21 February 2009 ~ 2 Comments

Assessing Volunteer Tourism (Voluntourism) and Traveler Philanthropy

I recently read a blog, one of many, which was striving to analyze how positive “voluntourism” can be. The questions tend to revolve around one core question, “If volunteers are unskilled or getting involved in unnecessary or low priority work, and they themselves are getting a lot out of the experience, are they really doing good?”

As I was thinking about this and trying to put my ideas into words, an image popped into my head: a spectrum of “positive impact” that ranges from 100% financial contribution to 100% volunteer contribution. This implies that if your volunteer time is:

a) necessary and high priority for the organization or community,
b) introducing locally unavailable skilled labor or
c) providing volunteer services that would otherwise be costly to the organization,

then financial support in addition may not be necessary. However, if none of the above applies, then there should be a donation requirement offsetting the costs of hosting volunteers. In either case, financial contributions help sustain ongoing project needs, thereby making the volunteer trip valuable beyond the activities taking place during short-term volunteer projects.

Does that make sense? If it doesn’t, perhaps this chart will illustrate the point. Based on my experiences, if volunteer tour operators or traveler philanthropy projects fall on or above the dotted line, they will positively impact their partner projects through the introduction of skilled and necessary labor on one end of the spectrum, significant funding on the other end of the spectrum, or a combination falling somewhere between the two.


At PEPY, participants volunteer time to a short-term project with the understanding that the most significant part of their contribution is the funds they provide to sustain ongoing projects. Additionally, they receive on-site education which, ideally, translates into future involvement. We believe that everyone, even “unskilled laborers”, has the ability to contribute. Even if volunteers lack knowledge about the issue or program, they can contribute by learning more and promoting awareness to others, and by providing financial support.

For me, the essentials for successful volunteer tourism are honest marketing (ie: being open about what portion of participant fees are going to the projects they visit and the relationships involved), setting clear expectations both for the communities/programs visited and the travelers, and an understanding of the diagram above. If volunteers are not contributing resources otherwise unavailable (i.e. high-skilled labor), then funding is needed to maintain an overall positive impact. Those organizations operating in the red area have a tendency to focus more on the needs/wants of the travelers, often conveying a false sense that their impact is extremely positive and necessary, without following through on the commitment to make that statement true.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. What do you think about this chart and these ideas? Please comment below.

* If you are a voluntourism operator and would like to contribute to the creation of a self-check tool on Volunteer Tourism Effective Practices, please contact voluntourism@pepyride.org. We’d love your input to help make all of us better volunteer tour operators and participants!

  • http://lessonsilearned.org Daniela Papi

    I am commenting back here to thoughts posted by Raj Gyawali here: http://pepytours.com/component/content/article/269?joscclean=1&comment_id=62#josc62

    His comments were:

    The ideas presented here are really noteworthy and I feel like this particular piece brings a very complicated multi-parametered issue into a structured discussion. But before we go all “voila”, we have to remember that in practice, it is not quite like this, all the time…

    Given only my style of voluntourism, I would do away with all funding to communities altogether, bringing volunteers only for service help, capacity building, or helping “learn how to fish”… never providing the “fish” itself. Granted that funds brought by volunteers can help crucial funding criseses in the communities and organisations, but how many times have you noticed that the communities will accept a volunteer only because they bring funds…

    I work! with both non-funding volunteers and funding volunteers… and I can tell you that it is far more trouble with funding volunteers, as money causes all sorts of problems and the organistions are far too eager to accept volunteers because of this… In our non-funding volunteer programs, the organisation knows very clearly that it can only get money for a service provided… (e.g. bedding, and food, excursions, carbon offsetting, etc..) but no freebies… Alternatively, they can work alongside the volunteers writing proposals, and work with them to learn the skills required for proposal writing, requesting for funds and fund management. This is crucial, there is far too much fund mismanagement because no one has been taught “how to fish” as providing the fish is far too cheap (comparitively) and also easier to sell.

    I would base the argument over long term vs. short terms volunteers based on requirements… talk about the irrelevance of short term volunteers at Mus! ular Dystrophy Foundation in Nepal, where one day planned volu! nteering of a good physiotherapist (actual massages as well as training) could be worth a lot… I have seen this with my own eyes… Also there are far too many volunteers who think they can actually change the world if they come for anything over six months…

    Remember this, in most countries where you will be going, there has already been decades of development who have barely managed to scratch the surface of development.

    You go to contribute to this slow slow process, not to change anything!

  • http://lessonsilearned.org Daniela Papi

    As the PEPY Tours websites seems to be cutting comments off at some character limit – I am going to post my thoughts here instead.

    First off, thank you Raj! I am so glad that someone is reading this and that it can spark a discussion. If nothing else, having our opinion challenged continues to make us think and either helps us refine our argument or adds a new perspective which we had not seen before. Your post did both for me.

