Volunteering 101 Series:
An Orientation on Grassroots Volunteer Work
Volunteering vs. Voluntourism
self-organized engagement vs. vacation packages – structures, results and ethics
Disclaimer: This article is part of a series titled “Volunteering 101: An Orientation on Grassroots Volunteer Work” exploring the dynamics of volunteering with nonprofit organizations. My insights are based on two years of personal volunteering experience with nonprofits in Latin America, Asia and Africa as well as research and conversations with people involved in the sector. By volunteering I typically mean self-organized participation in grassroots projects as opposed to voluntourism or government postings, even though I will touch on these as well.
Volunteering with grassroots nonprofits is an increasingly popular form of social engagement, especially among ever more traveling Millennials. Motives range from altruistic ideals, like taking responsibility in a world of disparity, to egocentric drivers such as pretty CVs or social media profile. Since volunteering at the grassroots means going abroad in most cases, the tourism industry has long discovered the sector and turned it into a multi-billion dollar cash cow, commonly referred to as Voluntourism. Short-term participation in grassroots projects, ranging from education and orphanages to conservation, has fast become a bestselling vacation package that is easy to market; after all you're going on a holiday and get to be a do-gooder. If you think about it though, the idea is counter-intuitive: you pay for working without pay. Moreover the concept of making a charitable cause a business is ethically precarious as I will elaborate below.
But first, let’s draw a line. There is one crucial distinction that has thus far found little to no attention in the vast pool of volunteering content online: volunteering vs. voluntourism. Many journalists, bloggers and tourism agencies use both terms synonymously, but I’d like to coin two separate definitions within the context of grassroots projects (of course the word “volunteering” in general has a broader definition that extends beyond this context):
volunteering: the self-organized and free participation in grassroots projects
voluntourism: the costly participation in grassroots projects mediated by agencies
While the distinction itself is obvious, its implications on structures, results and ethics are more complex. Here is an overview:
KEY DIFFERENCES BETWEEN VOLUNTEERING AND VOLUNTOURISM
Volunteering and voluntourism are very different concepts and experiences, not only for the travelers participating in them (henceforth called volunteers and voluntourists), but also for local nonprofits and their projects.
structure Already prior to departure you will face first organizational obstacles, if you opt for a volunteering experience: you need to find a local organization and get in touch with it directly. Finding a project is not an easy task since voluntourism agencies are backed by large marketing budgets, so that local grassroots organizations are rendered the far off runner ups of any Google search. How to work around this and actually find free volunteering opportunities I discuss here. Once the contact is established, all the necessary paper work (e.g. visa and insurance) and trip planning (e.g. arrival to the project) has to be taken care of by yourself, even though the nonprofit of your choice will gladly help you with advice.
result As a result, volunteering experiences become more personal even pre-departure, thanks to the direct contact with local nonprofits. They are also more individually customizable and can be tailored to a longer journey or gap year.
ethics Ethical implications of the pre-departure planning are that you seek involvement and assume full responsibility for your stay abroad from the first moment, if you decide for volunteering.
structure Meanwhile, someone looking for a voluntourism experience can sit back and relax while presented with an easily accessible array of projects, activities and locations. Most organizational aspects are handled by the voluntourism agency.
result The trade-off for the convenience that accompanies voluntourism experiences is that they are typically more rigid and generic.
ethics Voluntourism causes detachment of the voluntourist from the actual grassroots and makes social engagement an easily purchasable vacation package. This can lead to quick-fix do-gooder mentalities and play into the White Savior Complex. The humanitarian effort might also take a back seat to the craving for a vacation, recognition and personal growth.
on the ground
structure Once on the ground, volunteers are responsible for themselves, even though they are not entirely on their own (nonprofits will help as much as they can). Some projects might have the means to pick you up somewhere, but don’t expect airport transfers or a shuttle service throughout your stay – you’ll have to use local transport to get around. Upon arrival at the project you typically receive a personal introduction by a fellow volunteer, facilitator or project leader. These will also be your go-to people for any questions or concerns that might arise later. They will certainly make you feel welcome and appreciate your participation, but they are not babysitters.
