Volunteering Outside of Your Comfort Zone

Throughout your volunteer experience, you have the chance to determine to what degree you will integrate yourself into the local culture and to what degree the local culture will become a part of you. Though many volunteers live in luxury relative to local people, some live in luxury even compared to their lives at home. You may have choices regarding not only where you live, but also whether you live with local people or with other foreigners, with domestic help or not, with or without air conditioning. You may have choices about what kind of food you eat – imported food from supermarkets or local staples purchased from street sellers? Your transport choices might range from private cars to public buses. You can spend your leisure time by the pool in a fancy hotel or learning to cook local dishes with a local friend. Always taking the easier or more familiar choice in all these options is what we call “hiding in your comfort zone.”

Rather than taking the stance that living a comfortable lifestyle and hanging out in tourist havens is “bad” and living in a rural community without running water is “good”, we recommend you become aware of your own goals and make sure you consciously seek out places and experiences that help you grow. By definition, sticking to things in your comfort zone means you are not stretching yourself very far. Just outside of your comfort zone, and before you reach your “panic zone” (which is too far and where nobody wants to hang out) is what we can call the “learning zone,” “growth zone” or “stretch zone”. The idea is that if you don’t challenge yourself and put yourself in areas where you feel uncomfortable, you won’t learn and grow.

Cultural integration often depends on you minimizing the amount of time spent in those “comfort zone” areas and instead getting out and meeting local people, learning a new language, trying new foods, and experiencing new things. You’ll be surprised that things which felt way out of your comfort zone at first, like bargaining for vegetables, using a squat toilet, or figuring out how to ride a matatu, will soon become second nature as you challenge yourself to try these things again and again.

Frequenting tourist enclaves and familiar chain stores can also reinforce stereotypes of foreigners. Do you really want to send a message of glorified consumerism to your hosts? What can you learn by cutting your western safety net for a bit and instead becoming more involved in other social realities? Ask yourself what things you can do to become more integrated into local culture. Is there a local craft or tradition you can learn more about? Have you tried cooking for your colleagues or offering to help with the daily chores of your host family?

Your warmest memories of your experience may be the wedding you were invited to, a grandmother you met at the market, or celebrating a local festival. Making efforts to participate in local cultural activities can go a long way towards helping you become integrated into the community but it can also help you become more effective in your volunteer role. If you understand the local culture and context, you can make more informed decisions about how you approach your tasks, and additionally help you grow respect and understanding for a new place and culture.

Volunteering: How to Avoid Creating a Void

At Learning Service we talk a lot about how volunteering can sometimes create more problems than it solves. If volunteers are only providing band aid solutions then the underlying problem will persist and can even be perpetuated. For example, if volunteers build libraries in rural areas, even if they are stocked with awesome books, that alone will not grow a reading culture or improve literacy. Those processes are more tricky, and take hard work, local knowledge and input for the long term – definitely not tasks suitable to be squeezed into a short term vacation.

Volunteers involved in band aid tasks can contribute to creating a void rather than filling one. In our example, if that area now has a community library, there is now a bunch of books to be taken care of, opening times to be managed, a system of borrowing to be worked out, and, ideally, people trained in literacy teaching to make best use of the reading materials. That burden falls on to the so-called beneficiaries, who in the vast majority of cases just do not have the resources to manage it properly. Hence, the library ends up as a gaping void.

Volunteers can also create voids when they do a job that ideally should be done by someone with appropriate skills who can remain in post for a long time. Let’s take an example of a volunteer who comes into an organization as a human resource manager and plans to work in that post for a few months. It might work well while the volunteer is there, but once they have left the organization is still in the same situation as they were previously – maybe even a worse one, as our volunteer may have put some HR systems in place that need to be continually maintained.

As a general rule, we recommend you examine the role you will play as a volunteer and ask yourself, “Am I helping to make a system that runs better once I leave? Or am I creating a void that, once I leave, will either need to be filled by another volunteer, or an unpaid local person, or end up completely unfilled?” Creating a void means that once you move on, the organization will need to search for someone else to take on that role who might have to start from the beginning again. Rather than making the system run more efficiently without you, the organization is becoming more dependent on outside support.

