12 Tips on Ethical Volunteering and How to Avoid the Voluntourism Trap

Volunteering as part of your travels is an eye-opening, unique and soul enriching experience, however as the popularity for travel volunteering has risen, so too have the scams which take tourist dollars. The voluntourism industry isn’t always that clear-cut, which is why we’ve teamed up with grassroots social enterprise GivingWay to share some essential tips about which traps to avoid and how you can volunteer ethically when travelling in another country.

1. Choosing a volunteering activity

The first step in deciding to volunteer is to consider what your skills are, how much time you have and what you would like to gain from volunteering.

It’s important to consider your goals for volunteering as this will help you to identify organisations that reflect your passion and meet your expectations.

Do you want to add professional skills to your CV, have a new cultural experience, make new friends or be a part of long term change in a community? These goals are quite different and will impact what program you participate in.

If you only have a few days to volunteer, you’ll need to consider programs that don’t require significant training. If you want to develop professional skills for your CV, you may need to consider volunteering in a host country where your experience will be recognised back at home.

2. How to choose an organisation

Once you have a sense of your purpose, matching these to the right organisation can be a challenge as there are so many providers of volunteering opportunities. When choosing one it’s important to consider:

  • What is the non-profit’s mission and what causes does it support?
  • What work will you be doing?
  • What does a typical day look like?
  • What do volunteers typically do in their free time?
  • The costs and fees for the placement. Organisations should be absolutely transparent about how your money is being spent.
  • The criteria the organisation uses to select volunteers.
  • Where will you be staying – shared volunteer home, homestay or guest-house?
  • Are meals provided?
  • Will there be other volunteers while you are there?
  • Where is the organization located? Are there any requirements needed to travel there (visa, country restrictions, vaccinations)?
  • Does your home country state any travel warnings (make sure to check up on your country’s government website)?

3. Understand where your fees are going

There are usually three ways you can volunteer:

  • With a placement company
  • With an organisation that connects you directly with a local not-for-profit
  • Contacting an organisation yourself

A placement company is typically an international travel company that specialises in placing volunteers with non-profit organisations, mostly in developing countries.

These companies sell volunteering packages and their fees cover basic accommodation, meals and in-country transportation to the volunteering site (this often excludes flights and insurance which need to be purchased by the volunteer separately). Your fees may not necessarily go to the non-profit and may be used by the placement company to manage their operations and turn profit.

GivingWay connects volunteers directly with local non-profits on the ground. We recommend working with these organisations because of their local knowledge of the community and the long-term benefits their programs provide. Some non-profits may require fees to cover expenses like food and accommodation. GivingWay doesn’t accept any payments – all payments are transferred directly to the non-profit.

If you know of any organisation you would like to work with you can also contact them directly to find out about opportunities to volunteer. Ask other volunteers about their experiences with this organisation to give you an idea of how they operate.

4. Stay away from orphanages

Orphanages are the number one voluntourism trap, and the one which GivingWay most strongly advises against.

To service the volunteering tourism industry, fake orphanages that are run as businesses are emerging. ReThink Orphanages, a lobbying group of NGOs, charities and travel companies are working to raise awareness of the issue. They report that, “in many cases, residential care centres are being created as businesses, designed to generate an income from people willing to volunteer their time and donate their money to support ‘orphan’ children. Children are often deliberately kept in poor conditions in order to elicit sympathy from well-meaning visitors who are then moved to donate. In Nepal, there have been documented cases of residential care centres being linked to child trafficking.”

Fake orphanages that are in it for the tourist cash, also have little to no volunteer requirements and don’t ask for a minimum volunteering period. These orphanages do not require any relevant skills or knowledge for working with children and do not perform background checks on prospective volunteers.

Short-term volunteering can also have a negative effect on children. Orphanages that have a constant string of volunteers coming in and out of their lives, even if they are warm and affectionate, can be detrimental to their wellbeing.

5. Examine the requirements when it comes to volunteering with children

There are still various ways to volunteer with children in an ethical and responsible way such as teaching at a community centre or helping out with after-school activities.

When looking at these opportunities you should try to imagine a similar situation in your own country. Would a school near you allow any person to teach, interact or be alone with children? Unlikely. The same applies for volunteering abroad with children – the stricter the requirements are for volunteers, the more likely the organisation operates ethically.

