The Changing Trends of Volunteer Travel

More than any other time in history, the current generation lives in a world that is globally interconnected. TV and the internet broadcast news instantly from around the world. Famines, disasters and conflict are televised. The media’s focus on celebrity involvement – as ambassadors, adopters and saviors – add glamour to the misery.

Cheap airfares mean that international travel is no longer the domain of the elite. The harsh realities of global inequality and social injustice are subject to firsthand exploration and even in the most sanitized package holiday, cannot be completely hidden from view. International volunteering is presented as an increasingly accessible way of responding to the complex emotions that arise from such exposure – a way to participate in these processes and take action.

Let’s look a bit further into the recent changes in the field of volunteer travel, as we consider the current global context. The largest number of people in history are now traveling overseas to volunteer and each individual potential volunteer, including you, has the opportunity to shape what these trends look like in the future.


The extraordinary growth in numbers

Arguably the most significant change in volunteer travel is simply a matter of scale. Although definitive numbers are hard to come by (who defines what qualifies as volunteer travel?) the general upward trend over the last couple of decades is undisputed.

  • Benjamin J Lough in his study of overseas volunteering in the US in the years 2004-12 estimates that an average of 900,000 Americans volunteer abroad every year.[1]
  • Researcher Jason Hickel in his 2013 research paper found that in the UK “the number of participants [in “gap year” development projects] is now as high as 2.5million each year, or 34 per cent of the country’s total population between 16 and 24 years old.”[2]
  • In 2008 it was estimated that the value of volunteer tourists was approximately $2 billion and there was an average of 1.6 million voluntourists a year.[3]


International volunteering as an expectation, requirement, or incentivized practice

Since the 1990s…gap-year travel has moved from the fringe to the mainstream, from being stigmatized to being actively encouraged by parents, schools, and employers. Indeed, every British student I spoke to indicated that they felt it was expected of them to do volunteering during their gap year – it has become so institutionalized, so ritualized, that it is now written into the established pattern of the modern British lifecycle.”

– Jason Hickel ‘The Real Experience’ Industry, Student Development Projects and the Depoliticization of Poverty

Increasing numbers of schools are encouraging or even requiring international service from their students. Harvard encourages every student they admit to take a gap year before matriculation and Princeton sponsors service-based “bridge-year” programs abroad for its students. The reasons cited for this support are rarely about the impact on the communities overseas, but about the impact on the future life of the student. “[Students that have taken a gap year] seem to demonstrate that they’re hungrier, more aware, and I think have a whole different approach to their academics,” said Thomas A. Dingman, Dean of Freshman at Harvard in 2008.[4]

The new thing Admissions Officers are looking for is a hook,” the college counselor at my College Prep school proclaimed….“They want to see that you are passionate about something—something unique—and are taking initiative to do it. They want to see it in your list of extra-curriculars, and they want to see it in your personal statement.” Ah, the personal statement. For a group of white, wealthy, and sheltered teenagers like my high school classmates and me, this 500-word menace was the subject of many heated conversations and sleepless nights. How does one distinguish one’s self as a member of a group so homogeneous and so privileged? For many, the answer was “service”—increasingly, in a country other than our own.”

– Becca Waxman, The Faux Pas of the Well-Intentioned Westerner, A peek into the realities of “helping those less privileged”[5]

International service is also encouraged by companies through their corporate social responsibility policy. The committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy’s 2013 report ‘Giving in Numbers’ surveyed 240 companies including 60 of the largest 100 companies in the Fortune 500 list, and found that 47% have a formal international volunteer program.[6]


The influence of the internet

Before the use of the internet was widespread, volunteer sending organizations were essential for potential volunteers to be able to identify and organize a placement abroad. Now any overseas organization wanting to host volunteers can advertise placements and arrange all of the necessary details over the internet. Similarly, volunteers have the whole range of options at their fingertips. All types of experiences, lengths of placement, and areas of the world are just a click away. There are also a great number of web portals, e-noticeboards, and volunteer “dating agency” matching services that make independent volunteering easy and accessible.

