Assessing Volunteer Tourism (Voluntourism) and Traveler Philanthropy

Please see below for a great article written by Daniela Papi – the original had a great graphic to help convey her ideas and it shows up on the blog half of the time. So if it’s not below visit:

Assessing Volunteer Tourism (Voluntourism) and Traveler Philanthropy by Daniela Papi of PEPY

I recently read a blog, one of many, which was striving to analyze how positive “voluntourism” can be. The questions tend to revolve around one core question, “If volunteers are unskilled or getting involved in unnecessary or low priority work, and they themselves are getting a lot out of the experience, are they really doing good?”

As I was thinking about this and trying to put my ideas into words, an image popped into my head: a spectrum of “positive impact” that ranges from 100% financial contribution to 100% volunteer contribution. This implies that if your volunteer time is:

a) necessary and high priority for the organization or community,

b) introducing locally unavailable skilled labor or

c) providing volunteer services that would otherwise be costly to the organization, then financial support in addition may not be necessary. However, if none of the above applies, then there should be a donation requirement offsetting the costs of hosting volunteers. In either case, financial contributions help sustain ongoing project needs, thereby making the volunteer trip valuable beyond the activities taking place during short-term volunteer projects.

Does that make sense? If it doesn’t, perhaps this chart will illustrate the point. Based on my experiences, if volunteer tour operators or traveler philanthropy projects fall on or above the dotted line, they will positively impact their partner projects through the introduction of skilled and necessary labor on one end of the spectrum, significant funding on the other end of the spectrum, or a combination falling somewhere between the two.

Volunteer Tourism (Voluntourism) Assessment

Volunteer Tourism (Voluntourism) Assessment At PEPY, participants volunteer time to a short-term project with the understanding that the most significant part of their contribution is the funds they provide to sustain ongoing projects. Additionally, they receive on-site education which, ideally, translates into future involvement. We believe that everyone, even “unskilled laborers”, has the ability to contribute. Even if volunteers lack knowledge about the issue or program, they can contribute by learning more and promoting awareness to others, and by providing financial support.

For me, the essentials for successful volunteer tourism are honest marketing (ie: being open about what portion of participant fees are going to the projects they visit and the relationships involved), setting clear expectations both for the communities/programs visited and the travelers, and an understanding of the diagram above. If volunteers are not contributing resources otherwise unavailable (i.e. high-skilled labor), then funding is needed to maintain an overall positive impact. Those organizations operating in the red area have a tendency to focus more on the needs/wants of the travelers, often conveying a false sense that their impact is extremely positive and necessary, without following through on the commitment to make that statement true. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. What do you think about this chart and these ideas? Please comment below.

* If you are a voluntourism operator and would like to contribute to the creation of a self-check tool on Volunteer Tourism Effective Practices, please contact we’d love your input to help make all of us better volunteer tour operators and participants!


2 thoughts on “Assessing Volunteer Tourism (Voluntourism) and Traveler Philanthropy

  1. Another important debate and great to see the focus on organisations being open and transparent. This is vital as transparency empowers all parties.

    With regards payment for placements I believe this should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Ideally I would like to get every volunteer to donate a ‘decent’ amount of money to their host project, but so many are put off with the idea of paying to volunteer when this is not the case for volunteering at home. Granted, the projects they join overseas are often in underdeveloped areas but I would still like the choice to be available, not least for those people with smaller budgets. Perhaps the duty should be for the connecting organisation to donate part of their revenue rather than the volunteer? This is something we must consider with YourSafePlanet.

    I deliver a keynote speech this Thursday on social enterprise for the Annual Business and Enterprise Conference for the Specialist Schools and Academies trust. I will argue that social enterprises and NGOs/charities alike must be run as businesses in order to achieve their goals. Relying on grants or donations removes long term sustainability which is vital for long term positive impacts.

    The question here, therefore, is whether a volunteering coordinator can ever manage that sustainability by providing a steady inflow of volunteers and hence cash support. My feeling is that they might do better donating a proportion of revenue than simply delivering volunteers. But then do we recreate the danger of volunteering companies?! I think I’m returning to my original argument of a case by case basis…

    (This is a precis from our own blog here:

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