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What is Voluntourism: Everything you ever Wanted to Know

Posted by: Alisa N.
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To volunteer is to offer a precious gift both to yourself and the greater community, whereby you learn more about the world around you, make meaningful relationships and have a positive impact on those that need help most. 

Volunteer in Nepal - Empowering Women in Kathmandu

Yet the idea of voluntourism is often shrouded in mystery with many misconceptions surrounding it. GoEco has decided to tackle the big questions surrounding tourism, in an honest attempt to clear up some of the misunderstandings. From money matters to orphan tourism to the impact that voluntourism has on developing communities, here is your guide to everything you ever wanted to know about volunteering.

The ethics, reality and sustainability of volunteering

How can I ensure that the project I volunteer at is sustainable and ethical?
Research, research, research! Look at reviews, blogs and social media to see whether the project is up to your standards. This can be very time consuming and there is only so much that you will be able to gather on your own. Placement agencies do the hard work for you, a company like GoEco ensures that all programs are legitimate through constant communication with them, meetings at conferences and through personal experience, a vast collection of volunteer feedback and more. Placement agencies will not retain programs that are not in accordance to their ethical values or have a low volunteer satisfaction rate.

How do I know that the animals that I want to volunteer with are being taken care of?
Animals are, unfortunately, often exploited for the tourist dollar. Make sure that the project offers educational programs and has high ethical guidelines that it follows, doesn’t promote the riding of animals and seeks to release the animals (if possible) after their rehabilitation. Read past volunteer reviews to find out more about the operations of the project.

Is voluntourism elitist?
If we look at our own backyard, we often see many injustices and people in need, yet we are rarely ready to give up our time and money to take any action, instead choosing to travel to a more exotic place. Well, to some people, our hometown is and our social issues are exotic and people are willing to pay money to stay there and to help develop solutions to what can be considered to be ‘our’ problem. Voluntourism is thus simply a cultural exchange and a switch of labor, not a means to show others how much better we are.
What kind of change should I expect during my volunteer trip?
The biggest change should be the one within yourself. If you finish the project with an open heart, a new way of looking at the world and a willingness to continue to contribute to the greater good, then you can consider your trip to be a success. By becoming a better citizen of society, you can use your experience to either raise funds for the project afterwards or to simply bring awareness to it - every little bit helps.
Are all the volunteer project in third world countries, with poor living standards?
Absolutely not! Volunteering is simply an act of offering your time and skills free of charge and projects can range from interning at a fun hostel in Barcelona, to conducting coral reef research in Australia and participating in a cultural exchange program in Japan

Volunteer in Japan - English Exchange

The effects of volunteering on local community members

How will my volunteer trip impact the local community as a whole?
To make the most out of your volunteer trip, make sure that you spend time exploring, learning about the culture and also purchasing from the local shops and restaurants. This will ensure that your contribution is spread throughout the community and that everyone can benefit from your stay. You should also look out for projects that run community development programs, rather than focus on just one aspect of need. For example, if you want to volunteer with children affected by HIV, see if the program includes community education that will help to curb this issue from continuing in future generations.
Who else benefits from my volunteer experience?
In short, the entire community. From shopkeepers and tour guides, to restaurant owners and taxi drivers, all are able to feel the reach of your stay. Most importantly, by staying longer than an average tourist, you will be able to form deeper and more meaningful relationships with the community around you. 

Is tourism bad for the community?
Yes and no. There are some travellers that visit countries through foreign owned tour companies, stay in franchised hotels and don’t collect their litter after a stay at the beach. There are others who try and spend as much of their money on local products and take care not to hurt the environment during their stay. Either way, tourism does provide jobs for the locals and the opportunity to share their culture with the visitors. It is up to you to make sure that you travel in a way that will contribute to the development of the community and help it grow, without having a negative impact on the environment.

Is volunteering a cultural exchange experience?
It is. In fact it is not only you who is learning from this experience, but also the people that you encounter on your trip. As a representative of your country, you will be able to teach others about your own upbringing and way of life, along the way learning the similarities and differences between countries and cultures. Volunteering is thus a fantastic way to meet people that you may otherwise not have had a chance to encounter and also to tell others about your home country.

Am I taking away jobs from locals?
The reality is that in many places it is a matter of accepting volunteer help or having nobody to do the job at all, as the funds are simply not there to pay a local. For example there are schools that cannot afford to pay for an English teacher, thus making volunteers the only solution to teaching the kids English. By volunteering through a reputable organization, you can ensure that you are offering your volunteer hours in a sustainable manner that will help the community grow and not hinder its development.
Why should I volunteer in a remote village?
For many remote places, tourism may be the main source of income for the community. By going on a volunteer trip to an off the beaten track place, you are able to both experience something new and untouched for yourself, as well as help the community learn English and build an infrastructure that can accept more tourists. Your trip will also help to bring awareness to the remote place and their needs, if you document your experience on social media.

The effects of volunteering on children
What is orphan tourism?
Orphan tourism is whereby tourists want to volunteer at an orphanage and people take advantage of this demand, by supplying them with children that are either not actually orphans or have been taken away from their living families unlawfully. As it is very hard to distinguish between a good willing organization and a bad one, it is of utmost importance book your ‘volunteer with children’ program with a reputable placement agency that has prescreened the project and its intentions.
Are children affected by the constant turnover of volunteers?
All children crave stability and that is what the school teachers, program facilitators and families are there for. It is not the volunteer’s role to replace the locals who are able to give a truly stable experience for the child, but rather it is to support the staff in a way so they can continue to work productively and take care of the children. 

