Voluntourism: Doing it Right

Volunteering in a Guatemalan school

Recently, the radio program “Here And Now” on NPR ran this thought-provoking story about voluntourism.  In it, they described the debate that has encircled volunteer travel ever since it started – how to balance the experience provided by the travel company with the well-being of the community.

Discover Corps doesn’t think it’s a balancing act – it’s not either / or. It’s both.  In our years of running volunteer abroad trips, we’ve learned that the best travel experiences are actually facilitated when the volunteer work is truly benefiting the community.  Our travelers are smart and can quickly detect if a volunteer project is just busy work.  The local communities also detects whether the group is working on something meaningful or if they’re just a fly-by-night group.

So, how do we provide these quality projects on an ongoing basis?  Our secret is that we invest a lot of time in finding NGOs, non-profits, or community organizations that run meaningful projects year-round.  We work in consultation with them to see how we can plug in our groups in a way that catalyzes their work and propels it forward.

The questions raised by the NPR story are great ones to ask whenever you talk to a volunteer travel organization.

  • What’s the long term development plan?
  • Which local stakeholders are involved in the planning of the service projects?
  • How do you facilitate ongoing involvement after the trip?
  • How long have you been working with this community?

Have you had any negative international volunteer abroad experiences?  If so, please share in the comments so others can be aware.

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