With so many options, it is now difficult to tell which organizations are better than others. Though the use of the internet makes it easier for volunteer hosts to advertise their needs, it also makes it easier for volunteer sending agencies to skip out the steps that are necessary to ensure the placement is ethical – or even exists! In the past, before most of the volunteer host areas had internet access, a sending organization needed to either meet with the overseas organization themselves, or arrange a series of phone calls to design and arrange volunteer placements. Now, if an organization advertises a volunteer placement opportunity on their website, a sending organization looking for more placements (or one of the many websites aggregating volunteer travel information) can just take that posting and put it on their site, without ever even speaking with someone at that organization let alone visiting them.

On the other hand, the internet has played a key role in bringing together volunteer sending organizations, many of which are working on sharing best practices and trying to raise the standards in the field. Partly provoked by the increasing controversy from online critics, conscientious travel providers are responding by trying to create volunteer experiences that are educational and empowering for all. Some established organizations constantly review their training and support packages to improve volunteer effectiveness. Smaller organizations can participate in networks, meetings, and conferences to share best practices.

Over the past 7 years, the Building Bridges Coalition has brought together hundreds of organizations to work together to improve the quality of our programs, to share our stories…and maximize the positive impacts of service abroad and at home…Thanks to people in our field caring deeply about our work and having a collaborative spirit, we have seen unprecedented cooperation of people and organizations working together to develop standards for our field.”

– Steve Rosenthal, Chairman Emeritus at Building Bridges Coalition[7]


An increase in fee-charging volunteer placements

International volunteer programs that originated in the 50s and 60s, like the Peace Corps, VSO, and AVI, don’t charge volunteers for placing them abroad. In fact, these programs pay the volunteers a small local living wage, blurring the lines between volunteer placement and a traditional job, with stipends often equivalent to local wages – especially the remote areas that these volunteers are often posted in.

With increasing demand for opportunities to “help” while traveling abroad, the beginning of the 21st century brought about a growth in volunteer travel opportunities sold at a price to customers as purchasable services. It is now easier than ever to find a volunteer position abroad: rather than needing to seek out opportunities, apply, and spend a long time preparing for the experience through a formal volunteer preparation program, there are advertisements across all media. You can hop online at any time to buy a volunteer package, with the only “qualification” required being enough cash in your wallet.

In addition to volunteer sending organizations, individuals and organizations overseas have also caught onto the fact that volunteers will pay for the privilege of doing work they perceive as meaningful – often regardless of the actual meaningfulness of the work. In some instances, profit motivations drive out ethics. Recent years have seen an explosion of companies, matching agencies, and websites, some lacking scruples around who they are sending where.

“I got involved in the volunteer travel industry because I wanted to assist in people helping fill the needs of others. What I discovered was that a lot of what we thought was happening or should happen wasn’t – projects that didn’t need volunteers were receiving them just for the cash inflow the volunteer brought to communities. We felt the vetting process we used was responsible and reasonable; however, when you have hundreds of projects in dozens of countries, it is nearly impossible to control ongoing quality. Obviously everyone has the best intentions, but with thousands of travelers going every year, there will always be things that slip through the cracks.”

Alexia Nestora, previous manager of a large volunteer travel company[8]

Although there are still many free volunteer placements, the growth of programs where the traveler is the one paying the fee has completely shifted the power dynamics of volunteer travel. Whereas in theory demand should be driven by the needs of the community being “served”, the introduction of fee-paying programs has resulted in many companies treating the volunteer travelers themselves as the client, putting their needs above all others.

Everything was about the volunteers, and we really had to hold their hands.  Some kids were sent on the program by their parents. [Our company] attracted a certain kind of volunteer, those who wanted everything organized for them, those who wanted to stay for just 2 weeks.

– An ex-employee of a large profit-making volunteer placement company in Nepal

On the other side of the financial arrangement, when volunteers are carefully selected and prepared for their placements abroad, or even being paid for their roles like employees, the relationship is more clearly defined as one where the volunteer is meant to be filling specific needs abroad, rather than vice versa. When travelers pay for their experience, some of them feel they have the right to make more demands about what type of experience they receive.

Even engaged forms of world learning easily transform into commodities. Parents expect “providers” (education abroad organizations) and “partners” (field organizations) to satisfy their offspring’s need for life-changing experiences. Providers compete with one another to deliver those experiences, knowing full well that student-consumers will invest themselves only as long they receive more than they are required to give.”