Let’s look at an example of a volunteer teacher in a classroom. To know if you are building capacity or creating a void, you can ask these questions:

  • What am I doing to ensure the children have access to better education once I leave?
  • Will this class run when I am not here to teach it? Who will run it and where are they now?
  • Could my skills be better used supporting teachers than students?
  • Does someone else in the organization (such as a co-teacher or supervisor) know what I do on a day-to-day basis? Will they be able to replicate it?
  • Am I only just learning the skills of teaching myself, and is it clear from my role that I am a learner, not a teacher or trainer? Have I shared the resources and methods from which I myself am learning?
  • How does an incoming teacher know what has already been taught to students? Are there systems in place to collect information, share materials, and avoid repeating work for the future? If not, can I set them up?
  • Which other roles in the organization can I support so they feel better equipped to continue this work in the future?

Look for projects that tackle the root causes of problems rather than applying a band aid, and roles that support and improve an existing system rather than replacing it for the short-term. Hopefully then you can be surer of contributing to sustainable change and avoid creating a void!

“I have changed the way I look at volunteering abroad”

This is a guest post by International Development student Isabella Da Ruos, who shares her experience of volunteering abroad.


Millions of people travel overseas each year, some seeking a break from their busy lives, some for work and perhaps others as a means for an adventure. Many however, travel with the desire to ‘give back’ and choose to volunteer as a means to do so. These volunteer trips are what we now refer to as voluntourism, which has become increasingly popular over the past couple decades. Evidently, voluntourism has since become big business, generating millions of dollars each year as it feeds off the kindhearted intentions of many do-gooders. The promise it provides is that travellers will make a difference in the lives of some of the poorest individuals and communities across the globe, allowing many volunteers a sense of self gratification. As I have come to learn, however, the truth is far from this.

My first experience in what I now understand as voluntourism, was on a family holiday to Fiji (and later a school trip). I recall going on a day trip to the main island to visit a village. Here we were welcomed by many children (who weren’t in school), men, women and the village chief. The tour included a guided walk through their village, visiting their school and some homes, as well as a cooked lunch/feast by the local women who lived there. I remember at the time feeling quite excited that we were to join the chief for lunch, however I also recall the feeling of uncertainty, that perhaps despite us paying good dollars to see them, that we should not be there. This feeling deepened when we walked through the village; and this was because I soon realised that the village had been greatly impacted by a cyclone recently, so many homes and their school were quite damaged. I felt sad for them, especially the children who seemed happy to see us – did they think we were there to help?

Yes: ‘help’. Now that I reflect on this experience I can completely understand what it is that made me feel so uneasy about this tour. We were simply imposing on them at a time that was most inappropriate; we played with children, who weren’t in school because there were visitors (part of the school still operated at this point), we entered people’s homes and disturbed their privacy (many homes were partially destroyed due to the cyclone), and the local people used many of what I assume were their precious resources to feed us. It seemed as if we were more of a burden then a help. I understand that at this time, they would have accepted tours because despite the situation unfolding in front of them, they had no choice since it was obviously a means of income for the village which they so desperately needed. However, reflecting on this now, I can think of so many other ways this village could have been financially supported without having to be burdened and interrupted by western tourists with flashing cameras.


My second experience, upon high school graduation, was during a school trip, which included another day tour/trip to Fiji’s main island to donate sporting and school equipment. Here, we met about 80 children, who took the day off school, to accept these gifts and in return we once again were gifted with a big feast. Whilst I felt a sense of accomplishment handing out the equipment and supplies, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt. Guilt because all these children, most who seemed uninterested (and locals who seemed bothered and burdened) were out of school and out of pocket – once again. Reflecting on this now it would have been much wiser to have one member directly donate the goods, as of course this would mean the local community, kids and businesses would not have had to have a valuable business and learning day wasted in order to accommodate for us westerners. After all, if our intentions were selfless and kindhearted, why did they have to come with such burdens to the local community? Many years later I actually learned that the school was dumping many supplies and equipment because they had no need for much of it, I also learnt that our trip put local supply businesses in jeopardy for months after we had left.

