The Best Ways to Approach Voluntourism
‘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.
Know your privilege
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.
Match your skillset
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.