– Richard Slimbach, “Balancing the Benefit: Strengthening the Community Good Through Education Abroad”[9]

Marketing materials for volunteer placements often highlight that the company is putting the needs of the traveler first using words and phrases such as “flexible”, “reasonable”, “no minimum time commitments”, or “no experience or qualifications necessary.” Marketing materials are now also more likely to include descriptions of the location of the placement as a tourist destination, with “lush jungles” or “spectacular peaks.” While the blatant commodification of these opportunities can seem distasteful, perhaps it is a more honest way to refer to these short-term one-click volunteer opportunities.

No wonder astute volunteer travelers often feel frustrated that their experience seems to be serving themselves more than the local communities… it might well have been designed that way!


The rise of short-term volunteering and ‘voluntourism’

While in the past a visit to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower might have seemed exotic, it is easier and cheaper than ever to take a vacation further afield. With more people traveling to countries traditionally seen as recipients of aid rather than tourism, the idea of “giving back” has become an added element of lots of kinds of travel – not only those marketed as volunteer trips. A travel itinerary might include a one-hour visit to a local children’s care center, a chance to drop off donated goods to a non-profit organization, or a one-day project painting a mural on a school wall as part of a hiking trip. These opportunities are often squeezed into short vacation packages by travel agents looking to add unique experiences into their itineraries.

In the past, volunteer placements were generally managed by non-profit organizations. These groups tend to already know the communities they work in, have long-term projects and strategic goals, and have specific social missions built into their organizational framework. The difference today is that many entities offering volunteer experiences are not experts in community development, but are mos likely travel agents or even cruise liners. Though their intentions might be pure, their lack of experience, relationships, and strategic planning in the realm of development work can lead to poorly planned – and often detrimental – volunteer offerings.

“The bigger issue is that a lot of these volunteer organizations make significant profit margins (50% or more) on their trips. It seems counter-intuitive to be claiming to help communities around the world while keeping more than 50% of the money travelers pay in their home countries rather than sending it to the developing country. It’s important to realize that the trips that are easiest to sell (orphanage and kid projects) do the most damage long-term despite their continuous portrayal by the media as being extremely beneficial. And because that is what people are buying, that is what many of these companies are selling.”

Alexia Nestora, previous manager of a large volunteer travel company[10]

Independent travelers who may not have previously considered a volunteer trip, can feel compelled to volunteer after seeing an advertisement pinned to a guesthouse noticeboard, or being handed a leaflet in a bar. Some of these experiences may only require an hour or less of your time. When offered what seems like an interesting and easy way to help, may people’s natural reaction is “Why wouldn’t I do it?” Other travelers even create their own opportunities, just stopping by to see if they can lend a hand when passing a school or an NGO.

Those who choose to volunteer in these incidental ways find it hard to do significant research about the opportunity being offered. And those who choose a very short volunteer experience usually are not able to gain an understanding of the context of their work. These volunteers are therefore much more vulnerable to falling into the pitfalls of volunteer travel and supporting a project that is ineffective, exploitative or corrupt.


More research, spotlight, and controversy

As volunteer travel has increased in popularity, the body of research about it from academic institutions around the world has increased alongside it. This research sheds light on all aspects of the volunteer experience, from the way it is marketed, to the motivations of the volunteers, to how their perceptions are changed or affirmed, to the perspectives of the host organizations and communities overseas.

With the growth of volunteer travel has come a growth in criticism, both from the academic sector and in popular consciousness through blogs, newspaper articles, and comic parody. Panel discussions on the topic can become heated, and controversial articles can go viral. When Daniela wrote on this topic on the BBC website it attracted 700 comments within 3 days, Claire’s article in the Guardian was shared 150,000 times, and the Radi-Aid ‘Africa for Norway’ spoof charity video has over 3.3 million YouTube views. It is clear that international development and volunteer travel are not only something people are interested in doing, but also a topic people are interested in discussing, debating, defending, and dissecting.

The desire of the public to embrace the controversy and discuss this topic was a motivational force behind writing the Learning Service book. Both promotion and criticism of volunteer travel iss on the increase, but what is lacking are coherent ideas on how we might do it better. We’re hoping the Learning Service book contributes to those discussions in a constructive way.



[1] Lough, B. J. (2013) International Volunteering from the United States between 2004 and 2012. CSD Research Brief, (13-14). Retrieved from

[2] Hickel, J. (2013). The ‘Real’ Experience Industry: Student Development Projects and the Depoliticization of Poverty. Learning and Teaching: The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences 6(2) 11-32.