This reflection has not come easy for me. In fact, it took me many years to truly reflect and understand why it was I felt so uneasy in these experiences. It was my decision to enrol in a Bachelor of International Development, to fulfil my desire to live a life of helping people, that ultimately allowed me to be exposed to the cold, hard truth of volunteering abroad. My journey through my International Development degree absolutely changed me, my attitudes, my values and definitely my actions. Prior to my degree I had spent many years dreaming about future volunteer trips I would partake in, many of which I’d hoped would be in orphanages – of course this was long before I came to know the surprising truth that lay behind orphanage tourism. Learning about this all was really tough since I’d spent so long wanting to do just that. I never gave any thought to who the organisation would be and why and where their money went; all I knew was I wanted an adventure and to do something ‘worthwhile’. So naturally I felt a lot of guilt when I later found out it was this reckless, entitled thinking that was actually causing more harm than good.

Over the course of my degree my existing thoughts, perceptions and beliefs were constantly challenged when it came to the world; be that in politics, the environment, human rights, or volunteering. I challenged myself to the point that I wound up being a completely different person. I was once a woman who despised anything to do with the environment – and now one who blogs about it. I was once a woman who recklessly dreamed – and now reflects cautiously. I was once a woman who never considered animal nor human rights – and am now an advocate for them. I am so grateful for the way this course has shaped not just my learning but also the person I am today.

Perhaps one of the most critical parts of my degree that shaped my future learning and actions was my time spent abroad in Cambodia with PEPY Tours, guided by some experts in the field of international volunteering. The value of this trip on my learning and life can simply not be put into words. But what can is the many ways one of my trip leaders – Claire Bennett, an author of Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteer Travel, has helped me in understanding true responsible volunteering.

So, I thought I would share my top 5 favourite lessons that I have learnt, not just in my degree, but also in the Learning Service book – which I consider to be the ultimate Bible for anyone wanting to volunteer abroad.

Here they are:

Volunteer travel is not the same as responsible travel 

I used to believe that volunteer travel was the most responsible form of travel, but as my experiences and Learning Service points out, volunteer travel can be seen as part of a wider system of international development. The best practices in development are community driven and based, so evidently anything which focuses on a white saviour, or the ‘I can get off a plane and solve all your problems’ attitude, is not the best form, nor the most responsible intervention.

Something is not better than nothing

A common assumption in the volunteering field, which I hear too often, is ‘something is better than nothing’. The people who assume this may argue that an untrained foreign volunteer teacher is better than no teacher at all- whilst having no evidence that there would be no teacher if the volunteer were not there. They also may not be thinking about the sustainability of this education system, which relies on streams of short term volunteers, as opposed to local qualified teachers. Many times, this argument is not based on facts. Take a trip that has a group of foreign volunteers, with no building experience or qualifications, which comes to a village to build a school. This can take away potential income from local people who are qualified, experienced and skilled in building. Furthermore, there is no guarantee of students or teachers to fill these classrooms and keep them running, hence the abandoned school buildings in some communities that serve as a reminder each day of the waste of money, resources and time that went into it. The hard truth is that something is not always better than nothing, sometimes kind intentions don’t always have good consequences. Once we recognise that our culture and experiences shape our knowledge and assumptions, we can truly begin to reflect on the true consequences of our actions.

