The Positives & Negatives of Volunteerism

volunteer vacations in Thailand

The concept of short term volunteerism has, at times, been the subject of criticism. Skeptics question whether the services offered by volunteers who visit only briefly can really have a lasting positive impact on the destination in question. Some even argue that it could have a negative effect.

If you’re researching volunteer vacation experiences, these arguments might make you skeptical. Here at Discover Corps, we see the value in that skepticism, because being skeptical forces us to pay more attention to details and make more thoughtful, responsible choices.

But we also see the immeasurable benefits of volunteerism, both to developing communities and to the volunteers who spend time working in them. We see friendships, education and progress on projects that might not have been possible otherwise. We see cultural exchanges and experiences that benefit everyone involved.

The 53rd week is a non-profit organization that supports short-term volunteerism. They aim to optimize the practice through research and innovation, with a focus on the host countries. In a recent article on the 53rd Week blog, “A World Without Short-term Volunteers Abroad Would be That Much Poorer,” they do a nice job of acknowledging the criticisms while also offering compelling support for this practice.

It’s valuable to explore these criticisms, but we at Discover Corps obviously believe that a world without short-term voluntourism would be missing out on a lot of potential good.

Peru lessons

Criticisms of Short-term Volunteering

The most common criticism we hear about short-term volunteering is that the work doesn’t allow for enough time to have a positive impact. Some argue that the brief interactions between local communities and the volunteers who go there can be disruptive and confusing.

We see this problem become a real concern in a specific type of trip, known as “drive-by volunteering.” These trips feature packed itineraries that hit as many locations and activities as possible. The 53rd week article points out that motivations to volunteer abroad are varied: “Some truly want to help and have identified a need there,” writes the author, Lawrence Loh.

Of course long-term volunteerism experiences generally accomplish more– they have more time, more resources and more consistencies. But not everyone is capable of making that kind of commitment. There are many people who truly want to help make the world a better place, but only have two weeks available in which they can do so.

If your desire is to pack in as many locations as possible with a “drive-by” style trip, you may very well find yourself on the type of volunteer trip that does more harm than good. Ultimately, a short-term trip with proper focus on a place and cause is a much more effective way to help a struggling community.

 father daughter hammering

Benefits of Short-term Volunteering

Loh believes that the good outweighs the potential bad when it comes to short-term volunteering. “The benefits of actually going, of being out of one’s element and being in another place, and ‘trying to make a difference,’ are a good part of the reason that such participation continues to grow despite all the bad news out there.”

Short-term volunteer trips that focus on one place and one cause can have a measurable impact on participants and locals alike. Even when the duration of a trip doesn’t provide time to complete an entire project, the efforts devoted by volunteer travelers add up over weeks, months and years to create tangible change.

Alongside the physical work they do, volunteers can have a positive impact simply through their engaged presence in communities that otherwise might not ever come into contact with other cultures. The interactions between volunteers and locals brings cultures together and exposes them both to different ways of living.

Ann Marie Testarmata went to the Dominican Republic with her two daughters in 2013. When asked about their favorite part of the trip, youngest daughter Ira told us that hers was visiting a little candy shop and meeting the local children. Ira didn’t speak much Spanish, but she found that hand gestures were enough to make new friends.

Guatemalan girls

Finding Middle Ground

Loh’s article also brings up an important point about the need for balance in our views on short-term volunteerism. “I believe that short-term participation is far more complex than a simple ‘go or don’t go. Pursuing a middle ground is helpful for remembering why the phenomenon exists in the first place.”

It’s a good thing that we see criticism of short-term volunteering. If people weren’t skeptical, ineffective trips would be just as popular as the ones that truly promote positive change. It’s important to continually assess the impact that volunteer trips have on both local and visitors. But when we have volunteers with the best intentions and organizers who work to ensure the highest standards in our work abroad, the resulting experiences can be extraordinary.

Discover Corps is proud to bring cultures together for worthy causes, and we believe that the interactions that occur on our trips have the power to change the world. “The difference between a faceless donor sending money in a digital transaction compared to the beauty of common humanity that arises from simple contact can also irrevocably change lives, for both good and bad,” writes Loh.

Volunteerism in any capacity– whether volunteer vacations abroad or service projects in our own communities– can be a convoluted topic. Problems can arise in any kind of cultural exchange. But learning to navigate those problems is what keeps us as a society coming up with innovative ways to make the world a better place. –Britany Robinson

BIO: Britany Robinson is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her works appears in BBC Travel, Mashable, The Daily Dot 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.

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