The ABC of International Volunteering

This is a guest post from Ruth Powell from Comhlámh, an Irish network that advises and supports hundreds of volunteers and hosting organisations that are based in Ireland.


Every year more than 2000 people volunteer from Ireland to other countries around the world. The majority of them volunteer on short-term projects of four weeks or less in Sub Saharan Africa and South East Asia, in countries such as Tanzania, Uganda, Cambodia and Viet Nam. Comhlámh is the Irish association of volunteers and development workers and we provide information, training, supports and services to those people who are volunteering in the so-called Global South.


A is for “ask”

The most common question we are asked by potential volunteers is “how do I know if I am volunteering effectively?” and the following would be part of our answer. Comhlámh has a code of good practice which is a set of standards that ensure responsible and responsive international volunteering practices. More than 40 volunteer sending agencies that are based in Ireland have signed up to this code. We try and provide information, support, training, and debriefing for volunteers and development workers who are working internationally. We would suggest that a volunteer should only volunteer with a sending agency that has signed up to the Comhlámh code of good practice for volunteer sending agencies. This code ensures that the volunteer sending agency is working in partnership with a locally based organisation with expertise in the field. This should ensure that the experience is mutually beneficial for the volunteer and the host community and project, and that there will be an element of learning and discovery in the experience too. But the best thing a volunteer can do to find out if the organisation they are going to volunteer with is “effective” is to ask. Ask, ask, ask.


B is for “be sure”

Once a potential volunteer has been through the list of 40+ Irish volunteer sending agencies, we would ask them to think about their own motivations for volunteering. We would ask them to challenge their assumptions about the placement. It is very important that the volunteering project is a part of a much bigger programme and that the volunteer delivery part of the experience is just one aspect of the overall work. Some of the best volunteer sending agencies recruit volunteers in the autumn and then spend a whole year working on team building exercises, fundraising exercises and pre-departure training.  The volunteers might only travel internationally for four weeks or less, but their time working on the programme will be for over a year. We would then strongly advise that all volunteers attend either group of individual personal debriefing. If a volunteer is unsure of being able to give this type of commitment, we suggest that perhaps they should reconsider volunteering internationally at this time in their lives. We have also started to advise people that they should read a very well written book entitled “Learning Service: the essential guide to volunteering abroad” before they travel. It’s very good!


C is for “costing”

The other thing to think about would be the money! Yes, the money. Short term volunteering experiences cost money, and sometimes volunteers are surprised if not absolutely shocked by this detail of the experience. This money is spent on such things as long haul flights, insurance, accommodation, food, and a percentage of it will go to the host organisation and project to support the volunteering placements. Longer term volunteering placements are different, as the volunteer is usually covered by a small weekly wage or allowance, as the time that they give balances out the costs of hosting them. But international volunteering costs money in the short term, and a potential volunteer should be aware of this.

Of course, international volunteering is not really as easy as A, B, C and nor should it be. But we try to provide people with enough information before they apply for roles, so that they can seriously consider their options. Then we support them throughout their placements and when they come home, through the code, our training courses and our debriefing services.


Ruth Powell is the information and support officer with Comhlámh. To find out more about Comhlámh please go to their website.The photo shows staff, volunteers and board members of Comhlámh attend the Irish Aid volunteer fair in 2017.

5 Things an Effective International Volunteer Doesn’t Do

Last week we posted a blog entitled 5 Things an Effective International Volunteer Does. A few people got back to us and pointed out that “being effective” is not just about choosing the actions and behavior to increase our impact, but also about avoiding actions and behavior that can have a negative effect on the cause we are volunteering for. In fact, the damage caused by just one disrespectful or thoughtless volunteer can sour the positive impacts brought by many skillful and aware volunteers.

In our interactions with host organizations, the same harmful behaviors are identified time and again. If you care about being effective as a volunteer overseas, we recommend you completely avoid doing any of the following.


1) Does things that are offensive or illegal

Different cultures define what behavior is appropriate differently. If you are being welcomed as a guest into a community and context different from your own, you may need to uphold a different moral code. This is not to impose external judgment on activities you enjoy and that may be perfectly acceptable in some contexts at home, nor does it mean you need to change your own internally-held values, but it does mean that you need to respect the values of the people whose homes and communities you are in.

