The Changing Face of International Volunteering
Trends in Volunteer Opportunities Abroad: Short-Term Vacations on the Rise, Responsible Volunteering a New Emphasis
Not long ago international volunteer opportunities were largely limited to humanitarian aid projects by churches, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international government aid projects such as the Peace Corps, and large private sending organizations. There has been a considerable change in recent years, as a growing number of people worldwide have become interested in short-term volunteering, mostly in response to natural disasters around the world, but also to combine travel with volunteer service. To meet the increasing demand, there are today a rapidly growing number of volunteer organizations and tour operators offering short-term volunteer vacations. Volunteering today is no longer necessarily a long-term sacrifice under difficult conditions. Short-term volunteer vacations abroad, also known as "Voluntourism," are attractive packages to many combining work with adventure travel, language study, safaris, ecotourism, or just plain sightseeing. Ethical issues relating to this form of volunteering are also being debated by some in the field, as some argue that the effectiveness of volunteer vacations for the local community sometimes are superceded by personal satisfaction.
Generally, short-term volunteers are well taken care of during their vacations and are often assured of all the creature comforts demanded by many travelers. Activities are often, but not always, relatively pleasant and easy. No special language or job skills are required, and volunteers are assisted by local coordinators. In contrast to ordinary vacation packages, volunteer vacations give participants the opportunity to interact with the locals and gain insight into their culture and way of life, while performing light work for several days or weeks at a time. Of course, that is not to say that the contributions may not be important in some way to the local community, and the money brought by voluntourists is often welcome as well.
With the popularity of volunteering on the rise, book publishers are responding with print and ebooks to the growing interest in volunteer vacations worldwide, and there are now a number of guidebooks on the market. We have listed several books at the end of this article.
Issues to Consider with Short-Term Volunteer Vacations
While it is a positive development that a growing number of travelers are seeking meaningful ways to spend their vacation time and money, it is important to be realistic about the benefits of short-term volunteer work. Most aid projects are long-term aid programs by NGOs that depend on a long-term commitment from core volunteers. Many well-established and reputable referral organizations require a minimum commitment of at least three weeks, simply because it takes at least that long to become familiar with and be integrated into an aid project. In short, training takes valuable time and resources.
Short-term help from vacationers certainly provides some benefits to local communities, but participation is often limited to simple tasks. Not long ago in Guatemala I talked to an American expatriate, who is part of a small organization providing support and supplies for special education needs in the Guatemalan highlands. There were several international volunteers at his restaurant one evening, and we were discussing volunteer work and its benefits. He pointed out that short-term volunteers are little more than unskilled workers, doing simple tasks easily performed by the locals. “What we don’t have here is a shortage of labor, especially unskilled labor,” he told me. “We don’t really need foreign volunteers to come down here to lay bricks.” His argument brings up the question of how much aid projects actually benefit from short-term, foreign participants, who come for a week to lay bricks, plant trees, or visit an orphanage for a few days.
The purpose of this article is not to take sides in this complex and important debate, as there are documented advantages and disadvantages to this form of volunteering depending upon how rigorous the evaluation criteria, but rather to explore the trends, provide tips and advice on questions volunteers should ask, and offer up resources to the reader who is a prospective volunteer in order to make an informed decision. Clearly we have a strong bias towards responsible and ethical volunteering, but that is balanced by the need we see for citizens around the world to engage in volunteer projects abroad by organizations that have done their due diligence and actually help locals abroad.
Where Does Your Money Go?
Note the following before you lay your money out for a volunteer vacation abroad:
- Before signing up for a volunteer vacation, get background information about the organization and its history.
- Keep in mind that some referral organizations are non-profit, while others are for-profit.
- Find out what percentage of your fees supports the project and how much goes toward company profit. Short-term volunteer vacations abroad are more expensive than comparable long-term volunteer projects simply because a higher percentage of your fees goes toward the support infrastructure: orientations, volunteer coordinators, supervisors, translators, transportation, room and board, excursions, sightseeing, etc. Some short-term programs provide adequate but simple room and board, assuring that most of the fees go to the aid project. Other organizations devote more of the fees to creature comforts and may even go so far as to offer luxury packages that include first-class hotel rooms.
- Ask yourself how much money you are willing to spend and find out if the organization’s goals meet your own expectations and values.
