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.
- 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.”
- 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.
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.
“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”
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.
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
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
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”
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
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.
 Lough, B. J. (2013) International Volunteering from the United States between 2004 and 2012. CSD Research Brief, (13-14). Retrieved from http://csd.wustl.edu/Publications/Documents/RB13-14.pdf
 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.
 Volunteer tourism : a global analysis : a report by Tourism Research and Marketing. https://trove.nla.gov.au/work/26237192?selectedversion=NBD43606931
 Wells, C. J. (2008). Princeton to Fund International Service Gap Year. The Harvard Crimson. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2008/2/21/princeton-to-fund-international-service-gap/
 – Becca Waxman, The Faux Pas of the Well-Intentioned Westerner, A peek into the realities of “helping those less privileged, https://medium.com/@beccawax/the-faux-pas-of-the-well-intentioned-westerner-fc0de6f45c1e
 Personal interview
 Personal interview
 Richard Slimbach, “Balancing the Benefit: Strengthening the Community Good Through Education Abroad”, Azusa Pacific University, December 2013
 Personal interview