[3] Volunteer tourism : a global analysis : a report by Tourism Research and Marketing.

[4] Wells, C. J. (2008). Princeton to Fund International Service Gap Year. The Harvard Crimson.

[5] – Becca Waxman, The Faux Pas of the Well-Intentioned Westerner, A peek into the realities of “helping those less privileged,


[7] Personal interview

[8] Personal interview

[9] Richard Slimbach, “Balancing the Benefit: Strengthening the Community Good Through Education Abroad”, Azusa Pacific University, December 2013

[10] Personal interview

Taking the Pledge: Why Universities in the Netherlands are Turning Away From Orphanage Internships

The issue of orphanage volunteering has attracted huge amounts of media attention in the Netherlands recently, due to the new campaign by Better Care Network Netherlands called ‘Stopweeshuisstages’. The campaign aims to stop higher education institutions offering student internships in orphanages, and is part of a broader global movement to bring an end to orphanage tourism and promote responsible forms of volunteering and service.

So far all of the media about this has been in Dutch, so Learning Service has been eager to catch up with the campaign and find out what all the fuss has been about! Fontys University School of Pedagogical Studies has became the latest higher education institution in the Netherlands to formally take the pledge to end student internships and placements in orphanages in developing countries. In this guest interview, we catch up with Lecturer and Coordinator of Internationalization, Marlinde Melissen, to explain why Fontys decided to take the pledge.

Learning Service: Marlinde, the decision by Fontys School of Pedagogical Studies to take the university pledge has caught the attention of the public in the Netherlands, with many media outlets covering the signing event which took place recently in Rotterdam. Why has Fontys decided to sign the pledge to end internships in orphanages in developing countries?

Marlinde: Quite simply, the main reason was the best interests of children. At Fontys, for years we have been sending trainees to internships abroad working with children, including in orphanages, but after a while it started to hit home: are internships in orphanages in the best interests of children overseas? Many children living in orphanages have suffered harm and deserve the right kind of specialized care which students doing internships are not able to give. It is important that children in these situations feel safe and have a stable routine. Because trainees and interns leave after a short time, they can contribute to creating the very inconsistency and unpredictability that puts vulnerable children in danger of experiencing further trauma and attachment problems. Indeed, our own students coming back from internships have confirmed this. In addition, research shows that on average 80% of children in orphanages are not orphans. As educators, we believe that children should grow up in families or in family-based care as much as possible, in line with international children’s rights and best practices on the alternative care of children.

As a school of pedagogical studies, we feel that we must act in the best interests of children. We don’t want to take the risk of even one child being harmed. That’s why we signed the university pledge.

It is up to us as teachers and trainers to guide our students to express these good intentions in ways which do not cause harm to children.

Learning Service: The new Better Care Network campaign encourages universities to end internships and volunteer placements in orphanages, building on last year’s successful campaign against orphanage tourism. Why do you think it’s important to focus on internships specifically?

Marlinde: There are many colleges that offer internships to their students in orphanages or similar residential care institutions for children. Most of them are unaware of the scale of the global problem of orphanages and the ‘economy’ that goes along with them in many developing countries. In addition, some are not sufficiently aware of the trauma and the attachment disorders that children in orphanages can suffer, and the specialized and consistent help these children need.

Many students want to contribute to a better world through their school or university activities, including through internships. The intention is good and to be encouraged. However, it is up to us as teachers and trainers to guide our students to express these good intentions in ways which do not cause harm to children. The good thing is that the students who had done internships in orphanages in the past were the ones who gave the first signals that it was not okay to gain experience in this way. We listened to them. The result is the university pledge and the campaign by Better Care Network Netherlands.

Learning Service: Instead of working in orphanages, are there other ways in which interns doing placements abroad can help children without causing harm?

Marlinde: Yes there are! It is nice when young people are motivated to do something for others. Personally, I believe greatly in the power of intercultural encounters or even immersion in another culture. It encourages critical and personal reflection and gives opportunities to broaden your frame of reference through learning. As a university of applied sciences, we focus on internships where students are supervised in a professional setting and where the interests and rights of children are not compromised. Think of projects in family and community based care, local empowerment projects, or projects supporting schools, day-care centers or specialized care facilities for children and youth. We choose to invest more in equal cooperation with partner universities in the countries where we work and where our interns go. Local partners know their own context best and can offer guidance in finding good quality internships which help students to learn about development issues without causing harm to children or disrupting local cultures.

