A rant about overseas volunteering

For those of you who know me you might be a bit surprised to see the title of this blog. Through my work with KickStart Ghana and other roles I am normally telling everyone how fantastic volunteering is and why they should get involved. I also espouse the benefits of overseas volunteering and tell people that it can be so much better than a normal trip abroad.

However, having been inspired by three really interesting and passionate panel debates I’ve seen and been part of this week and seen some dodgy advice on various websites I thought I’d write a blog entry about a few things that are wrong with the overseas volunteering sector.

1. Volunteering overseas is not a holiday!

Volunteering overseas is hard work! It can be fun, rewarding, eye-opening and different, but it is not a holiday. I am seeing more and more organisations that are selling holidays and tacking on a one day volunteering experience. I am very sceptical whether these can make any sort of impact and are more likely to be using local people as a form of slum tourism or orphanage tourism to make money from well meaning travellers. “Teach English to a whole community before heading off to the beach in the afternoon.” I think not.

2. “Book now and get 10% off”

If you see this on a volunteer website, shut off the computer and walk away. This is not a responsible recruitment policy. This is a sign of a company that does not see you as an individual who may (or more importantly may not) have something to offer a community but as a walking pound sign. You should not “book” a volunteering opportunity but apply for one. The organisation should then assess your application and make a decision on whether you are suitable to volunteer on one of their programmes. This is in the volunteer’s interest too as they should end up on a programme that is suited to the skills that they have to offer.

3. Volunteers, not customers

This is related to the point above. When companies allow people to book a spot on their volunteer programme it creates a relationship where that person sees themselves buying an experience, not becoming a volunteer. A responsible charity will have a detailed application process where both volunteer and charity can walk away at any given time. By the end of this process the volunteer will, hopefully, understand that they are joining an organisation and representing them, not just buying an off the shelf product from a travel company.

4. Its all about the money, money, money

Cheap overseas volunteering equals good and expensive equals bad right? Maybe, but maybe not. Sure, there are a lot of organisations out there that will charge an arm and a leg to volunteer overseas and most of that money will not reach the community that you are wanting to support. However, lots of excellent charities also ask for a large donation to ensure that they can keep supporting the projects they have been involved with for a long time. On the opposite side of the coin some organisations charge very little and this is because they operate with low overheads and appreciate that young people may not have a lot of money to spend on volunteering overseas. However, some organisations may cut corners when it comes to insurance, training and supporting volunteers (these things can be expensive). The key is to find out how the organisation is spending the money that you are donating, not just what they are asking for.

5. “Are X a good organisation?”- Square Pegs and Round Holes

Many, many people write about which organisations are ‘good’ and which ones are ‘bad’. It is very tempting when thinking about overseas volunteering to look through these lists rather than taking responsibility and the time to have a real think about what type of organisation is most suitable for you. Whilst Engineers Without Borders might be a fantastic organisation, if you are a doctor then this might not be the organisation for you. Likewise if you are a teacher then applying to be a nurse in a developing country probably isn’t the best choice either. Before you even look at an overseas volunteering website ask yourself these three questions:

  •  What skills do I have to offer?
  •  What do I personally wish to gain from my volunteering?
  •  What do I want to achieve?

Once you have a clear ideas of these answers then you can start to look at organisations and volunteering opportunities.

6. “Come and teach, build, coach, do community work and promote healthy living – all in two weeks!”

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met quite a few impressive volunteers over the past few years and I know some great organisations that offer multi-purpose opportunities BUT I would be wary of organisations that aren’t specific in the work that you will be doing and exaggerate the impact you will be making. Applying to be a football coach is very different to applying to help teach English in a kindergarten. A responsible organisation will have a detailed job specification setting out what is expected of the volunteer and in what time frame. And although a lot can be achieved in a short space of time it is fairly unlikely that you will be making a life changing impact on a community in two weeks or less. This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t do short term volunteer placements but that they should go in with their expectations set at an appropriate level.

Rant over

What next? Well as the title of this blog entry says, this was just a rant. It doesn’t have to have a conclusion or set out how things can be improved. However, I am hopeful that this debate will continue within the sector about will lead to an improvement in how overseas volunteering is done. It can be fantastic for all involved when carried out in a well thought and responsible manner.

if you are looking for further reading on this topic and sources of best practice then I recommend the following:
Ethical volunteering – What to look for in an organisations.
Volunteer Centre @ LSE Careers – An article I wrote about starting out in overseas volunteering.
Comhlamh – one stop shop for international volunteering

If you have any further thoughts or disagree with me then feel free to add comments.

10 thoughts on “A rant about overseas volunteering

  1. Hi Dave, I am doing some research on ‘voluntourism’ having just returned from a month at a project in Sri Lanka which made me want to rant in many ways- could you let me have the details of the ‘panels’ you mention? I want to be part of any movement to educate potential ‘gappers’ about bad practices that they are drawn into through inexperience, and heavy marketing.

    1. Hi Mary, thank you for the comment and I’m sorry to hear you had a bad experience. I was sitting on one of the panels that I spoke of at the Student Hubs annual conference. However, I attended the World Travel Market conference as well and the video of the debate can be seen here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBYWtAGRNJc I’d be very happy to help in any way I can.

      You may also want to speak to a woman called Lucy who runs SL Volunteers. She has similar views to me and also runs a charity that works in Sri Lanka.

      I look forward to hearing from you.



      1. Thanks Dave. Interestingly, I have met Lucy as I was initially intending to join her organization but in the end chose another project run by a Sri Lankan philanthropist. I am just working out the best way to spread the word about the potential negative effects as mentioned in the WTM debate. I will be in touch again after Christmas,
        All the best,

  2. Hi Dave,

    Happy New Year!

    I’ve written to the organizer of the project in Sri Lanka, with constructive criticisms and and also to the leader of the ‘feeder’ gap year organization about their dodgy complaining about their marketing practices and promotion of short term volunteering in orphanages. So far I have received a curt, defensive response. It’s definitely going to be an uphill struggle, but one I am committed to. I’m meeting up with Lucy very soon and also have got some useful advice from Sallie Grayson. Ideally I would like to write a piece for publication in a newspaper like the Independent:-)
    It would be great to meet up at some point
    All the best,

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