Taking responsibility for oneself

Taking responsibility for oneself and your development goes hand in hand when taking responsibility for improving the lives of others. Often this attitude is criticised as selfish, however, it is actually the contrary. Those who can recognise the personal benefits of their experiences abroad are those who are most likely to think the most clearly about their decisions and actions, which as we have learnt can be detrimental without prior reflection. Many returning volunteers often say they wish they had done more personal development and acquired a learning mindset before departure as it would have made them a more effective volunteer. Take my trips to Fiji for example – if I was more honest with myself and had taken the time before departure to reflect on why I wanted to do those trips, I would have most likely understood that my assumptions weren’t all true and that my intentions at that point of time were mostly about self-gratification. If I had taken the time to reflect on this prior to departure and thought about the implications and burdens of these actions, I would have never visited those islands and instead thought of another way to help that was both responsible and sustainable. Nevertheless, cultivating a learning mindset first requires unlearning, recognising that certain things you thought were true were  assumptions, cultural viewpoints or views learnt through your own western lens – which deeply impact how we see and interact with the rest of the world. Unlearning is a very uncomfortable process, but it is one that truly allows good intentions to result in good consequences, allowing the experience of responsible volunteering to be one that benefits both communities and foreign volunteers.

Ask yourself questions – and answer them truthfully

If you take a walk down your local university corridor, you’ll pass some noticeboards that will most likely be advertising opportunities to volunteer and travel abroad, urging young people to stop what they’re doing and jet off as a means to make a ‘real difference’ in the world. Similarly, a quick Google search on voluntourism or a scroll on your Facebook will also hand you a bunch of opportunities to volunteer abroad, often from third party providers. The problem of such an abundance of trips available at the touch of a finger, is that it makes it harder to filter out the better trips – the ones that focus on sustainable, positive actions and impacts that benefit volunteers and communities – from those that tend to take a business focus. In addition, the overwhelm of so many opportunities can give the wrong idea about volunteering abroad, leading to unrealistic expectations which can ultimately lead to disappointment and the withdrawal from a trip, which can potentially harm the community you are trying to help. International volunteers often have high expectations about making a ‘big difference’, when really a lot of big change comes from small efforts. So, digging deep into your own motivations for volunteer travel and asking yourself challenging questions may allow you to navigate yourself towards the right decisions of how you can best achieve this ‘big change’ for the world (as well as improve yourself along the way!). As noted in ‘Learning Service’, some important questions to ask yourself before you plan your next volunteer trip may include; what kind of personal growth opportunities do I seek? What are my core skills? What are my learning goals? What do I value? What impact do I most want to have on the world? Often the most successful volunteers are not those who are extremely experienced, but those who take the time to acknowledge what they can receive from volunteering but also how they can truthfully offer the same in return.

Action without learning is ignorance

The balance between wisdom and skilful action is vital when it comes to volunteering in a manner that is safe and responsible for all involved. Too much in one direction will upset the balance of the other. This alone is the perfect summary of ‘Learning Service’ as it represents balancing thoughtful and reflective learning which mirrors its learning service model. The actions we should aim to take, particularly in volunteer travel, need to aim to tackle root causes and be done with openness and humility. In the field, this mindset allows a traveller’s role to flip from ‘helping’ right away to ‘learning’, which completely re-frames someone’s whole experience. It also creates different power dynamics and different ways to measure success. Instead of assuming we have the answers, we have the mindset of offering effective help by learning from the people who deeply understand their own situations and what help is  required to achieve sustainable, positive change within their community.


If you’re looking for more tips on how to volunteer responsibly abroad check out Learning Service on Facebook and grab a copy of their book – remember, when we know better we can do better!


Isabella Da Ruos studied International Development at Australian Catholic University and is passionate about responsible, ethical travel and is an advocate against orphanage care. Isabella enjoys long walks with her camera and blogging about international, ethical issues and concerns on her site, The Ethical Wanderer in her spare time.

Learning Service and Where There Be Dragons

Student travel company Where There Be Dragons have adopted the language of learning service and use the book in their programs abroad. We caught up with Jenny Wagner about how the learning service approach fits with what they offer to students.


Learning Service: Can you tell us about how you came to Dragons, and what you think is special or different about it compared to other student travel companies?