result The self-responsibility that comes with a volunteering experience results in a more direct involvement at the grassroots, which allows you to gain better insights from within the project itself. It is also the more authentic cultural experience as you will have to immerse yourself, e.g. by using public transport or communicating directly with the local population.
ethics In terms of ethics, the volunteering experience on the ground promotes cultural exchange as volunteers immerse themselves in the local life, community and project directly. There is a mutual exchange of perspectives and a feeling of locals and foreigners working together.
structure Voluntourism packages usually include airport pick-ups and a designated coordinator on the ground, who is responsible for you having a good time. These people are local intermediaries between the tourism agency you booked with back home and the project. They will not only provide you with answers and problem resolution within the context of your project, but also assist you with everything that happens outside of working hours – from your accommodation and shopping to the organization of activities and trips.
result Voluntourism puts a middleman between you and the nonprofit you work with. This doesn’t mean that you won’t be directly involved with projects, but the intermediary functions as a protective layer for when things don’t go as expected and for any organizational necessities. Additional assistance outside the work context and services such as airport transfers make sure that your comfort zone stays intact.
ethics As a voluntourist you possibly gain less insights from within the nonprofit, since part of your interaction will be indirect through an outside coordinator. The limited cultural exposure that comes with the pampering offered by Voluntourism experiences might lead to biased impressions, which can contribute to the spreading of cultural falsehoods upon returning home. To the local community it might seem that voluntourists fly in as some sort of saviors, while keeping a safe distance from cultural authenticity and staying mostly within their cozy bubble.
tasks / activities
structure While volunteering, nonprofits always try to accommodate your preferences and skills. However, there are no guaranteed tasks and sometimes you might end up doing something that is different from what you expected; at a given time, an educational project might need your fundraising skills more than your teaching abilities. In the same breath the structure usually allows for more creativity on your part and the possible implementation of your own ideas. Leisure activities are mostly self-organized, but nonprofits often arrange events and trips for the locals (e.g. field trips for the kids), which you are always invited to.
result Facing the unpredictability of tasks within local nonprofits, some volunteers show a willingness to help with whatever is needed most, while others feel disappointment when assigned tasks that don't match their preferences.
ethics Nonprofits that aren’t catering to the agenda of voluntourism agencies can’t afford to compromise their projects solely to accommodate your expectations. If you don’t jump ship as soon as you’re assigned a task that doesn’t suit your preferences, the nonprofit will get the help that it needs most.
structure In a voluntourism context you get to work in the areas and tasks you paid for and can make demands if that’s not the case. Since you bought a specific package, the tight organizational boundaries leave little to no room for coming up with your own projects. Leisure activities can be self-organized, but probably your voluntourism program will also offer generic trips at an additional cost.
result As a voluntourist, your designated coordinator will make sure you get to do what you want and that your voluntourism experience is satisfying.
ethics Voluntourism revolves around a more egocentric approach: local projects have to cater to the agenda of volunteers who can demand a certain experience because they paid for it.
accommodation / food
structure Volunteering accommodation is usually simple and corresponding to local standards (or slightly above). The most common option are volunteer houses or quarters facilitated by the nonprofit itself and often located on the premises of a project. Some orphanages might offer beds in their dormitories and sometimes you will need to find accommodation autonomously (e.g. hostels or apartments). Homestays are very uncommon in a volunteering setting. Food-wise you will mostly encounter a combination of local cuisine provided to you and a kitchen for you to cook at your convenience.
result Volunteers experience the authenticity of housing that corresponds to local standards and is often shared with people from the community (local volunteers, employees, children at orphanages, etc.). The difference in lifestyle is usually a welcomed experience and most volunteers find adaptation easy, also in terms of local cuisine.
