Volunteer Vacations - Points to Consider

The idea of a “Volunteer vacation” is an appealing one, especially on a family vacation: how wonderful, to contribute to a local and less-privileged community, and at the same time teach your children the joy of helping others.

There's no doubt that the benefit to the volunteer is immense: the internet glows with accounts by volunteers who've had rewarding and even transformative experiences-- just pick any organization, and view the testimonials. But has there actually been a benefit to the local community, as was the intention?

 Not so simple…

Also, it's all too easy for projects to have unintended consequences: taking away jobs from local people, for instance. Or the project may be make-work for visitors. And there are more complicated issues, related to volunteering in orphanages... A number of such issues are considered, below. But first, for starters:

Be aware that the real benefit may, truly, be to the volunteer. This can be a good thing, especially if that volunteer is a young person. The experience may hugely influence the person’s life: they may go on to fundraise, they may choose college courses in international development, they may return to the country to do permanent work, they may have a better understanding of their own home country’s foreign policy.



Be aware that many organizations which set up short-term volunteering are for-profit companies. While some portion of fees is typically contributed to local causes, that amount varies considerably. On the plus side, the volunteer vacation companies that charge high prices may include valuable services: the volunteer may be personally met at the airport, escorted to lodgings, and so on. Just be aware of how it all works, and make sure you understand and agree with the principles behind the company.



View the experience as an exchange, not "Us Saving Them". Take an interest in the culture you're visiting; read about about history and current challenges. In the words of one founder of an organization in Haiti who stopped bringing in volunteers: “The saddest part for me was seeing how it felt for people in the community to have foreigners come in and ignore the cultural riches. The volunteers saw themselves as rescuing people.” Have a look at this ethical volunteering code, which says in part: "The best volunteers are those who feel they have as much if not more to learn as they have to give."

Short-Term Volunteer Experiences: Issues to Think About

Be Sure Your Efforts Aren’t Taking a Job Away from Someone Local
It seems so simple: spend a few days in a community "helping out" by building a home or a clinic...

Yet (as a friend who started a humble project in Tanzania pointed out): does it really make sense for unskilled middle-class people to come to a place and do physical labor while the street is full of unemployed young men? Unemployment is a huge problem, in many countries. As another example, one writer visited a school in Malawi where the head teacher said she took Western volunteers because they were cheaper than paying local staff.

Consider following up your volunteer experience with a monetary contribution that could help pay local people to do local jobs (--see more on that, below); or, if you have real skills to contribute (perhaps Dad or Mom is a carpenter), perhaps pass on some skills to local people.

Likewise, be sure you aren't undermining a local business, by bringing in products distributed for free.

Beware of Unintended Consequences
Even the most well-intended efforts can have sideways effects. For instance, if you're building a house, who, among the many needy local people will benefit? Be careful that a project doesn't aggravate social divisions. Also make sure you aren't contributing to the many "failed projects" that are often the story of international aid efforts, big and small. If you're building a clinic, how will the staffing be supported?

If you're building a well, how will it maintained and repaired?

Think Twice about Volunteering at an Orphanage
Spending a few days or weeks at an orphanage is an immensely appealing idea, to foreigners. But once again, good intentions may have unintended consequences. Consider: "In the case of orphanage tours to places like Siem Reap in Cambodia, the presence of wealthy foreigners wanting to play with parentless kids has actually had the perverse effect of creating a market for orphans in the town.

 A system has emerged in which parents will rent their children out for the day to play with gullible backpackers, creating fraudulent orphanages in response to visitors’ demand for them."

Add to this that in Cambodia many "orphans" may actually have living parents -- very poor parents, who send the child to an orphanage in the hope of a better life. Meanwhile, the country has had a boom in orphanages, along with "orphan tourism".

And what about the impact on the kids, who experience a constant stream of outside helpers?

Often, volunteers who've worked for a week or month at an orphanage comment on their emotional farewell scenes... What can that possibly be like for kids, to be giving their hearts to people who leave after a few weeks?

  • "UNICEF is concerned about the emotional loss that the children may feel from exposure to a revolving door of volunteers. Donor educator Saundra Schimmelpfennig writes about the trend of “hug-an-orphan vacations” on her blog Good Intentions are Not Enough.  She says that that although volunteers feel that interacting with orphans is a great way to give back, it can have harmful effects. “While at the orphanage, most volunteers seek to build emotional bonds with the children so they can feel they made a difference. Though well intended, this leads to a never-ending round of abandonment,” says Saundra. -- The Telegraph

    Consider also: how helpful are your interactions with the children? "Reading, playing with and hugging the children may make a tremendous impact on the volunteer, but does little to support the needs of the children. Aid workers report situations where volunteers perform work that is unnecessary, such as teaching “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” to children that have recited it hundreds of times before." --( The Telegraph)

    At the very least, if you do volunteer at an orphanage, consider contributing ongoing financial support, so that full-time consistent staff can be hired.



    Bottom Line: Choose Projects Carefully; Give Long-Term Support
    If you do decide to make the unique personal connection through volunteering, follow up with support that can give jobs to local people and provide the ongoing care that most projects -- and certainly, children in orphanages-- need.  As an article at Conde Nast Traveler says: "Your money is more valuable than your labor. It’s okay to go and learn by working, but make sure you are also raising funds. Share your experiences—and raise money—after you go home." And wherever you volunteer, look closely at the project: what are the actual benefits to the local community?

    • "The good news in all of this, of course, is the existence of a vast pool of travelers who also want to give back when they hit the road. The responsibility of the voluntourism industry is to harness their energies in the best possible way. Until clear guidelines are established, the challenge to individual travelers is to make the right choices.
      ...Start by probing your own motivations, and be honest with yourself about what you find out. Ask questions such as how much of what you pay goes directly to the project, and whether your participation could be replacing local workers. Since it is common for voluntourism companies to hand off participants to an in-country partner, research the project partner thoroughly." -- National Geographic Traveler

      Also, do take the time to research a project carefully, to give the most local benefit possible (and to beware of unintended consequences.) Many projects can benefit greatly from a short-term addition of enthusiastic outside help.