I first started working for Dragons on a West Africa semester program in Fall 2013. I had previously worked for a couple of different student travel companies, and one of the things that immediately set Dragons apart for me was how we push students out of their comfort zone rather than working as “cruise directors”. As an organization we’re willing to challenge our students to eat local food, take public transport, speak the language, and participate in daily life on a profound level. As a first-time instructor I loved this— I felt like I had permission to give students an authentic travel experience where they really connect with and learn from local people. Our experiential learning curriculum focuses on cultural integration as a strategy for both safety and learning.

My Senegalese co-instructors also played an important role in this process. Other companies I had worked for employed local staff mainly as logistical coordinators, but at Dragons my colleagues from the “Global South” hold a central leadership role as educators. They are able to implement a curriculum embedded in local realities that feels more profound than anything I could facilitate as a foreigner.



Learning Service: Dragons is a student travel organization working in the Global South, but unlike most similar outfits, they don’t offer voluntourism placements. Can you explain why that is?

Our programs are designed for students to learn from local voices and wisdom in the countries where we travel. The typical voluntourist experience reinforces a problematic assumption that the communities in the Global South “need our help,” and that our students are somehow qualified to provide that help. We don’t want our students to go home congratulating themselves. We want them to go home asking more questions than they came with. As educators, we complicate common assumptions about “international development” for students and refocus them on the value of what our hosts have to teach us. We’re not visiting communities to “fix” them, but so that our students can learn from the wisdom of a different system of living.

That’s not to say that we ignore social, economic, and environmental problems facing these communities. Too often, discourses about issues of global inequality problematize the Global South while ignoring the root causes of social and economic injustice. A Dragons student explores the tough questions: Why does global inequality exist, and who is implicated? What my position is in the system? What do I have to learn from the community that I’m visiting? How does social change work in different cultural contexts? How do I skillfully address the issues I care about at home?


Learning Service: When students contact you saying they feel motivated to go abroad to “help”, how do you convince them that the Dragons approach is better?

There’s an easy thought exercise for this: ask a student think of a problem facing their own community, such as homelessness or gun violence. Now have them imagine a foreign student from Guatemala or Cambodia or Madagascar try to address this problem for the United States. How would you advise this student to begin their problem-solving process? Most students respond that the foreign student would need to learn about the history, economics, and culture of the United States before attempting to solve our most pressing social issues. They might also point out that the foreign student would need to have a good command of the English language to effectively communicate with people here. Most students can make the connection that if they were to visit another country, it will require a lot of learning before they develop the background knowledge and skills to get involved. We try to highlight the importance of a learning mindset when you’re new to a place.



Learning Service: Dragons has adopted the concept of learning service as one of its core components. What does that mean, and what does that look like on a course?

Learning service teaches that service is a lifelong mindset, not a one-time accomplishment. Our students show up not as “helpers” but as learners. This means approaching new cultural contexts with curiosity and humility, learning about local solutions to problems, and getting a picture of the greater landscape of big issues. You wouldn’t show up to work as an intern and expect to run a meeting. Similarly, our students often spend a lot of time listening. We hear from social activists, politicians, teachers, farmers, students… and reflect on our own place in the world.



Learning Service: You specifically work with the Princeton Bridge Year program. Can you explain what that is and how students engage with learning service throughout their time there?

Dragons operates Princeton University’s Novogratz Bridge Year Program, a 9-month international program for incoming Princeton freshmen. We have Bridge Year programs in five countries: Bolivia, China, India, Indonesia, and Senegal. Bridge Year students live with homestay families, partake in intensive language study, and hear guest lectures from local experts in a variety of fields. We critically engage with the concept of “learning service” throughout the year, and a core part of this is a 7-month volunteer internship during which student apprentice with one of our local partner NGO’s. Dragons work hard to manage student expectations about what role they will take on in these organizations, and we have a careful vetting process to ensure that our partnerships are sustainable and mutually beneficial.


Learning Service: Do you find that students that come on a Dragons program are affected by issues of power and privilege, and ideas like the white savior complex? What do you do on your programs to unpack this?