ethics The authenticity of volunteer housing fosters cultural exchange and immersion beyond working hours. Volunteers experience the living conditions of the community they work in, which triggers awareness of diverse lifestyles and vast disparities around the world. It might also be a valuable lesson on food sourcing: to witness where products like quinoa or rice actually come from and under which conditions farmers live and work, can nourish critical thinking and more ethical dietary choices. To see what it means to actually kill an animal with one’s own hands as opposed to grabbing a package of meat from a supermarket shelf, might raise awareness of ethically questionable production processes in the food industry.
structure Voluntourism accommodation is typically more up-scale to meet the standards foreigners are used to from home and might even include luxurious amenities such as pools. In most cases, housing is not part of the actual project and sourced by local intermediaries independently. Sometimes voluntourism accommodation features a kitchen in addition to provided meals that can possibly be catered to your dietary preferences. Another popular option are homestays, which allow voluntourists to live and eat with a local family.
result Since voluntourism houses are typically exclusive to foreigners, voluntourists have less interaction with locals outside working hours and stick more to their own peer group. Western-style accommodation increases comfort, while making insights into local living conditions difficult. Staying with a host family, on the other hand, means more cultural immersion, the necessity to adapt to family rules and a great insight into local customs and cuisine.
ethics Owed to the more sheltered, exclusive and project-independent nature of voluntourism housing, the set-up creates a barrier between voluntourists and locals, which hinders cultural exchange outside the project. The local coworkers and community might get the impression that voluntourists fly in to play hero at the other end of the world, but go back to something that closely resembles their home at the end of their do-gooder days. Homestays, by contrast, may offer the highest cultural immersion of all options. In an ideal scenario the money is paid directly to the family in full, so that voluntourists can be sure it doesn’t get lost on administrative detours within their voluntourism agency. One ethical hazard of this set up is that local families might become depended on the additional income, which is counterproductive to their empowerment. When it comes to food, voluntourism potentially allows for the same insights as volunteering. If you arrive with a dietary wish list, you might find voluntourism more convenient, but it will inevitably take away from your immersion into local customs. The local population doesn’t usually have much of a choice in terms of food items they can afford and to experience this disparity is crucial to a more comprehensive awareness.
length of stay / termination
structure A volunteering experience usually allows you to stay for as long as you want. Some volunteers end up staying only a few days, because they don’t have more time or they had expected something else; others stay for years. The majority (in my experience) stays with a project for an average of 1-3 months. For many people their volunteering experience is part of a longer journey or gap year and often a spontaneous decision. A fixed commitment, let alone a signed contract, is highly unusual. However, volunteers usually coordinate the length of their stay with nonprofits beforehand, so that both sides can plan accordingly. To extend a stay or cut it short is not a problem in most cases, thanks to flexible organizational structures and housing options.
result Due to loose commitments, the frequency of arrivals and departures is quite unpredictable for nonprofit organizations that employ volunteering programs. On the other hand, volunteers that stay for extended periods can become valuable assets in the implementation of long-term projects.
ethics The unpredictable volunteer frequency might be an organizational disadvantage for nonprofits. They simply cannot be sure that an often significant part of their labor force will still be around the next day. On the bright sight, even short stays or mere day visits might lead to funding through donations. The fact that many volunteers end up staying for long stretches and participate in long-term goals, helps with the implementation of sustainable community-enrichment projects.
structure Voluntourism trips commonly last 1-4 weeks and few voluntourists commit to longer stretches of 4-12 weeks. As a voluntourist you will probably sign an agreement or contract with your agency and make a down payment before the trip, which discourages flaky decision making.
result The generally short commitments of voluntourists make a dedication to long-term goals impossible, but grassroots organizations can count on a higher predictability. After all, pre-departure cancellation or early termination would result in a loss of money for voluntourists; moreover, their voluntourism experience is ordinarily not part of a longer journey, so cancelling it would mean to forego the entire trip.
ethics The voluntourism approach can be described as more of a handout with questionable impact and sustainability – voluntourists fly in to help out with a specific task for a short time and leave some money at the grassroots instead of helping with actual empowerment from within the local community. Short term stays within an artificial and protected voluntourism environment might also lead to biased cliché judgments based on limited insights. On the other hand, grassroots projects within the voluntourism sector profit from a more foreseeable influx of arrivals and departures thanks to more serious commitments and fees.