As a starting point, find out what is illegal in the country you will travel to, but also research what activities might be frowned upon, viewed as harmful, or just be outright offensive. Remember that this may differ from community to community. In some areas, drinking is associated with domestic violence, wastefulness or abuse. Drugs may be readily available, or sexual promiscuity may be accepted or actively encouraged in some circles, but think very carefully about what message your behavior will give to your local friends and colleagues. A consequence of your role as outsider is that anything you do is much more likely to be noticed and talked about. You will stand out, and are more likely to get both praise and criticism. Guaranteed, if you drunkenly get into a fight in a bar one night it will be the one thing local people remember about you. Being conscious of the local stereotypes will help you avoid embarrassing yourself or bringing shame on those associated with you.

Although in many communities, there are cultural norms and practices which may occasionally make these activities acceptable, unless you are living there for a long time and can work out the nuances, self-imposed abstinence is often the easiest path. For example, maybe you have to limit drinking alcohol to the times when you are away from the community you work in. You may not be able to invite members of the opposite sex to stay with you. You may have to observe certain eating practices, especially if the institution or community you are in is strongly religious. Your volunteer placement might ban smoking on the premises, require a certain dress code, or enforce other behavioral standards that are likely not meant as restrictions or punishments, but rather guidelines of how to avoid unknowingly causing offense.


2) Thinks they are the center of the universe

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hardwired into our boards at birth.’

–     David Foster-Wallace, ‘This is Water’

Although your stint volunteering might be a very significant experience for you, and although the months or weeks you are there might seem like a long time, your job is to support something much bigger than yourself. When things don’t go your way, you might want to consider in whose way they did go. The people you are working with most likely have more important things to do than look after you, so make sure you are doing your best to take care of your own needs or seeking out additional outside friends and support if your questions and needs are a drain on the organization.

Remember that volunteers often can be more of a burden than a help – needing training, translation and management. Consider what resources you are taking away from the organization and ensure that what you are giving back is at least as valuable as what you are taking. If it seems like your volunteer experience is being arranged in a way to cater to giving you exciting work or a sense of accomplishment, ask if you can take a more supporting role in projects that are already a priority, rather than having activities created for your benefit.


3) Abuses their position of privilege

Local projects often accord a foreign volunteer a lot of power, often based less on skills and experience than passport and skin color. Colleagues may defer to you as they would to a manager. Community members may see your well-stocked first aid kit and ask for medical advice. You may be asked to provide trainings on topics which you don’t know anything about, or be asked to join high-level meetings and offer your opinion to government officials. We have even found instances of medically unqualified people being asked to perform surgical procedures.

Although it can be very flattering to be in this position, and of course you want to help as much as possible, be realistic about your capacity to perform a role. You could team up with a local counterpart and suggest doing it together, or you could help locate a trained local consultant to help. Remember that although not being able to perform a role might be disappointing for you or your host organization, the consequences of you performing a role outside of your skill set can be extremely damaging.


4) Dresses inappropriately

Although you may see the way you dress as an expression of individuality, or a response to climatic conditions, or of no consequence at all to you, in some societies the clothes you choose can offer very different messages and it is important to be aware of what they are. To avoid offending people, pay attention to and comply with local customs, which will likely be more conservative than what you are used to. Some volunteers we have spoken to complain that restrictive dress codes makes them not “feel like themselves”, but you might want to ask yourself: Is it more important that I get to feel like myself when I am in someone else’s community, or is it more important that that the people whose home area I am entering get to feel at home in their own backyards? In your hometown, it might be inappropriate for a woman to walk around topless, in fact, they might even be arrested for doing so. Consider that showing your shoulders, knees, or midriff in certain cultures might be equally as shocking.

Just by being a foreigner and looking different you will already stand out among the people in your local area. In many communities, if you wear culturally inappropriate outfits, people will form a negative impression of you and you could be starting off on the wrong foot before you even begin your work. Your choice of clothes may be taken as a lack of respect for the local religion or culture. You may inadvertently feed stereotypes that all Westerners are insensitive or sexually available, as that is what your clothing might symbolizes in that culture. Find out what clothing is culturally appropriate before you pack, so you can make sure to bring clothes that help you fit in, or you can buy some local style clothing once you arrive. This also can have the effect of making a positive statement about how much you want to integrate into and learn from the culture.