Absolutely. Even students who come on our programs without having given this much thought may realize that they hold strong beliefs on these topics based on their social and cultural conditioning. The first step to teaching students about power and privilege is becoming aware of the institutional systems that we are all a part of. These topics can be highly charged, and we often do fun activities such as roleplays to depersonalize tough topics and get students to try on new points of view. International travel is a great time to start thinking about and re-evaluating our own deeply held beliefs, since we often encounter ways of thinking and being that are radically different from our own.


Learning Service: How do you think the student travel sector needs to change, and what needs to happen to get us there?

Too often, the sending of students closely resembles many troubling aspects of colonialism. I think that the student travel sector could work harder to consider all the different stakeholders involved, especially host country communities. I would love to see, in the next 5-10 years, a push for more reciprocal, exchange-based programming between the Global North and South. An important step to making this happen is seeing more people from the Global South represented in leadership of student travel companies and setting the agenda and best practices for the industry.


Jenny Wagner is an educator, anthropologist, and writer with a growing side hobby as an amateur musical theater director. She has worked with Where There Be Dragons since 2013, and currently serves as the Bridge Year Program Director for the Novogratz Bridge Year Program in partnership with Princeton University. Jenny lives with her family in Dakar, Senegal and splits her time between the US and West Africa. The main photo shows a scene from the Dragons Andes and Amazon Semester (credit: Aaron Slosberg).

Are Your Volunteer Vacations Really Helping Anyone? Or Are They Actually Hurting?

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.

The Commodification of Volunteer Tourism

This is a guest post from Dr Hayley Stainton, that has been republished with permission from her blog Life As A Butterfly.


Volunteering and travelling opportunities were once an only option for skilled medical professionals who would work their trade and support those in need. But in contemporary society, volunteering and travelling have merged into a commercialised industry which has seen the commodification of ‘volunteer tourism’.

The majority of the volunteer tourism industry that we see today is (sadly) designed to either suit the needs of the volunteer or to suit the needs of the organisation’s financial pocket. It all too often no longer has the philanthropic principles that it once did.

The increase in the number of volunteer organisations, particularly commercial operators, have changed the face of the volunteer tourism industry. What was once seen as an act of giving is now contested and threatened as a profit driven industry. The commercialisation of the industry has witnessed immense scrutiny and contradicts the original claims that volunteer tourism is a means of avoiding commodification of tourism.

This post will reflect the recent concerns regarding the commodification of the industry, underpinned by academic research.


#1 Money goes to the business, as opposed to the cause

Concerns have begun to arise regarding how money made by volunteer tourism organisations is spent. Volunteer tourism organisations make heavy profits from the fees they charge volunteers, but most of the money raised goes to the business as opposed to the cause.

Author of the Volunteer Travelers Handbook, Shannon O’Donnell, expressed how she discovered that 0% of her programme fee was passed on to the host community and the family in which housed and fed her. Shannon O’Donnell then went onto developing Grassroots Volunteering, a dual database of organisations that connects travellers to causes and communities to support decommodify the volunteerism industry.


#2 Evidence of an unintentional new form of colonialism

Christian, a member of an international volunteer organisation in Ghana, suggests volunteer tourists are “entitled young rich people convinced they can save Africa”. Christian’s statement reflects the evidence of an unintentional new form of colonialism due to volunteer tourists unintentionally flaunting their wealth, social class and health, leading to a poor portrayal of entitlement.

This can lead to a sense of mockery towards the communities in need of help which can contribute to the gap between the rich and the poor widening. The widening of the rich and poor gap can develop greater powers of economic and political measures and thus create further inequality.

The system of inequality or the gap between the rich and the poor may result in the creation of neo-colonial impacts.



#3 Ambiguous business approaches

One of the key discussions highlighted within recent literature is on the ambiguous nature of many volunteer tourism organisations.

The volunteer tourism industry is forever growing with new businesses entering the market all the time, from those that claim to be charitable or non-profit organisation driven, to projects funded by large organisations such as the World Bank, and tour operators.

