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!