‘Voluntourism’ is considered the fastest growing ‘trend’ in travel, with only 55% of non-profit organisations assessing their overall impact. So, how do we know we’re actually enacting positive change?
The term refers to the growing phenomenon of people who travel to developing countries to volunteer. You’ve probably been associated with the concept at some point in your life: on a gap year or if you weren’t blessed with one, witnessing it through your globe-trotting friend’s IG feed. On the surface-level, these photos seem harmless, filled with genuine smiles and overall uplifting messages, but the problem lies behind this facade.
Like almost everything in travel, it can be a double-edged sword. Most volunteers go into it with good intentions, wanting to make positive change, but often not knowing how irresponsible and disorganised some NGOs or charities can be. Our attitude to this is to treat the experience as a cultural exchange, rather than aid. In line with our mission to encourage purposeful travel, we’ve digested our approach to volunteering into six tips and three amazing organisations who are pushing forward the bar...
As a young responsible traveller, the first thing we have to do is remove this notion that developed countries need to be “saved”. Recognising your privilege is one thing, but enacting it into your behaviour is where the difference is made. Rather than going into a volunteer programme with the mindset that you’re “saving” someone or some place, go into it with the intention of learning, teaching and collaborating with the community you’re working with. An environment of respect and openness is where the real change happens.
As with all travel, always look at why you are doing it. Being transparent about your motivations will let you know whether one programme might be better for you than another. If you find yourself returning to a reason like, ‘it’ll look good on my CV’ or ‘it makes me feel better about myself’, you shouldn’t be volunteering.
Knowing what’s out there and the reputations of different programmes comes along way. Firstly, for yourself, as you’ll have more choice to your likings and secondly, for smaller programmes that might not come up on your first Google search. Also, consider social enterprises, which are small businesses with an underlying social mission. Go beyond your screen and ask people you know - there’ll be less smoke and mirrors and upfront honesty.
What better way to be effective than to use your best skills. This doesn’t mean you should pigeonhole yourself to one type of programme, but it is a way of ensuring your passing on sound knowledge to the people you’re working with. The best solution to this is finding a varied programme, that way you can help in an area of expertise, plus enrich yourself by expanding your skill set in something else.
Volunteering short-term can do well, especially for crisis relief, but if you’re planning for programmes involving conservation or education, you’ll make more of an impact doing something long-term. Obviously, if you’re working, this might be less realistic, so if you really want to do a short programme, also think about how you can help after. This could be anything from making small donations frequently or even just referring to someone else who you think could help.
If in doubt, go grass-roots
If you’ve done your research and still have that inkling of doubt: stay grassroots. The safety in this is that, most of the time, these programmes are set up by locals or people who have strong ties to the community, which immediately adds a layer of trust. It’s likely these programmes will be the most effective as they will be more informed and in-the-know.
Along with these tips, here are some suggestions on where you could start...
Home Team Project started as a passion project by Erin Corrian-Alexis in Grenada, who has roots both there and in Trinidad. In September 2018, a series of creative workshops, ranging from photography to product customisation, were held to encourage creativity in young teenagers, in hopes of encouraging and engaging with the local art scene. The project goes into its third year of workshops in Grenada this year and will work alongside an existing arts festival to expand workshop into Trinidad by Indiana Lawrence who will be hosting sustainable printing workshops with young creatives on the island.
If you’re stuck on where to start, this is a great place to get inspiration. It's a great guide for different organisations around the world where you can plant trees abroad to help lower your carbon emissions.
This tourism initiative is a true trailblazer for sustainable travel. Over the weekend of 26-27 April, the islands’ eleven most popular tourist sites are closed to the public, but open for anyone who wants to help in conserving them. You have fourteen choices of projects to help on and all food, drink and accommodation are paid for. Initiatives like this encourage environmental and social conservation, and make for a truly worthwhile holiday.