in the early morning I would crawl out of bed before dawn so I could watch the elephants roam around as the sun rose.


“I chose well, I talked to friends and received honest reviews, I knew I could handle the tasks they gave me, and I didn’t need to have special skills.”

When I left the park a week later I had a deeper understanding of the elephant tourism industry, which helped to shape the way I travel today.

I chose well, I talked to friends and received honest reviews, I knew I could handle the tasks they gave me, and I didn’t need to have special skills. The project had a positive impact. As far as I’m concerned, it was money well spent, and I’m looking forward to visiting the park again in a couple weeks to speak with Lek Chailert, an amazing animal activist.

If you plan to volunteer while traveling, skip the tours of the local slums; unless those tours are run by locals from those neighbourhoods, who are trying to educate and promote local business within the community. Depending on the project, dropping in for a day or a week is not long enough, in many cases organizations was volunteers who can stay for at least a month as this is less disruptive to the program.

Being a volunteer can be an amazing experience, but remember, you’re there to help others and to make a positive impact; know your skills, abilities, and limitations before applying; do your research before applying; accept that many programs charge a fee, and most importantly allow yourself time to enjoy the experience.

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