Some examples of responsible and legitimate requirements are:

  • Asking for your CV
  • Requiring a police background check
  • Having a phone or video interview with you
  • Asking volunteers to shadow a local teacher
  • Requiring minimum periods of time to volunteer

Education and Health Nepal works with local government schools and child care projects in rural areas of Nepal.

6. Beware of exploitative animal sanctuaries

Volunteering with animals is an incredible experience and there are many causes you can get involved with, from helping biologists collect data from nesting sea turtles in Costa Rica to feeding animals in rescue shelters in the Amazon. These opportunities don’t typically require special skill sets or lengthy commitments.

There are many cases of animal sanctuaries that have unsafe or exploitative practices that affect the welfare of animals. It’s important to consider the following factors when choosing where to volunteer:

  • Learn about the natural behaviours of the species you would be working with and ask relevant questions about how the organisation supports their needs.
  • Ask the organisation about its program goals – are they rehabilitating animals for release back into the wild or keeping animals for indefinite periods?
  • What are the organisation’s handling policies? Stay aware from organisations that encourage handling of animals when not necessary – anything that is not veterinary, research or conservation related.
  • Is the volunteer program managed by skilled professionals like veterinarians and biologists, or by unskilled volunteer coordinators?
  • Research the organisation’s credentials. Credible sanctuaries will typically promote their affiliations with reputable conservation programs.
  • What are the condition of the animals – are they well-fed, is their environment well-kept and are their biological needs being met?

LAST has been engaged in research and conservation of endangered Costa Rican sea turtles for 30 years. Volunteers participate in nocturnal beach patrols, assist biologists in data collection, relocate eggs to a safe hatchery and monitor eggs and nests.

7. Seek projects with sustainable and lasting effects

Many volunteers participate in projects that may not actually support the community’s needs and these can often be left unfinished after volunteers leave.

You should seek projects that are run and managed by the local community, as part of continuous and sustainable work with a proper transfer of knowledge to the community upon completion.

By working directly with grassroots-level non-profits you can make sure your contribution is part of a community-driven effort. This will ensure your contribution will have a lasting effect long after you’re gone.

For example the Biodiversity Research Institute in Brazil is a local non-profit that develops year-long biodiversity research and environmental education programs for ecological conservation. Sadhana Forest India in Auroville, India, engages in the reforestation of 70 acres of severely eroded land.

Openly discuss the best ways to apply your skills to leave a long-term and sustainable impact.

Sadhana Forest India has provided sustainable ecological projects supporting nearby rural villages for 15 years. 

8. Connect with other volunteers

Connecting with other volunteers is a fantastic way to learn about the organisation you want to work with. One of the best ways to vet projects is to hear first-hand from past volunteers.

Connecting with volunteers will also allow you to share your experience with like-minded people from all over the world. Ask the organisation to put you in touch with past and future volunteers. If it refuses to facilitate this contact, this should raise a red flag.

9. Match the time you have with the work you’ll be doing

One of the most common misconceptions of volunteering abroad is that the longer you volunteer, the greater the value you bring. This isn’t necessarily true. The key is to figure out which tasks would be the most appropriate and beneficial to the community during your stay.

For example, if you’ve set aside a few days to volunteer at a rural school in India, teaching the kids English may be a nice experience for you and a fun break for the kids, but will probably not have a lasting effect.

You could consider instead spending those days working with the school staff in areas where your skills can really contribute to the long-term goals of the organisation, such as social media, graphic design, editing, grant writing and translation work. Bottom line – it’s not about the time you volunteer – it’s about the value you bring.

11. Think about what’s needed, not what you want

It’s easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm and desire to help, and it’s also natural to choose causes or activities that you find more appealing or interesting, however, if you want your volunteering experience to have a real impact, it’s important to put the needs of the community before yours.

Find out beforehand exactly what the organisation needs, then work together to figure out how your relevant skills can best support these needs.

12. Be respectful

Volunteering abroad almost always means entering a new culture and environment. Think of volunteering like being a guest in someone’s home – you would want to be respectful and considerate of your host. Research the location and culture before arriving, be mindful of local customs and refrain from criticism and judgement, even when things seem completely strange or different from what you are used to. You’ll be great, we know it. Now get out there and start.

GivingWay is a platform that connects volunteers directly with 1900 non-profits in 115 countries around the world. These non-profits are looking for volunteers in a range of areas including working with children, working with animals and engaging in environmental and conservation work. GivingWay vets all the non-profits on its platform to ensure they comply with their policies.

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