Are volunteers screened before they are allowed to work with children?
Placement agencies such as GoEco request a police check as well as for the volunteers to fill out a questionnaire, before they are accepted onto a project. If you choose to volunteer without a placement agency, make sure that the project that you volunteer with subjects you to the same level of scrutiny as that is for the benefit of both the children and the volunteers.

What is slum tourism?
Slum tourism refers to tours that take tourists through impoverished places without the tourist contributing to relieving the suffering of the people that they are observing. Look for programs that offer multi day volunteering opportunities with a clear model on how the work done will continue to serve the community in the future. 

The costs associated with volunteering abroad

Where does my money go?
Great question! Generally the project fee goes towards covering the cost of living for the volunteer, administrative fees and a donation towards the project. Without such a payment, the projects would be covering the costs of hosting the volunteer out of pocket, and may not have the resources to promote the cause and attract volunteers such as yourself.

Isn’t it better if I just donate money to the project directly?
It’s true, if you added up the flights, the project cost and other expenses, and instead of going on the trip just donated all the money, then the project would benefit greatly. However few people are willing to part with such large sums of money without getting anything tangible in return. Also, by volunteering you will get first hand experience of the issue at hand as well as be able to contribute skills that may not easily be found on location, such as a foreign language that you may know.
Will I be doing charity work?
It’s best not to view your volunteering as charity work (which may suggest that others somehow rely on you), but rather that you are there to assist the project with their needs, which will ultimately contribute to their success and eventual independence.
Should I bring gifts to the project?
Sure! Some projects will advise you of their needs ahead of time, although it is best practice to purchase such goodies upon arrival. This will allow you to see exactly what is needed, support the economy by purchasing locally and will most likely be cheaper for you. 

How to match your volunteer trip to your skills

How do program managers know if my skills match their needs?
A good placement agency will conduct an interview or otherwise screen their volunteers to ensure that the project can utilise the volunteer’s skills in the most effective manner. 

I am a professional in my industry, can I still volunteer?
Yes, please do! You can choose a project that offers internships as they allow interns to have a more hands-on experience than regular volunteers. Just remember that your aim should be to assist and to learn from the project and not try and manage it because you have experience.

I don’t have any experience, can I still volunteer?
You can! As you volunteer you will learn many new skills, just remember that of utmost importance is your willingness to learn.

Will I be given useless tasks just to keep me busy?
No such thing! Whether you are asked to pack learning material or to sweep kangaroo poop, every task you are given helps to move the project forward. This is your way of supporting the project so that professionals and the local staff can perform their necessary duties. 
What do I do if I’m not enjoying my project?
There are many reasons that you may not enjoy a project: perhaps the work doesn’t meet your expectations or the living conditions are different to what you are used to. It’s a good idea to take a moment and reflect on whether this is something that is easily resolved (mosquito spray can sometimes work miracles on a bad mood) or requires the attention of a supervisor. If it is the latter then speak to someone on site or contact your placement coordinator - they may be able to provide you with alternative options, such as switching projects, that you won’t have if you go alone.

How to make the most of a volunteer abroad experience

What will make my experience more meaningful?
As exciting as going into the unknown may sound, you will definitely be able to contribute more as well as have a better experience if you take the time to learn about the country that you are planning to visit, and its culture. Many programs will include such information in their welcome pack, however it is very worthwhile to learn a couple of words from the local language, read up about the country’s history and even watch a movie made there, as that will help you better understand the place and the people that you will be living with.
Should I spend time traveling in the country that I will be volunteering in beforehand?
Absolutely! Many programs have orientation weeks that will allow you to get a better understanding of the culture, the history and even the language of the country that you will be living in. Going on excursions during your volunteer trip is also a great way to contribute to the local economy, all while having fun!

Where can I find neutral first-hand volunteer experiences?
Browse social media, especially platforms such as Instagram, which will be able to showcase the volunteer experience from a volunteer’s point of view. You can also ask to speak to an ambassador, a recent returnee from the program, directly, to hear about their experience.
Why should I volunteer with an organization?
Projects that have been running for some time have long term goals in mind and want to develop solutions that act more than a band aid over the problem. Although every little bit helps, it is better to work with an established organization, that will be able to implement a sustainable long term plan for the project. Such organizations also have experience in working with volunteers, including training them and making the most of their time; unfortunately this cannot be said for all projects, so it is important to work with a reputable company.

Can I contact the volunteer program directly?
Yes and no. You may find a project online and decide to contact the organizers directly - if you do not hear back from them, then consider this a red flag. Often times the organizers will actually forward your details to a placement agency that they are working with as they do not have the resources to answer enquiries themselves; this is why they work with companies such as GoEco in the first place.

What are the benefits of booking my volunteer trip through a placement agency?
There are many, however the top reasons are as follows:
  • They have the volunteers' needs in mind and strive to do everything possible to make the trip a success
  • They have the resources to research available projects and the experience to differentiate between the legitimate and the questionable ones
  • You will have a 24 hour English speaking point of contact outside the place that you are volunteering, should you need help
  • In the event of an emergency, it is easier to contact a placement agency outside the danger zone, than the project which may have more pressing issues to deal with
  • They may be able to help you switch programs or offer you another solution, if you don’t like your placement. This is unlikely to occur if you volunteer independently
  • You have the assurance that the program operates according to strict ethical regulations, as required by the placement agency
  • They reduce your risk of having a bad experience by only working with organisations that have proven their worth
  • Past volunteers receive a discount for future projects

For more information on voluntourism, and to start planning your next project, contact GoEco today.