Fixing Voluntourism: Building Better Volunteers

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Elephant Nature Park in Thailand

In the international volunteering landscape, the industry is made up of three parts: the organizations offering volunteering, the volunteers, and the communities and places affected by the volunteer projects. In Part 1 of Fixing Voluntourism, I looked at ways the industry can set the course toward a stronger voluntourism industry. The second part of building the ark toward a socially responsibility-driven industry is through shaping better volunteers. To shift the needle on change, and to better overcome the ethical quandaries and arguments against voluntourism, we need volunteers who also shoulder responsibility by way of the projects they pick and the expectations they bring to the table.

The internet has bred within many consumers a deep skepticism toward marketing claims, slick advertising, and glowing reviews. Many of us spend hours before a big purchase deep-diving into blogs for in-depth pro-con reviews. And yet, this penchant for thorough research seems to fly out the window for many volunteer tourists. It’s the volunteer’s responsibility to understand the social and environmental issues and find a project that fits their skills offered and their volunteer time-frame.

There are three main steps volunteers can take to better prepare for a volunteer trip.

1) Engage pre-trip research.

The baseline research for any volunteer should involve understanding the cultural norms at their volunteer placement. Read widely about the local history, culture, and even celebrated literature from the region. Do homework on development and aid issues related to your chosen field. Understand the issues the communities and development organizations are facing so you can better assess the impact a given volunteer project may have. That information is complex and often rooted in deep cultural nuance. And while I’m not suggesting all volunteers need a master’s in developing economics, there is a wealth of valuable information that is worth the time to read and understand towards impacting a volunteer’s effectiveness. The best organizations and projects will also build the ark by providing dense training curriculums for volunteers that actually include development and aid issues.

2) Pick projects that accurately reflect your skill and time.

A key part of building a better volunteer starts with the volunteers accurately assessing what skills they can legitimately offer to a new community. Ill-conceived projects force local communities and volunteers to pour time and money into unneeded and questionably useful activities. With foundational industry knowledge from the research phase, informed volunteers are able to better match their skills with volunteer projects. For volunteers, use your research knowledge to take a hard look at whether your plans allow adequate time to share your skills and positively impact the project. Being honest in this stage and really assessing your potential value to the project is important. It may be incompatible with this trip, which means you then get the fun opportunity to investigate other options for your trip, such as local tourism, social enterprise, or a responsibility-driven tour.

3) Cultivate a service mindset.

When a traveler books a tour to a new place, they have an expectation that every selling point of the tour will be covered on the ground. If the company promises a sunrise hike to a nearby mountain peak, there’s a valid expectation that the tour company should deliver. Packaging volunteer trips as a specific experience, however, sets poor expectations in the volunteer’s mind. As a volunteer, shifting your perspective to “being of service” versus “volunteering” has a profound impact on your effectiveness as a socially responsible traveler. Being of service allows you to arrive in at a volunteer placement with fewer expectations and with a more open mind to how you can best serve the community. They may need a volunteer teacher, or they may most desperately need a glorified paper-pusher. Being of service also involves purposeful spending when you are in a new location, often through supporting local business and social enterprise — a powerful form of tourism.

In my personal experience talking with other volunteers, I often start the conversation with a frank discussion of the multitude of ways that volunteers can positively impact local economies. As they begin to learn more about the responsible tourism industry, many volunteers choose very different courses of action than when merely given a list of well-packaged volunteer opportunities.

Bruce Poon-Tip, founder of G Adventures, posited a two intriguing questions in his book, Looptail. “Couldn’t tourism be the greatest form of wealth redistribution that the world has ever seen? … What would actually have to happen for you to go on vacation to given back instead of donating to the most marketed charity?” These two questions, and his belief in tourism as the single biggest opportunity to redistribute wealth from developed to developing economies, shaped the very core of how he built his tour company.

His company has had a strong role in shaping the discussions around responsible tourism. And yet the travelers taking these responsible tours still seem a world apart from those travelers identifying themselves as volunteers. Volunteers need to understand that responsible tourism by way of traveling and supporting grassroots, local businesses and social enterprises is a powerful and positive way to address income inequality and to be of service to the communities they visit.

The volunteering industry is a permanent part of the travel and tourism landscape, and given that it behooves us on all sides of the issue to continually strive toward new solutions and opportunities.

Additional sources: 10 questions to ask your volunteer company by Responsible Travel.

Written by Shannon O’Donnell for WTTC. Shannon is the author of The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. You can follow Shannon onTwitter.

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