Learning Service: Thank you talking to us, Marlinde, and congratulations to the teachers and students at Fontys School of Pedagogical Studies on taking the pledge.

This post was written and translated with the support of Rob Oliver of the Better Care Network Netherlands working group. Marlinde is pictured here at the pledge signing, far right.

What I Wish I Had Known When I Was 18…

This is a guest post written by Georgia Rodgers. Georgia is graduating from Australian Catholic University in Melbourne with a degree in International Development. She is pictured here next to Gullfoss waterfall in Iceland.

Ever since I was young, I have always wanted to help people. For as long as I can remember I have had the desire to ‘give back.’ In 2015, I made the decision to ‘give back’ to a community in Tanzania. Writing this now, I feel very uncomfortable to admit my choices. Yet it is so important to share this mistake of mine. Little did I know that my desires were nothing more than something to fill my self-gratification and actually had detrimental impacts on the people I was engaging with. Through my journey into studying International Development, it initially came as a shock to me that volunteering abroad could have such impacts. Although I had good intentions, there was a lot for me to learn and reconsider.

Through this long journey of realization, I have seen firsthand the detrimental and traumatic impacts voluntourism can bring to a community & individuals. A typical response I have had, when arguing against voluntourism is the notion that “something is better than nothing”- which translates to a highly undermining viewpoint that means, “if I do not help, no one will.” Through such a viewpoint, young unskilled people are replacing individuals locally that have qualifications and beneficial skills. There is an automatic assumption that people within developing countries have no skill, which significantly undermines people in these nations and automatically gives ‘developed’ nations superiority.

During my journey and studies, I have had the privilege of meeting an incredible woman named Claire Bennett. Claire had just published a book she co-authored with three other inspiring individuals, called Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad. I cannot stress enough how important and valuable this book is, especially at a time where voluntourism is growing more than ever. A prominent phrase within the book that stuck with me is: “Action without learning is ignorance. Learning without action is selfishness.” Which is a phrase I wish I had known prior to my own ignorant choices when volunteering abroad at 18 years old.

Learning Service puts complex issues and ideas into simple words and explains them through illustrative scenarios. People of all backgrounds can understand the detrimental impacts volunteering abroad can bring. It is essential for people to start educating themselves on these issues before getting more involved in actions to help the world. When we know better, we can do better, and Learning Service suggests that we have to learn before we can help. Essentially, it suggests unlearning the western narrative of development (that we are needed to go and help THEM) and relearning a new perspective (it’s about what WE do ourselves day to day). In other words, if you want to give back to the world, you must start with yourself.

When we know better, we can do better, and Learning Service suggests that we have to learn before we can help.

Learning Service suggests that one way to unpack our assumptions about volunteer travel is to flip the traditional definition of international service on its head. Instead of imagining yourself going abroad to volunteer, consider what it would be like to have these same programs from abroad coming to your own country. Each & every problem in this world is deep-rooted and complex, it’s not as simple as just building a well or teaching children ‘ABC’ 365 days of the year.

Within the beginning chapters of the book, it states: “This book sets out a fresh new framework, learning service, which radically changes the assumptions and practices of international volunteering. We explore why this new form of travel is needed, exposing the deep and shocking problems with current practices as well as the benefits of this new approach. Learning service puts learning at the forefront, arguing that before we can effectively ‘serve’, first we must learn – about ourselves, our options, and the wider context in which our action takes place. It is the learning-first approach that we set out in this book, both explaining why it is needed, and helping you put it into practice.”

10 million people will go abroad this year to volunteer. These are big numbers, with bigger impacts. Even if we all have good intentions, it’s just about educating ourselves first. If you are eager to engage in volunteer travel – this book is for you. I truly wish I had read this book when I was 18 years old. Although my intentions were good, I would have benefited greatly from its lessons and gained a relevant skill first before trying to help.

“Action Without Learning is Ignorance.”

Our co-founder Daniela remembers a time when a cultural misunderstanding revealed how much she still had to learn.

