26 May 2009 ~ 2 Comments

“Volunteering” or “Voluntourism” – who cares! It’s how you design it!

There is a discussion about volunteering/voluntourism going on here, Part 1 and here, Part 2.

I decided to add my long-winded and opinionated post obviously tainted by working in Cambodia and being passionate about the responsibility implicit in these issues.


As someone who has worked in Cambodia for almost five years, this is a debate I often find myself in, especially since I run what could be considered a “voluntourism” organization.

Due to the fact that “volunteer” is a word people are utilizing in their internet searches, much more than “service learning” or “experiential education”, I have allowed the word to stay on our website, but I don’t like our guests thinking of themselves as “volunteers”, as that highlights the “giving”, and what I want to highlight for them is the “learning”.We don’t call our guests volunteers when they arrive or when we discuss our programs with them. Indeed, our goal is that they walk away knowing that their FUNDING helped sustain things which will last far longer than their short stay in Cambodia, and their gained KNOWLEDGE and PERSPECTIVE will help them to be advocates for important causes that will hopefully alter how they travel and give in the future.

We let our guests know that their future actions will dictate the impact their experience adds to the world, in addition to the funding they have raised for their donation.

The visual I put in this post does a better job of illustrating my thoughts on when and how volunteers are helpful:


And so, I wish to add a different perspective to the discussion on the impact of voluntourism: I think more voluntourism (as I define it below) is actually what we NEED in order to responsibly herd all of those looking to “do good abroad” these days. The fact that our guests PAY for their learning is the key, rather than more short term “volunteering.” In fact, most people who pay to simply “volunteer” (vs. voluntour) often do the most harm.

Admittedly, I am biased in my beliefs about voluntourism. I live in Cambodia and have lived here for nearly 4 years. I run an educational NGO called PEPY that we fund, in part, through “volunteer” and adventure tours.

Cambodia has the highest (supposedly) ratio of NGOs per capita. This also means there are TON of “volunteers” – many of whom are making hundreds of times more than a local salary even though they are “volunteering,” UN Volunteers for example. This type of “volunteering” puts into context the overuse and poor definition of the word “volunteer” in Cambodia. In fact, many Cambodians want to “be a volunteer” when they grow up, as the “volunteers” they see are the ones driving the SUVs.

More and more short term volunteers either a) stay here and make volunteer positions for themselves with little to no knowledge of Cambodia or sustainable development principles (I would have been in this category 4 years ago and made many mistakes because of it) or b) pay to volunteer for a short period of time (often with groups who also have little to no knowledge about sustainable development in that particular area of the world themselves). From what I’ve seen in Cambodia (and will highlight below), these are having the least impact and often the most harm.

In order to understand better where my perspective comes from, let me tell you how we operate our trips. People pay a fee to join our trips (as they should, because it’s a TOUR at it’s core and they should pay for the experience to be involved in our work, as we don’t want to take any passer-by non-paying person along to our projects as that takes our time and money and also doesn’t add value if not facilitated) and then they have a required fundraising minimum.

The fundraising/donation amount goes straight to our programs. Hence, they are paying for an experience and then donating money ($500 minimum per week per person) to make sure that the projects they see are sustained long after they visit, by LOCAL people who are either Cambodian natives, or long-term residents.

Activities on our tours include either hands-on support for our programs and/or what we call “facilitated interaction” with the people and programs our ongoing work supports. We do not tell our guests months in advance that they will be painting X classroom or watching a lesson on Malaria performed by Y child club. Instead, we let them know that our staff, based on program needs at that time, will facilitate the interaction they have with our programs.

There might be “murals painted” if a new school has been built and that is what the teachers are looking to do at that time with their student, but we aren’t doing things like “you will build a fence on your trip next December” and asking the community and programs to sit around and wait until the foreigners, with no fence building experience, get there to “help”. My thoughts on how we design our trips here:http://pepyride.ning.com/profiles/blogs/pepys-geotourism-entry

What we have learned during our time in Cambodia, after doing MANY trips and programs wrong (seewww.deedaproductions.com for a film called “Changing the World on Vacation” which highlights many of our mistakes) is that development work, ANY development work, in order to be most effective, should be defined by the constituents who are supposed to be the “beneficiaries”, and should have their support and input, not just in the planning stages, but in the enactment of the project (either financially, in-kind, through their labor, etc) in order for it to be valued, and should take their local input into account in the monitoring and evaluation stages as well.

This, in my opinion, is when development PROGRAMS are most effective. I capitalize program to highlight that volunteering, or visiting a project for any short term, or really any term at all, is not a PROGRAM, it is an input into a program.

In summation: a volunteer, or voluntourist, short or long term, is only going to be as effective as the PROGRAM designed to bring them in. If the program is designed well, irregardless of whether it determines that the “volunteers” need to have certain skills or not, and if the facilitation is designed to integrate the visitors into ONGOING programs in a way that is non-disruptive to the long-term goals of the project, then the result will be FABULOUS! Call it what you like, tourism or -teer, the visitors will be able to add value, because the program is designed correctly.

Below are my personal definitions for some of the words often used in the voluntourism world:

Volunteer: anyone who is giving their time, unpaid

Volunteer Program: a program that involves unpaid people giving their time over any period of time

Short-term Volunteer Program: anything that is a few months or less – in some cases participants have to pay to “volunteer” for a week or two. These people are paying to “volunteer” and are being sold “volunteer programs.”

Voluntourism Program: anything that involves touring as well as “volunteering” – giving back to a program or supporting an on-going project. The worst cases define their “volunteer” portion as giving things away, though I would call that Philanthropic Tourism, and a poor version of it at that. People who pay to “see the sites and also give back” are likely being sold a “voluntourism program”.