fees / costs
structure Grassroots nonprofits that work independently with volunteers don’t charge any fees for participating in their projects or for administrational processes related to your stay. Some have the capacities to offer you free board and/or lodging and sometimes local transport in exchange for your work, while others ask you to cover your own living expenses. These are generally very low and your nonprofit will help you to find accommodation and food options at a local price level. Some grassroots organizations might even give you an allowance or stipend under certain circumstances, e.g. when committing to a long-term stay. Of course you will have to pay for all private trips and activities outside the project.
result Volunteering experiences are either very cheap or completely free and therefore suited for travelers on a budget. Local nonprofits are happy about every helping hand and have no desire to charge you. Volunteers don’t cost them anything or very little and mean a free workforce and oftentimes donations in return. You usually work full time and ideally become a valuable asset to their projects.
ethics The fact that volunteering takes place outside a tourism or business context leads to a dynamic of social engagement and mutual cultural curiosity at the heart of the experience. Since volunteers don’t pay any participation fees, they are also more willing to make donations to a project and to raise funds among their families and peers.
structure Voluntourism programs are very costly and usually all-inclusive packages. Agencies charge a lump sum for your mere program participation as well as administrational fees, transport expenses and others. In some cases you might be able to organize your own accommodation and meals locally, but generally you purchase board and lodging through the agency at a much higher price than the local standard. Organized activities will be charged extra.
result Voluntourism programs are expensive all-inclusive vacations and might leave one wondering “why should I pay to work without pay?”
ethics Due to its monetary nature, the voluntourism dynamic unfolds within more of an adventure-vacation scenario, during which a wealthy voluntourist flies in as some sort of savior, while maintaining a Western comfort zone. Not only is this culturally problematic (biased perceptions on both sides), the ethical implications are worse still: the money that voluntourists pay to agencies does not ooze through to the grassroots. Voluntourism is a multibillion dollar industry that generates profits for tourism companies, while the nonprofits on the ground see little of that money. Voluntourism companies are large organizations with global structures, local partner agencies, high administrative expenses, well paid staff and big marketing budgets, so a lot of the voluntourists’ money doesn’t ever leave these agencies. If the billions of dollars the industry generates yearly would actually make it all the way to the grassroots, there would be little need of voluntourists stopping by to help; in the same vein, homestays in brittle roundhouses wouldn’t be a thing because nobody in the community would need to live in them anymore. The money that does actually arrive at the grassroots becomes somewhat of a handout, which might create dependency rather than sustainable community-enrichment programs. Voluntourists want to teach, build or conserve for a couple of weeks, so that’s what they are offered. Instead of implementing sustainable change by assisting local communities to empower themselves, a perpetual influx of short term helpers stops by without really changing the situation itself. The money might even be an incentive for ill-managed or corrupt local organizations to keep projects going and to keep children in orphanages rather than finding families for them. Furthermore, volunteers, who already paid hundreds or thousands of dollars for a couple of weeks of voluntourism, are unlikely to make direct donations to the projects they work with.
Volunteering experiences are characterized by a DIY-approach, which makes them more challenging for volunteers in terms of planning, but also more rewarding and authentic. The ethical implications for local communities and volunteers are generally more positive thanks to advanced cultural exchange and awareness by means of more thorough immersion and due to the promotion of long-term community-empowerment programs.
Voluntourists purchase an all-inclusive do-gooder vacation package through a tourism company, which takes away from the breadth of the experience and comes at an additional ethical price. Limited cultural exchange might lead to misconceptions and the employed handout approach makes any beneficial impact questionable or can even cause damage to the project and community.
Bottom line: organizing your grassroots engagement independently, might not only help your own experience and wallet, but also the community you work with.
along these lines
Volunteering 101 Series:
An Orientation on Grassroots Volunteer Work
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