This week’s guest post is from Kimberly Haley-Coleman, the Chair of the International Volunteer Programs Association (IVPA), an accrediting body to promote ethical volunteer vacations.


Behind the smile there is a horrific reality. Those adorable children at the orphanage in Cambodia, surely they need your help, right? They need you as a volunteer? Not only is it demeaning to treat children like zoo animal photographing them, there are instances of tourists abusing children they have “taken out to see the sites.” Thankfully a rising tide of journalism covering this topic is leading to greater awareness of the dangers of orphanage tourism, with the hopes that trained professionals can lead the way and that local grassroots organizations have more oversight. In the meantime, does this mean all those volunteer vacations are bad? It might seem so from the likes of this video. Volunteer vacations can only ever lead to dependency and exploitation, right?

Or could it be a more nuanced landscape?  Is it possible some organizations out there are doing things responsibly? Where both volunteer and local community are benefiting? If so, how do you recognize them? The number of companies and organizations leading these programs continues to expand, and unfortunately websites showing impoverished community and happy volunteers abound. There are charities that have been building homes all over the world for years – are they okay? Your neighbor went with an organization to help put a roof on a home in Puerto Rico after the hurricane, how about that? What about your co-worker who went to volunteer with elephants in Thailand last summer; was that a waste of time and good only for Instagram? There might be some obvious starting questions in terms of safety: if you pay to participate, is medical insurance and liability included? Are project materials included? Are volunteers left alone with children? Are the local communities being treated with dignity? How can you know?

There are no easy answers to any of this. Ethical volunteering exists. The trouble is in how to find it. You can comb through websites and call the organizations. You can ask to speak with references. There are organizations such as IVPA with pages of stringent criteria that painstakingly vet potential volunteer programs, requiring proof of liability insurance policies, medical insurance, having disaster preparedness plans in place, etc. But the reality is, most people are going to volunteer via word-of-mouth references from those they know well. In that case, ask a lot of questions: Who chooses the projects? Where is your money going? Is the fee you are paying going toward project materials? Are local communities being asked to donate their homes and food or are they being paid with funds you provide? Having the answers to questions like these goes a long way to ensuring you will feel good about the experience and that it will be done in an ethical, responsible manner.


Kimberly Haley-Coleman is the Founder and Executive Director of Globe Aware, an award-winning US and Canada based nonprofit charitable organization that has been operating short-term volunteer experiences for over 20 years in countries all over the world in Consultative Status with the United Nations. She is also currently Chair of IVPA and has served on the boards of many related industry groups, such as the Building Bridges Coalition.