Why do I think “voluntourism programs” are having a better impact in many cases than short-term “volunteer programs” where you pay? Because within the definition of voluntourism, you are saying you are here to SEE things, you are a TOURIST, you are not just here to “give” when you don’t know anything about the best ways to do that. By being defined as a tourist to begin with (something people who should be defined as such often take offense to) there is implicit in that the notion that you are NEW, and you DON’T know everything. You are here to see (and ideally to learn).

If you are paying a “volunteer program” to take you around, especially a for-profit one, their goals must include to “make money”, as any for-profit business must do to survive. When the goal of making money overtakes the goal of supporting development responsibly, as I often think it does, volunteer program operators start selling things people are demanding, as if the volunteer market economy thrived on the same supply and demand graph as canned beans.

The problem is, when you add social responsibility into the mix of supply and demand, you are also adding another factor that is less necessary with the required product labels and content discloser requirements when packaging beans: KNOWLEDGE.

Volunteer and Voluntourism shoppers often don’t have the knowledge required to successfully do their cost-benefit analysis as volun-opportunities don’t always come with an explanation that says: “Includes 1 part responsibly identifying partners, $1000 per person going directly to our well chosen charity, 4 parts looking after your safety, etc” – but they SHOULD.

If volunteer and voluntourism operators were responsibly marketing their programs, there would be full disclosure about what, if any, of the money is going to the programs visited, how the programs were chosen, any problems in the past and how they have been resolved, etc. The problem is, no one is demanding this, and until we, as consumers, do, people can still pack stale programs into an unmarked bean can and sell it based on cost comparisons only.

Shoppers need to be asking questions, and if we are not finding the answers we want, we need to talk about it, demand more information, or vote with our money elsewhere.

In Cambodia, there are many places where you can “volunteer”, some paid and some unpaid. Straight up volunteering through one of these volunteer programs implies that you are there to “give” and I have to say, from what I have seen here in Cambodia, sometimes the “givers” are taking a lot more than they are able to give.

Many orphanages here take volunteers to “teach English” for a few weeks or a few months. How many kids get to learn “head shoulders knees and toes” month after month from a new face? These programs expose their students, who they should be prioritizing as the beneficiaries of their work, to new faces and new people sometimes unskilled, unsupervised and in short succession, often investing more time in the volunteers themselves to “bring in more money.”

In this way, these organizations get so trapped in the cycle that they often don’t recognize that there should be other ways to bring money in, fund a local teacher to have ongoing continuity for the children, and be able to focus on their core mission. Some, in the worst cases, keep their children looking as poor as possible as they know that uneducated -teers and -tourists will give MORE because the kids “look so poor.” My thoughts on orphanage tourism in Cambodia are here: http://pepyride.ning.com/profiles/blogs/sometimes-we-take-ourselves

The paying issue: If people PAY to be tourists and give back through their time, that funding can be used to support things like locally owned hotels and responsible restaurants, and the residual funds can be used to operate the long-term development programs long after the volun-people leave.

Unfortunately, all too often even groups touting themselves as NGOs, make a large profit, and little to no money is given to the projects visited. VOLUNTEERS ARE NOT FREE!

Hosting a volunteer, skilled or unskilled, takes time away from the core mission of the organization.

In summation, it all comes down to how the program is designed and if the needs and sustainability issues of the development programs and their beneficiaries are put FIRST, above the desires of the volun-visitors.

If a -teer or -tourist program is DESIGNED correctly to begin with, to support the long-term work of groups and programs following best practices in development, the impact will be highest. And, as long as the money is ending up in THOSE places, not in some operator’s pocket (or at minimum in addition to that), then why would PAYING be bad? In reality, the money that goes into these projects is often having more of an impact than the people themselves!

We, as operators, have the RESPONSIBILITY, to pick non-corrupt groups, to send volunteers OR to send money. Yes, we will make mistakes, so then we need to MONITOR and then CHANGE if or when we do.

If we write ourselves get-out-of-jail-free cards simply because we are sending “volunteers” and not funds and think that gets US off the hook for “aiding corruption” we are obviously completely disconnected to what happens when people volunteer. THEY give their money. And they THINK that any group they have paid an arm and a leg to travel with has done due diligence and research for them, so why would they not want to give money to these groups?

If a program is DESIGNED well, with best development practices in mind, it will not create a “dependency” on these funds. It is the responsibility of the operator, as well as the partner/NGO group, when defining the program/relationship to begin with, to create parameters.

Should groups be able to visit a school to volun-stuff? Sure, if the program is defined well, the students are safe, and it isn’t disrupting class. Should these same people be allowed to come “do good” at school every day? No, not if it distracts from the work being done there. There need to be parameters set/followed/monitored/changed as needed. For example, at PEPY we allow three groups per year to visit our schools, but that was defined when our tours were more disruptive. Now we still limit the visits, and also time them with class presentations and school trips, which allow for interaction.

If we do good work based on best development practices and only allow visiting helpers (be they long or short term) in when they fit the PROGRAMS needs (not the visitors desires), when we wouldn’t have to be having this discussion to begin with. Those who came to help would be doing so, and I wouldn’t have to watch “volunteers” disrupt and harm development here in Cambodia.

PEPY members and friends are starting voluntourism101, a site sharing these types of ideas and thoughts… more coming soon.

(Forgive the length of this. I am obviously, I hope, more passionate about development work and responsible volun-programs than I am about brevity, spelling, and proper use of punctuation!)