- Read the organization’s mission statement and find out about the project’s short and long-term goals. You will find that some aid projects and NGOs charge very high fees, while others are practically free. Volunteering for nature and animal preservation projects, or assisting with scientific and archeological projects is often very expensive, because the most important contribution are your fees and not your unskilled labor.
What Type of Work is Available for Short-Term Volunteers?
There are a variety of activities in which short-term volunteers can be involved.
Types of work include:
- teaching English to children
- teaching job skills such as computer literacy
- working at an orphanage
- working with handicapped children
- building homes or schools
- working with environmental conservation projects
- and much more...
Some of the programs may be in remote locations, while others are based in cities or towns that provide certain urban amenities.
Disaster relief is another field where short-term volunteers are always in high demand. Duties may include working at a relief shelter or delivering clothing and food to affected communities. In many cases volunteers are encouraged to bring clothing, essential supplies, and other items with them to donate to the volunteer project where they will be working.
If you volunteer in a country where you speak the local language, you will have a lot more choices about the type of work you perform. During my recent trip to Guatemala, I had a conversation with the director of Entremundos, an NGO in the Guatemalan city of Qutezaltenango that connects volunteers with a large number of aid projects. She pointed out that the types of activities are much more limited for short-term volunteers who don’t speak the local language. While Spanish-speakers might be teaching or working in the social service sector, participants without Spanish skills are more likely to help building schools or planting trees, where language skills are not essential. Your contribution will also be more fulfilling and more valuable to the project if you speak the local language, since you will be able to work more independently and communicate directly with the locals.
The Time Factor
How much time you are able to commit to a placement is another important factor for the success of your volunteer vacation. Most such vacations include sightseeing and exploration of local attractions, and the actual involvement in aid projects can vary a lot, from just a few days to several weeks. The longer you can commit yourself, the larger your contribution to the local project the more meaningful your experience. Find out how much you will actually be involved in the project, and how many days you will actually be working. Some volunteer vacations offer a balance between tourist activities and volunteer work, while other travel packages only include a day or two at a local aid project. I met a Dutch tourist in Guatemala, who told me that his package tour included the option of volunteering at a local school for a day. The obvious question is how much a traveler can learn about a foreign culture during one day at a school, and how much the children can benefit from the presence of a stranger who doesn’t speak the local language and will soon be gone?
Finding the Right Program
In order to find a suitable volunteer opportunity it is important to evaluate the projects that interest you and determine the quality of the programs. Find out the details about the aid organization. Make sure that the volunteer vacation you join is a part of a long-term project that benefits the local community and not just a program to entertain and satisfy volunteers. The longer the aid project has been in place and the more reputable the aid organization, the more likely your involvement and your fees will benefit the locals. Most successful aid organizations are committed to long-term projects that are deeply embedded in the local communities.
Other issues to explore before choosing a program include:
- Is the project is committed to eco-friendly policies and sustainable practices that respect the local environment?
- Is your work is a valuable contribution to the project, or does it merely consist of menial tasks that could be carried out better and more efficiently by the locals themselves?
- Is this the type of work that you actually enjoy, even if it is only for a few weeks?
- Is there a level of in-country support for volunteers, such as transportation, room and board, etc.?
- Does the organization offer an adequate orientation with an in-depth introduction to the aid project, local culture and way of life?
- Is there a bilingual coordinator on site to assist volunteers?
Going Alone or Booking a Volunteer Vacation Package?
It is not easy for short-term volunteers to find work on their own, but if you don’t mind doing some research before going abroad, you might be able to find an NGO on your own. Thanks to the internet it is easy even for small, low-budget aid projects to have a presence on the web. There are a number of organizations that place international volunteers for a fee, but there are also several online portals for international volunteer opportunities, where you can contact NGOs directly without a referral fee. Indeed, there are now dedicated sites offering reviews from participants in volunteer programs, though such reviews must be carefully scrutinized, as many such brief testimonials are anonymous and may be full of unedited bias either way.
Keep in mind that many small aid projects are not set up to work with short-term volunteers, but if you have at least a few weeks and are willing to find lodging on your own or share lodging with others you might be able to work with a small local NGO that can really use your help. To volunteer at a small local aid project on your own, it is very important to speak the local language reasonably well, since you most likely won’t have a bilingual coordinator or the support infrastructure provided by tour companies and referral organizations. Another way to find a position on your own is to contact a church or charity in your home community and find out if they sponsor any development projects abroad where your help might be needed.