I can think of so many times when I’ve traveled to another country and felt ignorant. Sometimes it was because I didn’t know how to do something that for everyone else was a part of everyday life: how to use a squat toilet in Tanzania, how to properly eat with my hands in India, how to navigate busy streets on my bike in Vietnam… the list goes on. But the experiences of “ignorance” that I’m embarrassed about aren’t those. The ones that make me cringe are the times I took action, usually action that I adamantly thought was the “right” thing to do, but was actually, upon reflection, pretty ignorant. Not ignorant because I had made a mistake, as we all get things wrong, but ignorant because I had the resources to do it better right in front of me, and I hadn’t used them. I hadn’t taken the time to listen, ask questions, or learn before I jumped in, and if I had done so, I wouldn’t have acted so poorly.

When asked to “describe yourself in one word” my word was always “doer” – quick to take action, always busy, always with a task to complete. Before I finished thinking about something, I had already started doing it. Such was the way I entered Cambodia. I had grand plans for my time there, starting with gathering the funds for the construction of a school, quickly followed by hiring a computer teacher, rallying people to build a school garden, pushing to start an environmental club, and so on and so on. Doing, doing, doing. I was the epitome of the girl who jumped off the plane shouting, “Hi, I’m here to help!”

One of my most cringeworthy rush-into-action moments came a few weeks after PEPY had opened their first office. I had brought in a few volunteers to help, and we were on our way to visit the first school we had funded for a ceremony to mark the opening of a dorm for teachers and staff. The Cambodian English teacher we had hired, Tolors, had told us that, as per Cambodian culture, we needed to have the house blessed before he and the other teachers could move into it, and so we rushed to make that happen.

So there we were, a bunch of foreigners packing ourselves into one of the ubiquitous Toyota Camrys that dot Cambodia’s roads, and of course we were late. The road got worse, the potholes bigger, our Camry slower, and all of us later. I called to ask them to push back the ceremony until we arrived, but by the time our car spurted into the school grounds, the blessing was over.

I was so annoyed – why didn’t they just wait for us?! We were so sad that we had missed our first monk blessing, that we didn’t get to take pictures with the camera we had brought with us for just that reason, and that they hadn’t waited for us. So I let Tolors know how we felt.

But I’d done it all wrong. I never asked why the ceremony couldn’t have been pushed back, or taken the time to understand what the ceremony would even entail in the first place. I had jumped right in to being annoyed and thinking I was the one who had been wronged. When I finally said: “We told you we were going to be late! Why didn’t you wait?” the answer had seemed obvious to the Cambodians in the room, but us foreigners were unaware… “The monks can’t eat in the afternoon, so we had to finish before 12.”

Here I was, angry, when the real problem wasn’t that they hadn’t waited for the carload of visitors, but that our carload had no knowledge at all about Buddhism, monks, blessings or Cambodian culture – and I hadn’t bothered to ask. I’d also committed another Cambodian cultural crime by directly questioning Tolors in front of others, something that could be viewed as “losing face” in a culture where being direct and giving negative feedback publicly is offensive. Not only did I have a lot to learn about the Cambodian education system, culture, and ways of working, I had a lot to learn about managing people, controlling my own emotions, building an organizational strategy, and so much more.

It was through making a number of mistakes like this one with Tolors and the monks that I realized I needed to ask lots more questions before I made assumptions or took action. I slowly began to realize that my way of doing things wasn’t the way of  doing things, and that I needed to learn a lot more about Cambodian culture (and myself) first, or else I was going to offend a lot of people just by being what I thought was “normal.”

I’m certainly a work in progress, a recovering “doer” shall we say, and I still have a lot of work I need to do in the area of listening and reflecting before taking action. Many of the areas I am still working on relate to this phrase we repeat a lot in the learning service book: “Action without learning is ignorance.” Now whenever I start a new project I try to take a step back from the doing and get into some learning, because as I’ve shown, that certainly is where I wish I had started.


Daniela is one of the authors of Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad. To buy the book click here.

Three Volunteers Reflect on Their Overseas Volunteering Experiences

Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad aims to help volunteers make the most of their experience abroad and, most importantly, learn how to listen and help the communities they will be visiting. We spoke to three volunteers who have read Learning Service to see how their opinions on their own experience changed after reading the book.


Mika, volunteered for three months in Ghana

“Both during and after my three month placement abroad, I felt unsatisfied, even frustrated, by my volunteering experience, yet I was unable to quite summarise why it felt so negative.

