Financial Times Covers Voluntourism

Going on a Trip to Count Kenya’s Elephants By Michelle Jana Chan

There are grey elephants and brown elephants and black elephants – but nothing compares to the red elephants of Tsavo. Elephants may be created equal but, after a vigorous wallow in mud, the Tsavo breed of south-east Kenya are ablaze in the colours of terracotta, vermilion and claret. It is as if they are anointed by the burning equatorial sun and the rich, brick-red African soil.

I first saw them when I was seven. There were herds so vast that my dad turned off the engine of our rental car for half an hour until they had all crossed the road. Drought in the 1970s and the “ivory wars” of the 1980s decimated the population. At the last census, there were 12,000 elephants in Tsavo, one of Africa’s biggest national parks. Even after two decades of recovery, that number is one-third of what it was 40 years ago.

On this trip, I was coming back to count elephants as a volunteer on an Earthwatch conservation project. Travel industry pundits are calling this type of holiday “voluntourism” or, worse, affluent activism. A trip like this costs roughly the same as a beach holiday in Lamu in the Kenyan archipelago, with about the same time commitment, meaning you don’t have to quit your job or take a sabbatical.

Our group met in Nairobi at the Fairview Hotel. It turned out we were all women, which is not uncommon, according to Earthwatch. There were six of us, aged between 22 and 60 years, from Australia, the US, Japan and the UK. One was a student, one unemployed, another had a sparkling law career. It turned out we were all single – either widowed, divorced, broken-hearted or looking for love. Two had never seen an elephant in the wild; one was on her third “Elephants of Tsavo” expedition.

To read the rest visit:


Want a better, safer world? Volunteer

Voluntourism covered in the Christian Science Monitor again! Who says this story is dead???

Want a better, safer world? Volunteer By Michael Honda and Thomas Petri

To say that the Peace Corps changed our lives, our perspectives, and now our modus operandi as members of Congress, is a sweeping understatement. Serving in El Salvador and in Somalia respectively, we returned to the United States fundamentally transformed.

The impact was so profound that we are eager to urge every young American to consider serving in the Peace Corps or a domestic equivalent. Aside from the potential personal influence programs such as the Peace Corps can have on the individuals who volunteer, the capacity building is exactly what the world needs during these economic times.

If we could make assignments available to the 15,000 some Peace Corps applicants who applied in the past year, we would. If we could provide all the countries, who would like to host volunteers but don’t, with the human resources necessary to be successful, we would. If we could appropriate sufficient funds so that returning volunteers could continue to give back to underserved communities in the US, we would.

At the crux of this is the concept of service – service to our neighbors, near or far, in desperate need of a helping hand.

This is the ethos that was at the epicenter of Sargent Shriver’s work when he became the first director of the Peace Corps, as well as when he founded VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), the domestic equivalent. The model for these and other service programs is to recruit, train, and fund volunteers to work in local communities, enhancing skills, capacity, and knowledge in the areas such as education, health, business development, environment, youth, and agriculture.

While the Peace Corps is rightly oriented toward helping the global poor in the far reaches of the developing world, here in our own American backyard we have ample service opportunities – especially in the midst of our economic recession.

America is struggling. It ranks highest among developed nations in inequality levels and poverty rates.

Since joblessness often stems from lack of skills and poor education, one way of increasing employment is to better fund capacity-building service programs within high-need, low-income communities. By doing this, we can equip poor populations with the tools needed to better their economic situation.

Increased service in America can simultaneously make our country and global community safer because employment, education, and peace are interlinked. Statistics tell us, for example, that a 1 percent increase in unemployment is accompanied by a 6 percent increase in homicides. They tell us that a 10 percent drop in male enrollment in secondary school increases the risk of violent conflict by roughly 4 percent. And they show that the higher the percentage living in relative poverty, the higher the number of violent offenses.

Now apply these numbers to a city such as Baltimore, with relatively high unemployment and school dropout rates approaching near-pandemic levels. Baltimore maintains one of the lowest secondary school graduation rates in the country, only about 34 percent who enter, graduate. The fact that the city also tops the charts on violent crime with five times the national murder rate, three times the national robbery rate, and nearly three times the national aggravated assault and arson rates, is not lost on city educators and labor departments.

Or apply these numbers to the US security quagmires, such as the tribal regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where unemployment rates are staggeringly high, educational enrollment is low, and average income rates are as meager as $15 per month. The violence there, too, is not coincidental.

Why Pay to Volunteer – How do you answer that question?

‘Why pay to volunteer’ – probably the question we all hear most from potential travelers – how are you answering? If you have a link on your site that explains it then copy and paste below in the comments so we can all learn.

This article is by Le Ann  Joy Adam and I’ve seen it used a lot – my questions are: 1. is this still valid? 2. what would we need to add to encompass the full experience?

Why Pay Money to Volunteer?