Volunteering and Study Abroad
In addition to short-term volunteer vacations there are several other new options growing in popularity. A growing number of language schools and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) programs abroad offer volunteer opportunities for their students in conjunction with their programs. If you travel abroad to study at a language school, university, or to get a TEFL certificate, volunteer work is a great way to practice your language skills and immerse yourself in the local culture. Global Vision International (GVI) is an international volunteer organization, offers TEFL internships together with volunteer teaching in several countries, such as Fiji, Costa Rica, India, Laos, South Africa, and Thailand. If your school abroad does not offer any such opportunities, you might want to try and find work on your own, either while you attend school or after you complete your studies abroad.
While the benefits of short-term volunteer work for local communities may be modest in some cases, there are nonetheless often positive long-term effects, though the best organizations have track records of avoiding unintentional damage to the local community though due diligence and what is often called "best practices." Volunteer vacations provide travelers with the opportunity to get off the beaten path, meet local people, and learn about their lives. Volunteers learn from their experience, and bring back such knowledge to their home communities. Knowledge helps participants contribute to a better understanding and respect for foreign cultures and people, allows them to share their experiences and inspire others interested in volunteering, and most importantly continue to carry on and expand such new skills and learning at home. As more people have the courage to become involved in international volunteer work, even for a short period, their views of the world and of other cultures change. When people from different cultures meet, communicate, and work together in a manner beneficial to local communities, understanding and respect begins to take place, and world views are broadened. In sum, never have there been such wide and thoughtful discussions on the nature and issues relating to all forms of volunteering abroad, never have there been more programs, never have there been more documented needs, and never have there been more willing participants.
Volunteering Abroad Resources
General Information about Volunteering, its Impact and Implications
International Volunteer Programs Association (IVPA), www.volunteerinternational.org, is an alliance of non-governmental organizations involved in international volunteer work and internship exchanges.
Tourism Concern, a British non-profit organization that works to ensure that tourism benefits local communities, provides information about the impact of volunteering: www.tourismconcern.org.uk.
United Nations Regional Information Centre, 2011 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report, provides a very detailed and useful evaluation of trends and issues.
people & places: responsible volunteering, www.travel-peopleandplaces.co.uk, places a premium on ethical volunteering practices in the programs it offers, matching the skills of the volunteer to community needs. The well-respected organization promises that at least 80% of volunteer funds are spent in the host country, most often in the local community.
The Planeta Wiki Volunteer entry provides links to important blogs, social media and articles on the subject.
LearningService.info is a fine new website that explore issues relating to volunteering, offer background videos, and is currently writing what promises to be the finest book on volunteering yet written given the fine team of experience and accomplished writers who are experts in the field.
Journeys for Good is a blog which provides information and inspiration for volunteers and volunteer organizations. Posts review programs and websites while promoting a responsible form of voluntourism and a community of volunteers.
Voluntourism Gal Research offered up an interesting survey from the perspective of volunteer organizations (.pdf).
GeckoGo.com has some interesting survey data on trends regarding what people are seeking for in volunteering abroad: www.geckogo.com/volunteer/report2009/GeckoGo-Volunteer_Travel_Insights_2009.pdf.
Ethical Volunteering offers advice & information for people who are interested in international volunteering and want to make sure that what they do is of value to themselves and the people they work with. The website has an ethical volunteering guide available for download (.pdf).
Books about International Volunteering
Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others by Bill McMillon, Doug Cutchins, Anne Geissinger, and Ed Asner.
700 Places to Volunteer Before You Die: A Traveler's Guide by Nola Lee Kelsey
Green Volunteers: The World Guide to Voluntary Work in Nature by Fabio Ausenda.
How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas by Joseph Collins, Zahara Heckscher, and Stefano DeZerega (Note by Web editor: Still a classic work and must-read).
Finding a Volunteer Opportunity
To find volunteer opportunities, check out the extensive volunteering abroad section of TransitionsAbroad.com, with our Best Volunteer Abroad Websites.
Note that sites such as www.Idealist.org and www.volunteersouthamerica.net offer many low-cost volunteer opportunities abroad.