You will find that in very touristy areas, many travelers or even locals wear clothing that is deemed “inappropriate” by local culture guidebooks, but don’t be fooled into thinking that it must be okay because “everybody is doing it.” Each area will have different cultural norms, with some regions or contexts being more relaxed and others having stricter standards. Think about the difference in what you might wear at home, in a nightclub, to a job interview, on a walk in the park, or to visit your grandmother. In another culture there are similar norms around when certain clothes are appropriate or not, which are often subtle and unspoken. As it can take a very long time to understand these norms, the easiest path is to always wear things that will not cause offense in any context.


5) Complains all the time

Consider how you make your local co-workers feel if you are complaining about their home country all the time – either about things that are a normal (or valued!) part of life, like a rice-heavy diet or squat toilets, or about things that are daily challenges for people who live in that society, such as the lack of water or electricity. How would you feel if people came to work with you in your country and spent all day complaining, either about things you appreciate such as everyone being punctual, or things you don’t like but accept, such as the lack of eye contact and conversation on public transport? Complaining about things that are not likely to change any time soon won’t do you or the people around you any favors.

You will for sure face many different challenges when living in an unfamiliar community, but those same challenges can also be viewed as opportunities. In the same placement, one volunteer might spend their whole time abroad complaining about the things that are different from home, while another might have a very similar experience and consider themselves lucky to learn about and try all these new things. If you catch yourself complaining about the local culture, food, weather, people, or working conditions, consider what you are also learning from the experience. It may be something that you would never otherwise have the opportunity to learn.


Overall, if you do your best to engage in volunteering with humility, mindfulness and self-awareness, you are well on the way to being effective. And if you would like more tips on exactly what that looks like, check out our book Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad.

5 Things an Effective International Volunteer Does

Volunteering abroad is often portrayed as something anyone with a big heart and bit of time on their hands can get involved in. However volunteering effectively – that is, having the intended impact on a cause and avoiding any negative impacts – is tricky. In fact, no matter how many useful skills you bring to the table, at Learning Service we believe that effectiveness requires openness, humility, and a huge amount of learning.

Here we offer some tips for volunteers to try to ensure they are being effective in their work.


1. Does the work that is needed

Keep in mind that the things you might want to do may not align with what the local organization is asking you to provide. For example, if you want to support a program that provides agriculture trainings in rural communities, you may prefer to go out to deliver the training, rather than be stuck in an office. But having you deliver that training, as opposed to a local trained member of staff,  may require extra staff support, translation or experience outside of your skill set, and your “volunteering” may quickly become more of a burden than a help.

Even if you are highly skilled in an area, it should be up to a host organization how your skills are put to best use. For example, if you are an engineer volunteering in a renewable energy organization, the first thing you might want to do is see if you can improve the solar technology that is being used. Having the skills to do that, however, does not mean that is how your local colleagues hope to have you contribute. In fact, it is likely that local engineers understand the resources, constraints and cultural considerations better than you do. Perhaps instead they need your understanding of the technology along with your English language skills to write grant reports or funding proposals, or perhaps they are hoping you will build capacity in the staff team to troubleshoot problems with the technology themselves. Maybe they have seen volunteers in the past who have jumped in too quickly to make “improvements” that didn’t work in the cultural context, so they are asking you to take a backseat role to start with. Be patient and make sure you are supporting the overall organization’s needs, not just your own desire to feel useful in the areas that seem most interesting.


2. Considers the power dynamics they are a part of

Be aware that the carefully-balanced power dynamics of an organization or community may be affected by the presence of an outsider. We have experienced projects where there is resentment among community members that the selected homestay families or program beneficiaries are all friends or relatives of the volunteer program manager. If you can’t speak the local language well this can be difficult to discern. Doing your best to make yourself aware of the community and organization’s power structures and systems allows you to make informed choices about what you support.