    Whenever I think of this discussion in general, I think back to the Illich speech asking people to come to Mexico to see and to learn but “not to help”. I commented on that here.

    I have to say, my views on volunteers and giving funds are not all that dissimilar from what you expressed. I just need to rework how I present it so my ideas are more clear – so thank you for the impetus to try!

    First off, I 100% agree that the best option would be to only have skilled “volunteers” (in quotes as I think the term is over used an in developing countries there are many ‘volunteers’ who are getting paid exponentially more than local staff, like in the case of the UN Volunteers Program). As in the graph above – an surgeon who comes to Cambodia and fixes cleft pallets which would otherwise go untouched and likely lead to further problems, is adding value through his work. As you said, he would be adding even more value if he were training other local doctors to do it even after he left.

    The problem is that most “volunteer programs” – or short term voluntourism options like PEPY, do not require skilled laborers. The question is, how can they add value?

    There are a few people here who are trying to start “volunteer centers” in Siem Reap. One has the approach that they will set up a place where people can come in and then find out what NGOs need volunteers for the day or the week – go work in an orphanage, go teach at a school, etc. The idea is that “people want to get out into the field and see what these programs are doing, and then they will give.” I think, especially when it comes to dealing with children, this is an irresponsible approach, though I am getting off topic (I wrote some thoughts on orphanage tourism here.) Interacting with some education programs here in Cambodia, I have heard on more than one occasion that “volunteers are destroying our program.” or “The kids are learning head shoulders knees and toes, week after week, with each new volunteer.” Yes, that is a problem of the organization that no structure was set in place and that the ‘volunteer’ comes in with the mindset that because they are a “native speaker” that they therefore should be in control of the class and curriculm, but it comes down to a key point: volunteers are not free. Managing volunteers, planning for their arrival, orienting them, monitoring their work, takes money and time away from the key tasks of the organization. If the volunteer is someone with a necessary skill, or someone who is saving the organization money they would otherwise have to spend, they it is worth it to spend the time and money managing the volunteer. In the case of short term volunteers, or even just the NGO visits which are common in tours now, a stop in to “learn about program XYZ”, the costs associated with managing volunteers is not offset by the skills that they volunteers bring.

    I need to revamp my statements above to reflect how I feel about voluntourism: If an tour company is making money off of a tour, and they are marketing a “visit to an orphanage” or “on our trip we will learn about program XYZ” – then they are using those programs to bring in more clients. In essence, they are making money off of these development programs and marking a “relationship” with the program, which I think, should either involve the donation of skilled lab, or money in exchange for both the time taken to host the visitors as well as compensate for the income brought into the tour company on their behalf.

    I also very much agree that a horrible byproduct of voluntourism is that there are many less reputable NGOs or community programs which would accept volunteers simply for a donation requirement. I think this IS a huge problem. But I do not think the answer is not giving funds to support these programs. I have had conversations with management at larger volunteer organizations, ones which market volunteer programs all over the world, who have told me “we don’t give money to organizations because it can aid corruption.” Those cases make me quite angry, especially knowing how much those volunteer sending organizations are making in profit from the exhortation prices travelers are paying to volunteer. They are basically saying “We are not willing to put the time and effort in to identify good projects, build relationships, monitor the impact of our volunteers, and stop volunteer programs which are not working.” Instead, they are happy to pocket the fees people are paying to volunteer and identify as many volunteer destinations as possible, regardless of how corrupt they might be, knowing very well that these organizations are likely asking the volunteers themselves for money and hence, the corruption is added anyway if responsible programs are not identified in the first place.

    So, my long winded thoughts I guess boil down to:

    a) skilled volunteers add the most value if there is a connector matching these skilled volunteers with needs

    b) unskilled volunteers, often times short term (for use here, a few weeks to a few days), take valuable resources away from organizations to host them

    c) Any group sending volunteers who are marketing the volunteer portion of the trip (like a tour company or a volunteer sending organization charging a hefty fee) should be the ones required to identify responsible partners and are being negligent if they place volunteers in programs which add to corruption

    d) Those same programs, if they are making money off of the marketing the NGO/volunteer program and/or are taking valuable time away from the organization for a visit or a chance to “give back” should, in my opinion, be building a relationship which is based on more than the short term visit. The money and time given to that organization should be sustaining something more than just “an opportunity for people to give back.”

    If volunteer sending agencies are doing their part in identifying responsible partners where volunteers can add value and where they believe in the on-going work of that organization, then funds can help continue that organizations work. Shouldn’t we be supporting those groups where we believe in the on-going work of the program? Hence, giving funds should not then be a problem.

    I agree with all of your points, especially that we should be building capacity in people. One of the most frustrating things I have seen repeated in Cambodia is volunteer English teachers at schools and orphanages. I will get to that in my next post…..thank you again Raj!