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As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine May 2008 Issue

The Changing Face of the International Volunteer

Short-Term Responsible Travel and Volunteer Programs

Volunteering with local children
Assisting local teachers with English lessons. Photo courtesy of GVI.

Not too long ago international volunteer opportunities were mainly 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. Later, there was considerable change, as a growing number of people worldwide became interested in short-term volunteering, often in response to natural disasters around the world, but also as a way to combine travel with volunteer service. To meet the increasing demand, an ever-growing number of volunteer organizations offering short-term volunteer vacations have been founded. Also known as "voluntourism," these programs are attractive packages to many idealistic people of all ages, combining service work with adventure travel, language study, safaris, ecotourism, and more.

However, ethical issues relating to various new forms of volunteering are being debated by some critics who have long worked in the field and question the effectiveness of certain volunteer vacations for the local community. In response, many volunteer-sending organizations are taking into greater account the evolving ideals and goals of responsible volunteering, often termed "best practices." Some critics are so strongly motivated by their ethical values and critiques that they see even the contributions of some professional aid workers as an insertion of Western values into local communities, often with unintentional consequences. In our view, we are experiencing the growing pains of an enormous positive surge in energy and activity going into volunteering abroad. By gaining greater awareness of the need to examine the motives, nature, and impact of our contributions through the critiques of individuals and organizations dedicated to acting as watchdogs, we are now better informed about our best volunteer options abroad.

The Popularity of Short-Term Volunteer Vacations

Generally, short-term volunteers are well cared for 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, the contributions as part of a well-managed program may be important in a significant way to the local community. The money brought by voluntourists is often quite welcome in itself, and the intercultural relations often results in mutually beneficial relationships for all involved. Many short-term volunteers become so immersed in their contributions that they seek out longer-term volunteer work as a result, and the more skills they develop over time, the more valuable their help, even in training locals to continue the process on their own in a manner the local population deems most appropriate. For example, volunteers who build houses and infrastructure for those in need may develop skills allowing new homes to be constructed in a very short amount of time, turning a make-shift shanty into newly-built home with the dignity, hygiene, and basic comforts. Likewise, schools can be built in short order with all the attendant desks and even basic technologies that enable children hungry to learn where they could not learn before. Often the help of those with the patience to teach or offer assistance teaching may also contribute to the local community.

Issues to Consider if you Wish to be a Responsible Volunteer

While it is a very 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 longer-term programs by NGOs and 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 to contribute substantially. In short, training takes valuable time and resources, much of which may be available in the local community already, with only the funds lacking.

Well-managed short-term help from volunteer vacationers certainly provide some very legitimate benefits to local communities, but participation is often limited to simple tasks. Not long ago in Guatemala I talked to an American expatriate, which 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, participants from abroad, who come for a week to lay bricks, plant trees, or visit an orphanage.

The purpose of this article is not to take sides in this complex and important debate, as there are documented advantages and disadvantages of this form of volunteering depending upon how rigorous the evaluation criteria and all the very specific and unique situations, 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 editorial 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.

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, whether the programs are small or large.
  • 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 often more expensive than comparable long-term volunteer projects because a higher percentage of your fees goes toward the support infrastructure: orientations, volunteer coordinators, supervisors, translators, transportation, room and board, insurance, security, 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. A few 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. Do remember that bare-bones organizations may be cheaper but do not handle some key aspects relating to your and adaptation to life abroad while volunteering, often in very difficult conditions.
  • 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 with handicapped children
  • building homes or schools
  • working with environmental conservation projects
  • and much more...

Some 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.

When choosing to volunteer in a country where you speak the local language, you will have many more choices about the type of work. During my recent trip to Guatemala, I had a conversation with the director of Entremundos, an NGO in the Guatemalan city of Quetzaltenango 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 some exploration of local attractions and the actual involvement in aid projects can vary significantly, 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 and more importantly, your impact. Find out how much you will 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

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 Web it is easy even for small, low-budget Aid projects to have a presence. There are many organizations who 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 the words of reviewers 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 crucial 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 inqired whether they sponsor any development projects abroad where your help might be needed.

Volunteering and Study Abroad: Service Learning Programs

In addition to short-term volunteer vacations there are new options growing in popularity. More and more language schools and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) programs abroad offer volunteer opportunities for their students. If you travel abroad to study at a language school, university, or to get a TEFL certificate, volunteer work is an excellent way to practice your language skills and immerse yourself in the local community.

For teen, college students, gap year participants, and even post-graduates the combination of volunteer community service and hands-on learning may even offer academic credit where needed, and often is a great gateway to longer terms goals and even careers. Volunteer service learning has been part of student life for some time now as a form of experiential learning, and is gaining momentum as another active way to learn. Global Vision International (GVI), for example, is a private international volunteer organization, and offers a variety of fascinating service learning programs around the world that combine volunteer service and educational study. Programs include Cape Town, Costa Rica, Nepal, Thailand, and India community development. GVI also offers Mexico, Thailand, and South Africa wildlife conservation programs.

Our Thoughts on Trends in Volunteering

While the benefits of short-term volunteer work for local communities may be modest in some cases, there are nonetheless often many positive long-term effects. The best organizations have track records of avoiding unintentional damage to the local community through what is often termed a conscious attempt to follow "best practices." Volunteer vacations provide travelers with the opportunity to get off the beaten path, meet local people, and learn about their daily lives and rituals. Volunteers learn from their experience and bring back such knowledge to their home communities. Knowledge helps participants to 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, sometimes as a career.

As more people find the time and income, and have the motivation 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 are enhanced, and world views are broadened. In sum, never have there been such broad 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.

United Nations Regional Information Centre, State of the World’s Volunteerism Report, provides a very detailed and useful evaluation of trends and issues.

Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good is a free, inspiring, and brilliant new ebook edited by Ethan Gelber. Experts and thought-leaders in volunteering discuss responsible and creative ways to make a huge difference in the lives of those in need worldwide. is a fine new website that explores issues relating to volunteering, offers background videos, and is currently writing what promises to be one of a fine book on volunteering given the fine team of experienced and accomplished writers who are experts in the field.

Tourism Concern, a British non-profit organization that works to ensure that tourism benefits local communities, provides information about the impact of volunteering as well as their recommended programs.

Finding a Volunteer Opportunity

To find volunteer opportunities, check out the extensive volunteering abroad section of

Note that sites such as and offer many low-cost volunteer opportunities abroad.

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Volunteer Vacations: How to Choose an Ethical Program
Volunteer Vacations to Fit: How to Select the Best-Suited Organization
Arranging a Volunteer Experience Abroad
How to Choose the "Right" Volunteer Program Abroad
Volunteering Overseas: What It Takes to Be a Highly Effective Volunteer
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