In other cases, volunteers may unintentionally tip the power balance away from local authorities and towards themselves. If you feel you are being asked to make decisions beyond your remit, question this and ask for support from a permanent member of staff who can continue being in charge after you leave. Very often foreigners are given respect and authority simply because of their nationality or skin color. Sometimes this is a hangover from colonialism, and other times this is due to the power dynamics that come with dependency on foreign donations. But, as Suzanne Nickel, a Mennonite Central Committee volunteer in Egypt reflected, “With this power comes the responsibility to use it properly.” You may not want the power, but it’s up to you to make some conscious decisions not to abuse it and to be responsible for what you want to do with it.


3. Accepts the responsibilities that come with being a “role model”

You didn’t necessarily ask for it, but as an outsider coming into a community, you are acting as a representative of a lot of people. If you are British, you might be the only Brit your host community members have ever met, and your views might now represent the whole of the UK, or even the whole of Europe, to the people you meet. Representing the wider world can be a burden, and of course you can do your best to challenge these assumptions. But deeply-ingrained ways of looking at the world are difficult to change, so it is wise to consider that your actions no longer reflect just on you, but on the organization you are working with, the volunteer placement program you are a part of, and members of your culture/religion/sex/race/etc.

We spoke with an English teacher who said the school they were working with would no longer take teachers from Kansas, as they had had such a bad experience with someone from Kansas before. One bad apple has spoiled the town’s impression of a whole US state! Another organization was specifically seeking out people from Finland, as they had enjoyed their experience with Finns so much in the past. Rather than thinking of it as a burden, think of it as motivation to be the best version of yourself, so make sure you represent yourself and your roots well.


4. Defines “success” as part of wider plan

One of the most common mistakes we have experienced in volunteers is mis-defining “success” as “taking over full ownership of a concrete project and seeing it through to the end”. This is why so many volunteer projects involve activities like building a school or digging a well. Though taking complete ownership of a project can feel satisfying, if that project is not well integrated into a much larger system, that started before you got there and will continue long after you leave, then your efforts may have been “successful” for no-one but yourself.

Before jumping in to take action, it is important to reflect on what “success” might look like both for your specific project and for your personal goals. It might mean minimizing impact on power dynamics through your presence in a local a team. It might mean doing the basic logistics and maintenance tasks around the office that free up the organizational leadership to focus on the core of their work. It might mean learning enough about an issue or an organization to feel comfortable in their work so that you can confidently advocate for them and support them more significantly in the future.

Rather than measuring success based on personal accomplishments, view yourself as part of a larger ecosystem, within the organization in which you are working and also within wider systems of change. The most effective volunteers recognize that their work is part of a long chain of decisions, actions, and impacts, and they are not quick to take personal credit for successes that relied on a system much larger than themselves. If success stops being about ticking boxes of what one person can achieve and more about groups working alongside each other to achieve common goals, more collective goals will be reached.


5. Is committed to growth

If you are committed to being as effective as you can be in your placement, make sure you give yourself regular opportunities to reflect on and evaluate your actions. We often leave the giving and receiving of feedback until the end of an experience, when it is too late to make adjustments or put any learning into practice. Actively seek feedback from friends, colleagues or other volunteers about how you can improve, and remain open to changing your approach. In cultures that have a less direct communication style, feedback might come to you via a colleague rather than directly from your boss, or be expressed through body language or a polite silence. Observe this and ask local friends for help to interpret the meaning.

Remember these cultural considerations when you want to give feedback too. Your helpful suggestions may just be interpreted as over-harsh criticisms by colleagues, so take cues from local people about how to ensure your feedback will be well received.


Overall, if you do your best to engage in volunteering with humility, mindfulness and self-awareness, you are well on the way to being effective. And if you would like more tips on exactly what that looks like, check out our book Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad.

Why Learning Service is the Key to Responsible Travel

This is a guest post from Lena Papadopoulos about the mistakes she has made in the past and how Learning Service helped.


As a teenager and young adult, I hoped to “save the world,” and I had many romanticized notions about how I could do so. After completing my undergraduate degree, I took a gap year before enrolling in graduate school. Determined to put my good intentions to use, I did what many of us do when we want to make a difference—I decided to volunteer abroad.

