Responsible Short-Term Voluntourism Opportunities – Do They Exist?


Priscilla Macy of Global Sojourns recently sent me this essay with her reflection on the sustainability of short term voluntourism, let’s start a discussion on this – use the comments section, what do you think??

Instead of offering purely educational trips, I’ve chosen to focus on offering adventure travel and to weave in experiences that help the traveler “go deeper” in their understanding of the areas visited. With the average time spent on these trips being 11 days and with clients’ priority being the wildlife experience, it’s a challenge to come up with opportunities to help them connect with locals and experience life outside the game parks.

Spending ½ – 3 days volunteering could be a great way for them to connect with locals and learn about the issues facing the area. I’d like to say that this would also be a great way for them to “give back” but, I’m not sure how sincerely this term can be applied to such short-term volunteering. It’s used in a lot of marketing materials but my guess is that their tourism dollars spent supporting national parks and the local economy do more to contribute to the local communities and environment than their labors on a project would contribute.

Having lived in sub-Saharan Africa for over seven years working in international development and then tourism, and having spent three of those years living in rural Mozambique conducting cultural anthropological research, I’m both highly motivated to help my clients go beyond the safari experience and… very skeptical about how to do this while keeping the experience “real” and being respective of the local people. I’m having trouble getting over my skepticism and finding ½ – 3 day volunteer opportunities that are truly beneficial to both the local community and the traveler.

I never underestimate the power of increasing ones understanding of a place and of sincere connections between people. So far our approach has been to offer learning and experiential opportunities (e.g. sharing a meal and conversations with locals, special programs that teach about wildlife behavior, visits to NGOs) but I also would like to try and find responsible, appropriate volunteer opportunities to offer to clients. Do they exist? I welcome your suggestions!

To send Priscilla suggestions please email her at:


5 thoughts on “Responsible Short-Term Voluntourism Opportunities – Do They Exist?

  1. This is a thought provoking article by Priscilla, and I share her view that short-term volunteering has issues to be faced and is not a ‘cut and dry’ topic.
    If people were to volunteer for short periods of time, such as anything under a week, and if there were to be nothing more occur than that, then yes, I would say that the volunteering is problematic, as the tangible impact people have in this timeframe is low, and for most places, the last thing they need is more labor.
    However, I am delighted to say that in the years that Hands Up Holidays has been running, what results goes beyond the 4-5 days volunteering, and the volunteering is a medium for transformative experiences in the volunteer…that challenge the volunteer’s worldview and enhance their appreciation for how this other culture lives and functions, and the volunteer frequently goes on to live a life conscious of how their actions affect those in less developed countries…and also frequently become inspired to volunteer for more substantial periods of time, and/or they become long-term donors for the project.
    And when money is responsibly and ethically used, this can do enormous good.
    Additionally, if the volunteer has specific skills that the community in question is lacking but is in need of, then this can be of benefit, both in the short term and potentially in the long term if there is some form of knowledge transfer or continuity, something we at Hands Up Holidays strive to achieve.
    Thanks Priscilla for raising the issue, and thanks Alexia for publishing it!

  2. Hi Voluntourism Gal!

    I like Priscilla’s article and it reads well, but there is a different way of looking at voluntourism i’m not sure she has thought about.

    Granted, short term volunteer projects don’t always have a huge impact on the local communities, but what if these short term projects were taken up on a huge scale? What if 10% of visitors to an area took up a short term volunteer project while on holiday? Surely hundreds of people helping a few days at a time would have a larger impact than a few people staying on for longer term projects?

    For us, this is the essence of voluntourism – check out our blog some time and feel free to comment on our posts

  3. Hi Voluntourism Gal, Priscilla and Volunteer Abroad,

    While I absolutely agree that the collective good intentions of travelers and an investment in volunteering can bring about great changes in this world, I appreciate Priscilla’s inquiry about identifying effective short-term volunteer experiences for travelers.

    I just spent time on the Volunteer Abroad website looking through the short-term volunteer opportunities. There are some great organizations and projects! However, all but one of these projects is for a minimum of one week, over half for two weeks or more. I think what Priscilla may be addressing is the volunteer opportunities being offered as part of a tour package where a tourist can volunteer for a day or two or three.

    There has been a huge increase in these kinds of tour packages and perhaps Priscilla’s concern, as is the concern of PEPY Tours (where I am volunteering), is that these have the potential of being irresponsibly identified, marketed and managed. From my experience – as I am researching responsible practices in the volunteer tourism industry – there is a huge risk in catering to tourists’ interests at the expense or indifference to host communities. There is an inherent for-profit (tour operator) incentive to offer “unskilled” volunteer trips that make people feel like they’re really ‘doing’ or ‘giving’ something so as to capture as large a market as possible.

    I think you (Priscilla and Volunteer Abroad) are addressing two different markets, two different kinds of volunteer opportunities. Service learning and volunteer projects have been around for decades, right? This new wave of ‘voluntourism’ is, I think, something just a bit different. And I agree with Priscilla, that it’s hard to identify a quality project that can handle the fluctuation of short-term volunteer tourists in a way that truly contributes to a project’s/organization’s/community’s goals.

    That being said, I want to emphasize that Volunteer Abroad seems to be doing great things and I believe in and support the whole social movement we are witnessing where people are more and more concerned about global issues.

    And also with that being said, I’m working with PEPY where we continually evaluate our operations so that we can better provide responsible educational and volunteer opportunities to our travelers – it is a challenge, but can be awesome when it’s done well – and are learning that there are many, many tour operators and volunteer organizations out there trying to do, and are doing great things with the good intentions of travelers.

    We’re all learning… !

  4. Hi,

    I think the key here is to think outside the box of physical labor as the only means to Volunteering. If you look within the local community and find their needs, then brainstorm what skills your client’s posess to help them. Many people may need help with business plans for starting their own business, they may need a local medical center. Match your client’s skills to the needs of the community and you can be helpful and efficient. Some volunteering prep can be done by email prior to their arrival. This will get your guests even more excited about traveling too.


  5. Really enjoyed this discussion – thanks for the great blog post.

    I quite agree that short term involvement in local projects is less about the impact you make on the cause and more about what you learn, take away and then share with others.

    I have long argued that if you just travel ‘responsibly’ and respectfully you will often do more good than joining a project for a few days or spending thousands with a volunteering company.

    I am yet undecided whether we should actively discourage people from saying ‘while I’m travelling I’d like to change the world.’ Sure it’s naive and at worst it’s a colonialist attitude, but I do feel that having these experiences naturally changes the mindset of those travellers and affords them a better understanding of the destination and, critically, of themselves. They soon realise they cannot change the world overnight but are ever keen to offer support. So, often these experience open their eyes… but should that be at the cost of the project’s time and resources? That’s a whole other debate!

    PEPY is a great example of a locally based, evolving initiative from which others can learn. Plus the great thing is that similar programmes are developing all over the world. We now need to support and communicate that work and inspire others.

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