Tomazos and Butler express how many volunteer tourism organisations declare themselves with such titles as ‘special tour operators’ or ‘ethical NGO’s’, to which their status as an organisation is ambiguous. It is also unclear as to what the organisations goals are, both short and long term.


#4 Ethical concerns regarding profit being made for a supposedly ‘charitable cause’

The volunteer tourism industry is a billion-dollar industry, yet much of this money never reaches the host community.

For those who do receive adequate money, the volunteer tourism projects can create a cycle of dependence. By this I mean communities rely on aid to get by and without volunteer tourism, communities do not have an income.

Aside from this, there are ethical concerns regarding forgery; with profits being made for a supposedly ‘charitable cause’, when indeed they are swallowed up by the commercial volunteer tourism organisation. It can be argued that this is a direct result ion the commodification of volunteer tourism.

For example, there are growing concerns towards the volume of children being exploited to ‘allure’ tourists and their money. UNICEF estimates that around 85% of children in orphanages in Nepal have at least one living parent. Equally exposed, in Cambodia, according to the United Nations, 40 years following the Khmer Rouge genocide, orphanages have grown.


#5 Lack of regulation of the sector

There is an overall lack of regulation of the volunteer tourism industry, whether that’s in its financial well-doing or monitoring of progress. The lack of regulation of the sector leaves doors open for opportunists, and although organisations do tend to demonstrate how their profits are distributed, this mostly lacks concrete monitoring and evaluation; which thus causes further concerns.

For example, how beneficial are unqualified and unskilled teachers in improving standards of education? How long will a house last if it has not been built by a trained builder? Are the animals involved in conservation projects in safe hands if the volunteers have not had the necessary training? All of these questions I posed in my earlier post on the negative impacts of volunteer tourism.


The lack of regulation of the sector plays a critical role in the safety and security of the industry and thus the impacts and benefits it will have on the host community.


#6 Benefits of volunteer tourism are undermined

Debates on the negative impacts of volunteer tourism have dominated discussion in recent years.

For example, the monetary focus for doing good poses several ethical questions and highlights the inappropriateness of using monetary gain in benevolent intentions.

When organisations focus more on the demand of volunteer tourists and the monetary gain they ultimately exploit the industry and the benefits of the organisation on the host community are questionable.


#7 Marketing material designed to attract business as opposed to portraying a reflective picture

It is common that the way in which the marketing material is designed is purely to attract volunteers and to satisfy the organisation’s financial needs.

Volunteer tourism projects can only survive if volunteers want to volunteer, without them there is no project. And because of this, the context in which the marketing material is designed is to attract the volunteer and business potential as opposed to portraying a reflective picture of the actual issue and the actual cause of concern that needs addressing by volunteers.

The tourism rhetoric demonstrated through evocative marketing material often implies a different experience from reality. Pictures of beaches, elephant riding or smiling children may fill prospective volunteer’s heads with romantic images of what the volunteer tourism experience entails, as opposed to what is an accurate reflection of the experience. I would argue that not only is this unethical, but that it will not necessarily attract the best volunteer tourists to do the job.

This is yet another problem of the commodification of volunteer tourism.



It is clear that the industry is becoming more commercialised than before. As I have demonstrated through my analysis of the definition of volunteer tourism, the industry has changed. It is no longer the philanthropic, charitable cause that it once was.

The commodification of volunteer tourism has yielded a new type of tourism. A post-modern tourism form which suits the needs of the commercial organisations involved as opposed to the host community, thus undermining the very reasons for the development of the volunteer tourism industry.

I personally find the commodification of volunteer tourism to be a sad reality. I’d be interested to hear your opinion too. Please drop your comments below.


Dr Hayley Stainton is an academic, traveller and blogger who shares her insights in her blog Life As a Butterfly. Just like a transition to a butterfly, Hayley left the confines of her previous life and pushed herself outside her comfort zone in order to achieve her dreams. She got a PhD, had two children and travels the world