I wanted to “help” people in a “cool, exotic” location, and I wanted to spend as little money as possible in my quest to be an amazing person doing amazing things that everyone would praise and envy. So, after paying for the cheapest voluntourism program I could find online, I spent 4 months in Tanzania as a volunteer English teacher.

What’s wrong with this picture? A better question might be, what isn’t? For starters, I wasn’t qualified for this role. Although I was a native English speaker, had always excelled in my English classes, and had just received a Bachelor’s degree, I had no training or certification to teach English as a foreign language. This requires knowledge, skills, and understanding far beyond what my experiences had provided.


Not vetting the organization I signed up with was another poor decision. I had no information about their process, their staff, or how they allocate their funds. The person who was supposed to pick me up from the airport never came. I paid extra to have two weeks of language and cultural lessons, which I never got. The portion of the fee I paid that was supposed to go to the family that hosted me was never given to them, and we later found out this was a common practice of the organization I volunteered through.

Another issue caused by my volunteer role was problematic power dynamics it created between myself and the local staff. I was often perceived as more knowledgeable or qualified than local staff simply because I came from the Global North. These were trained, certified teachers, which I was not. As this was a private school (not government funded), the students’ inability to cover their school fees on time often meant the teachers weren’t receiving their salary. One day, I found a group of local teachers sitting together at a nearby bar during class time. When I asked why they weren’t at school, I was told it didn’t make sense for them to work for free when I was already there with the intention of doing just that.

Unfortunately, each of these examples is common within voluntourism and service-learning. And these are only a few of the many potential repercussions created by the popular desire to volunteer internationally. While we’re usually successful in our attempts to have significant, long-lasting impacts on the communities we serve, the problem is that these impacts are often negative, even in cases of good intentions. The bottom line is this: volunteering abroad can often lead to a snowball effect of unintended consequences that cause harm to those we seek to serve.


Following the months I spent in Tanzania, I began my graduate studies in cultural anthropology and international development—fields which are both deeply rooted in colonialism. This further opened my eyes to the problematic impacts that were and could have been created by my decision to volunteer abroad as I did. It became consistently clear that valuing and utilizing the knowledge, experience, and expertise of local people is the best way to create a path for meaningful, beneficial change in their communities. Seems to be common sense, really, and yet the colonial mindset is so deeply entrenched within so many of us that we continue to think we know best.

After completing my Master’s degree, I moved to Asia and eventually began working with an organization designing and facilitating leadership development programs at schools around the world. This is where I was first introduced to the concept of “Learning Service.” Our team was looking to incorporate more “service” into our programs, so we had a call with Claire Bennett to learn more about this framework, how it came to be, and how we could use it to better prepare future volunteers through informed and mindful decision-making.

This approach really resonated with me after the experiences I’d had. Even after going on to work at a university in the United States, I continued to use the Learning Service resources and materials with students. When I developed a relationship with a student-run non-profit that was organizing volunteer projects in several countries, the first thing I talked to them about was Learning Service. This led to retreats and workshops focused on preparing them for their experiences abroad, as well as reworking some of their internal structures and processes.

Now, I’ve begun my own business helping others create intentional, transformative travel experiences that emphasize engaging with local people and places in responsible, respectful ways. The Learning Service framework and resources remain central to my work, and I can’t imagine that will ever not be the case! I work with clients to firstly explore and understand the why behind their desire to have this type of experience abroad, and then, using the Service Learning framework, we can better work toward outlining how they should go about it.



I cannot recommend Learning Service enough! Large, complex issues are broken down in simple and straightforward ways. Accessible to people in any stage of their global citizenship journey, Learning Service provides a strong foundation to begin raising critical awareness about unintentional, harmful impacts abroad while developing a new learning-centered mindset and approach toward all types of service.


Lena Papadopoulos helps schools, organizations, businesses, and individuals create intentional, transformative travel experiences that encourage self-discovery and self-awareness, meaningful human connection, and respect for local cultures and people. With a background in cultural anthropology and leadership development, Lena is an award-winning intercultural educator with 10+ years of experience in education, community building, curriculum development, program design, and facilitation in nearly a dozen countries around the world. You can learn more about Lena’s work on her website or connect with her on Instagram.

