Volunteer Vacations: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Volunteering is a good thing, right?
Obviously, we’re big fans of volunteering and voluntourism. But unfortunately, not all volunteering is the kind we love. With voluntourism becoming an increasingly popular form of travel, there are more and more examples of bad forms of volunteering.
If you’re interested in taking a volunteer vacation, it’s important to be aware of all the different types of volunteer experiences, as there are good, bad and ugly kinds of voluntourism. If you’re more aware of what pitfalls to avoid, you can be more confident in the type of volunteer trip you choose and have the best possible experience for you and the people you travel to help.
Drive-by vs. Focused Volunteer Projects
Time is a valuable asset. When it comes to volunteering, we want to devote as much of it as we can to specific projects and people.
Drive-by volunteering is an approach that spends very little time with each location and each project, encouraging volunteers to experience as much as possible by moving as quickly as possible.
This can be an exciting way to travel: You see lots of places, do lots of different things and bring home a completed bucket-list to impress your friends. But is that type of travel really fulfilling? We would argue that it’s not, because you’re only skimming the surface of the places you see, and you’re really not experiencing anything.
Traveling as quickly as possible becomes a more serious issue when it’s tied to volunteering. “Drive-by volunteering” means starting and abandoning projects before any relationship can be formed with the people, the place, or the job at hand. Work is quickly abandoned for the next destination and the next job, which can often make it even more difficult for the locals to finish the work that’s been started.
Here at Discover Corps, we work with the same locations and the same organizations again and again. Our trips are designed in a way that allow our volunteers to immerse themselves in the culture, get to know the people and do a thorough job with the work they’ve come to do.
Scams vs. Trusted Organizations
Scam volunteer programs are another pitfall that travelers need to be aware of. These are the ugliest of the ugly— organizations that are just trying to make a profit, often to the detriment of (rather than assistance to) the places where they bring their volunteers.
Orphanage scams are a particularly low form of fake voluntourism. In these scenarios, volunteers pay to work with “orphans” who are being used solely to draw in dollars. In many of these scams, the children actually have parents, and are simply brought to these fake orphanages so that the fake organization can make a profit.
Dan and Audrey Scott of the excellent travel blog Uncornered Market were warned of this tragic scenario in Haiti, where they never even had orphanages until someone realized that volunteers would pay to work in them.
It’s frustrating to realize that travelers can’t trust organizations to actually serve the purpose they claim to. Perhaps it’s inevitable that some people are going to take advantage of the opportunity to make a buck. But we can do our part by weeding out potential scams and finding a reputable organization that will actually help us help others.
So do your research. Ask questions. Seek recommendations from people who have participated in volunteer trips with positive experiences. There are plenty of organizations doing good things in the world. You just have to do some legwork to find them.
Wrong vs. Right Reasons to Volunteer
We’ve addressed some good and bad types of volunteer organizations. But what about the good and the bad volunteers?
Most people are genuine in their desire to travel while doing something good for the world. But there are other reasons that motivate people to take volunteer trips, and not all of them will make for the best volunteer.
First and foremost, volunteers should have a desire to help. They should be interested in the people and places they’ll visit, as well as the work they’ll help with. Volunteers who don’t put much thought into the type of work they’ll be doing on the ground may ultimately find that the experience isn’t for them. For example, if you’re not a fan of getting dirty, you might not enjoy working on an organic farm or helping to build a house.
Every volunteer has an impact on the people around them, for better or worse. If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable with or uninterested in the project you choose, those emotions can have a negative effect on the experience of others as well.
Another issue with volunteers is that it’s become a sought-after experience to list on resumes. People who volunteer because they think it will look good on paper often don’t arrive with the right mindset to have an optimal experience.
Sure, volunteering does look good on a resume. But the primary reason for volunteering should be about helping the cause you’re there to support first, and helping yourself second.
People who are passionate about experiencing a place, helping others and having a good time in the process are in the best position to have a positive volunteering experience . So don’t forget to ask yourself why you want to volunteer, and what kind of volunteer experience would be best for you.
There are good, bad and ugly sides to almost everything in life, and voluntourism is no different. But if you want to participate in a volunteer trip, there are plenty of trusted organizations that can help you do that.
Discover Corps offers a broad range of Volunteer Vacation destinations and projects to choose from, so you’re sure to find one that suits your interests. With the right amount of research and the right motivation, you’re sure to find a rewarding volunteer experience. –Britany Robinson
BIO: Britany Robinson is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her works appears in BBC Travel, Mashable, Green Global Travel, and more. Her blog, Travel Write Away, shares advice and musings on travel writing. When she’s not planning her next big trip, she’s scoping out Portland craft beers and local hikes.