“The charity I volunteered with had offered training pre- and post-placement, had paired each UK volunteer with a volunteer from our placement country, and had offered learning and reflection experiences throughout — yet somehow, I and the other UK volunteers felt useless, under-qualified, and as though we had achieved a perpetuation of the ‘Western saviour’ stereotype. Though there were indeed many structural issues (such as sending unqualified students to teach English and Maths in schools), within two pages of Learning Service I now recognised some of the issues we encountered were, in part, very much down to ourselves.

“All UK volunteers were so focussed on wanting to ‘make a difference’ that we resisted the organisation’s emphasis on personal growth and learning. Because we all shared this same misconception, we frequently raised our frustrations to each other, which only served to preserve our illusion that an emphasis on personal gain was entirely selfish on our part. In fact, during the end-of-placement reflections this was the primary criticism from most, if not all, UK volunteers — even those on sister-projects which had run in tandem to us, and with whom we had had little to no contact to discuss these thoughts.

This book is essential for improving responsible volunteering at every level of involvement.

“Though we had ultimately meant well, our widespread unhappiness and inability to recognise that, inevitably, we had to learn meant that many volunteers left before the end of the placement, which caused further issues in itself: many local hosts whose volunteers had left felt upset, insulted even, and as though their hospitality had gone unappreciated.

“Had Learning Service been available during our pre- and post-placement training, I think it would have helped many of us recognise our misconceived desire that this was our opportunity to fix everything — including the programme itself. Learning Service both emphasises self-reflection, and hands you the tools with which to do so, so that you are forced to be honest about your desires to volunteer, your approach, and your misconceptions — and yes, everybody has at least a few. This book is essential for improving responsible volunteering at every level of involvement.


Mark Harris, experience in medical-related volunteering and a volunteer leader

“With 15 years of involvement with medical service and education missions, most of my international development experience has been as and with highly trained medical professionals. However, much of the content of Learning Service is highly applicable in this field. Of particular note is the concept of unintended consequences of purportedly ‘good’ actions. In the book, one example is undermining local government by ‘empowering’ parents. In my experience, providing short-term medical care has potential to undermine the dedicated, established local providers.

‘This is the book we would have written’

Learning Service discusses one aspect of volunteerism that is often ignored. That is the idea that inappropriate and poorly run volunteer experiences not only have the potential to harm the local community, individuals and ‘the cause’, but can also adversely affect the volunteers’ commitment to humanitarian work. I have seen this first hand with new volunteers being disillusioned by an occurrence that they could recognize as flawed, but were too inexperienced to recognize as modifiable, and therefore they were dissuaded from further volunteer work.

“Not only does Learning Service include practical advice for would-be volunteers, but also the philosophical perspectives on how and why such steps are vital for organizations and individual volunteers.

“For potential volunteers doing their due diligence, for those of us teaching students, and for people endeavouring to run a responsible volunteer program, this book will be invaluable. As I said when I shared it with my global health colleagues, ‘this is the book we would have written’.”


Emma, volunteered in Malawi

“I really enjoyed this book and I learned so much about volunteering. I wish I had the opportunity to learn the valuable lessons from Learning Service before my time in Malawi.

“After reading the section of Learning Service regarding the importance of volunteer support before travelling to your new destination, and opportunities for reflection after volunteering, I realised that the organisation I volunteered with hadn’t offered these services effectively and thus, when we began teaching, we didn’t really know what we should be doing.

“On reflection, this means that our classes weren’t as effective as they could have been, especially considering we were all trained or in-training teachers. Had I had the information from Learning Service beforehand, I may have pushed more for support, or worked harder to find things out for myself. Although I did try to learn some key phrases in Chichewa, I probably didn’t try as hard as I could have, possibly due to no one from the organisation suggesting we do such things, or anyone who had volunteered previously mentioning it.

Had I had the information from Learning Service beforehand, I may have pushed more for support.

“However, I still believe (especially after reading the book) that the experience I had was an overall positive one, especially regarding my own personal development and building my skillset.

“I found the final chapter to be really interesting as I had never considered the possibility to make a lasting change from home, or continuing to make a change after I left Malawi. This is definitely something I would consider before another volunteering experience abroad.”

You can get your copy of the Learning Service book from Amazon and from bookshops around the world. This piece was first published on