Voluntourism: The Pitfalls of a Broken System

In our book, Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteer Travel, we discuss the many pitfalls of volunteer travel that lead to tokenistic impact or downright harm. We are frequently asked how these pitfalls persist, being repeated by countless volunteers without the situation improving. Here we explore how the system is broken, and highlight the deep structural issues that need to be addressed.


Perverse Financial Incentives

“A lot of volunteer organizations make significant profit margins on their trips. It seems counterintuitive to claim to help communities around the world while keeping more than 50 percent 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, former manager of a large volunteer travel company


Organizations overseas that host volunteers often do so for reasons other than the direct value of the service. Erin Barnhart’s research found that over half of the 248 hosting organizations surveyed worldwide identified revenue generation as a key potential benefit of hosting volunteers. This in itself is not a bad thing. After all, it costs money, staff time and energy to feed, house, and supervise volunteers, and if you want thoughtful educators and well-organized learning tools as part of your program, it all adds up.

But paying fees to “do good” can also foster serious problems. The act of paying significant sums of money can immediately shift the traveler’s perspective from being a volunteer offering time to a consumer paying money for an experience. We all have experience being consumers every day—if we pay for a product or service, we expect a certain level of quality in return, equivalent or greater in value to what we paid. Once something has a price tag, we start comparing based on price: Where can I get the best value for my money? Would I get a better deal somewhere else? Inherent in those questions is the belief that the value of the experience is wrapped up in the price tag. Imagine there was no price tag on any volunteer trip—comparing value would take on a whole new meaning. People might start comparing the value of the work the organization provides to local communities or the depth of the learning experience. Understanding the impact of a volunteer trip requires a lot more work than comparing price tags, so volunteer travel companies often compete solely on price.

Once volunteers pay fees and view themselves as consumers, they might also think they have the right to demand the experience they want. Many volunteers think they have a right to “have it their way”: they don’t want the work to be too hard, they want a feeling of satisfaction at the end, and they want to get to take flattering selfies to document their good deeds. This paradigm can be accentuated when the fee is not paid directly to the hosting organization, but to a middleman such as a sending organization or travel company. Travel companies treat volunteers as their clients, serving them what they are demanding and paying for. In a volunteer experience, who should the real “client” be? The travelers, or the communities, clinics, and schools featured in the advertising brochures?

When companies compete on price, they may not have the resources, ability, or willingness to measure impact, enhance volunteers’ learning, or improve their offerings. Instead, there is an incentive to cut corners and to invest money and staff time in marketing to increase the quantity of paying volunteers. And because volunteers are comparing based on price rather than impact, there is less incentive to invest in improving the quality and effectiveness of the programs being offered. None of this correlates well with volunteering that responds to an important community need.

In addition, some host organizations have more demand for their programs than they can easily deal with. But turning down paying customers in turn means less money in their pockets, so they may accept more applicants than they can handle, often without a meaningful screening or selection process.


Demand for Short-Term and “Fun” Volunteer Experiences


Demand for volunteer experiences disproportionately leans towards short-term, hands-on, “exciting” types of volunteer experiences (such as playing with children) that can be coupled with an adventure holiday. When there is high demand and people willing to pay high prices, there will always be enterprising and sometimes unscrupulous individuals who seek to make money by offering these kinds of experiences.

The increase in demand has led to an increase in supply of shorter, more tokenistic volunteer experiences without much quality control. With the rise of the internet and the ability to quickly scan through options, you can go online and within minutes, you can click on a volunteer trip, pay, and be signed up to “help”—no questions asked. This has fueled the increase in programs that are at best mismanaged, and at worst, exploitative. Short-term programs with an emphasis on fun often skip the important aspects of orienting and training volunteers, finding appropriate placements, or making sure volunteers have a meaningful learning experience.


Backwards Project Planning

During my time in Cambodia, a number of mainstream travel companies reached out to me, interested to learn about volunteer vacations. ‘We need to start offering these experiences,’ one travel company owner told me, ‘as our clients are demanding it and all of the other companies have already started offering half and full-day volunteer options at orphanages, schools, and building sites. Where can I find a school to send them to?’”

–    Daniela Papi-Thornton, quoted in the Learning Service book


Volunteer travelers usually make the assumption that the work they are going to do is needed and has been requested by the community or organization – a model that looks something like this:

In reality, for a great number of voluntourism projects, this process is completely reversed, with the demand for volunteer projects shaping the supply, even to the point of superfluous tasks being made up for volunteers.

An organization may give work to volunteers simply because it is appealing, easily accomplishable, or has a “feel-good factor.”  Increasing literacy rates, for example, is a goal that involves changes in human behavior and education systems, which usually requires long-term efforts and resources. An organization working on root causes of illiteracy through advocacy for free primary education might feel pressure to add a project that volunteers can easily work on, such as building a library. That “solution” may look impressive, but is not necessarily a contribution to the long-term goals.

A frequent observation of returning volunteers is that they feel their time abroad wasn’t as valuable to their hosts as it was to themselves. There is nothing wrong with this outcome: it is honest and healthy to acknowledge the limits to how much you have helped. However, many volunteers reported that the work they were asked to do seemed designed to fit the restrictions of a short-term visit rather than to provide lasting benefit. As well as wasting time, this can actually steer local organizations’ staff and other resources away from addressing root causes.


Broken Feedback Loops Reduce Accountability

“I watched groups of well-intentioned but bumbling volunteers pass through and work on programs that ranged from poorly planned and executed to unnecessary to foolish to (occasionally) somewhat engaging and helpful. As the one volunteer who was there throughout this whole process, I had the privilege of seeing all of these people make the same mistakes and express the same paternal attitudes, with no way to pass on the lessons learned or share feedback with the next group.”

–     David McMichael, volunteered for one year in Ghana


When you buy a smartphone, if it is clunky to use, has poor sound quality, or doesn’t come with the advertised features, you can return it. Furthermore, you might post your critique on social media, to help others avoid the product. Your feedback may even prompt the manufacturer to make improvements to the next model. In essence, you vote with your money—this feedback loop is how you make responsible choices. In volunteer travel, that feedback loop is broken.

You might expect that once a handful of volunteers have negative experiences in a placement, suspect corruption, or realize that their work is ineffective, other potential volunteers would catch on and offer their time, money, and energy elsewhere. Unfortunately, the volunteer travel field suffers from a lack of transparency. When choosing a placement, volunteers usually have little information to go on except for an organization’s own marketing materials, and as we explore in the Learning Service book, the quality of marketing materials does not always correlate positively with the quality of the impact. (In fact, sometimes it is quite the opposite.)

One cause of this broken feedback loop is the difficulty volunteers have in seeing the long-term impact of their work on a project or community. The projects they participate in are far from their home and in an unfamiliar culture, and volunteers usually don’t stay long enough to be able to see or understand the deep-rooted goals of the community. In addition, individual volunteers are just a tiny part of a much larger ecosystem of aid, the globalized economy, development, and community self-help. In the majority of cases we have encountered, volunteers were not aware of the full impact of their volunteer work, positive or negative.

Compounding this issue is the lack of organized structure for the collection and use of relevant feedback. Typically, sending organizations collect feedback on logistics, such as food and accommodation, and on volunteer satisfaction levels, but the volunteers themselves aren’t usually in a position to give feedback on long-term impact, given their short-term stay. Simply asking volunteers their opinions about whether they helped the community is not a realistic way to assess the value of what they did. The hosting organizations might be asked to evaluate a project’s impact, but it is often hard to understand how or whether the volunteers contributed to that impact. Moreover, there may be reason to overstate the impact of volunteers in order to ensure more funding in the future. Very rarely do volunteers receive honest feedback directly from the local community about whether their work is needed or sustainable.


Fortunately, these problems do not apply to all forms of volunteer travel, with a good number of responsible volunteer providers now responding to these issues. As more light is shed on bad practice, increasing numbers of travelers are demanding transparent and ethical providers, and so the landscape is slowly changing.

If you are interested in volunteering, but want to be sure to make responsible decisions, please check out the Learning Service book!