Reflections from Nicaragua on the Benefits of Arranged Volunteerism by Le Ann Joy Adam

There was a time when I fully shared the thinly veiled suspicion behind this frequently asked question. At a time when many young people have some of the most sought-after skills in a booming job market, it is easy to understand a student’s reluctance to pay to volunteer. One of the most common requests from my advisees is for assistance finding volunteer opportunities in developing countries, so the issue of why one should pay for placement in a volunteer internship comes up again and again. It would be easy to simply explain that the placement organizations have certain overhead costs. But instead I try to educate them about the realities of short-term volunteer work that I have learned from experience.

Last summer I was a volunteer in Nicaragua for six weeks. The year before that (after Hurricane Mitch), I worked to send medical supplies and other aid to the needy throughout Central America with community groups and Central Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area. I found my niche as an organizer, information resource, and fundraiser, and I felt that I was making the best contribution I could.

I lacked technical knowledge and experience providing aid to victims of natural disasters and feared I would be more a hindrance than a help if I went to Central America then. I did, however, make plans to spend the summer as a volunteer in Nicaragua, after the worst of the crisis had passed. I wanted to use a Spanish language school as a base so I could improve my Spanish, benefit from a homestay, and also have an established connection with the local community. I felt I was experienced and resourceful enough to arrange a volunteer internship on my own and imagined I could save a lot of money with the extra effort. I also wanted to be completely independent of any political or religious affiliation that might influence my experience.

Using the Internet, I searched for nongovernmental development organizations seeking volunteers. Estelí, the second largest city in Nicaragua, has two Spanish language schools, numerous nongovernmental organizations associated with the women’s movement, and a long history of contributions by international volunteers. The organization seemed to offer the potential to work with a variety of community issues: domestic violence, street children, and hurricane recovery efforts. After one phone call and limited email correspondence with the organization, I committed to spending the summer working with them, hoping to learn and to contribute.

When I arrived in Nicaragua, the organization I had planned to work with had fallen victim to a lack of funding and interference from government bureaucracy. However, determined to make good use of my time in Estelí, I studied Spanish in the mornings and in the afternoons worked with members of the community in development projects and political and social action groups.

The Importance of Continuity in Volunteering

Overall, it was a powerful learning experience. But having learned the hard way that the kind of relationship you envision cannot always be established in a short period of time, I now encourage everyone I talk to about volunteer internships to go through a well-established placement organization. Organizations establish long-term relationships with community groups and help compensate them for the time they spend mentoring volunteers. This is particularly important in poor, grass-roots settings.

In Nicaragua, I often heard the comment that “volunteers come and go” without apparent regard for the importance of long-term, sustainable development. I also learned that volunteers are sometimes “more a burden than an asset” to many organizations because of their lack of technical knowledge, language skills, and cultural sensitivity. Yet volunteer programs do benefit the host country’s economy, promote positive values, enrich lives, and serve the important purpose of strengthening the people-to-people ties that have proven such a powerful instrument of international mutual understanding. Placement organizations have invested the necessary time, patience, and resources needed to build trust and ensure safe and appropriate placements for volunteers.

The Benefits of Volunteer Organizations

While going through an organized program can also have its pitfalls the benefits include:

  • Orientation. This usually includes important predeparture reading material as well as on-site orientation on local culture, history, and customs.
  • Language and technical training.
  • Arranged accommodations. A supportive and caring homestay environment provides an important connection to the culture and a first-hand view of social and political events in country.
  • A Safety Net.Staff are there to provide logistical and emotional support.
  • Clear Expectations.The volunteer’s responsibilities are clear and well-defined.
  • Affordability.When you calculate the difference between traveling to a country on your own and the cost of participating in a program, you might be surprised by how little the difference is. Of course, many people successfully arrange their own volunteer internships. But in virtually every case, those who come away with a satisfying experience have strong ties in the host country as well as technical experience or specialized skills in areas such as medicine, teaching English, construction, and agriculture. Even with an organization, there is no guarantee that the experience will be 100 percent trouble-free. Those who want such guarantees should probably consider a vacation on a cruise ship.

My advice to the would-be volunteer with good intentions, great organizational skills, and a real interest in international development and cross-cultural education is to allow an experienced organization to channel that energy, intelligence, good intentions into an established internship program.

LE ANN JOY ADAM worked as the Overseas Resource Coordinator at Stanford Univ.

Domino Features Volunteer Vacations

Cynthia really tried to capture the essence of a volunteer vacation in her article below, we talked a lot during the whole process and I think its a great summary of voluntourism. To read the full article have a look at:

giving vacation

I couldn’t believe it took only two days to construct a stove.

Every so often I look out my cubicle window at all the skyscrapers and think, How did I end up in corporate America? Wasn’t I going to save the world? It might be too late for that (besides, I like my husband and my comfy house), but maybe not for a new kind of vacation I’d heard about, where you do a mini Peace Corps–type stint—as short as a week, as long as a year—and even get to have some fun. After a little research, I called an agency named Global Vision International and signed up for two weeks in Guatemala.

“Stovers and teachers, up to the terrace,” said our group leader, a charismatic Owen Wilson look-alike. All 15 of us were gathering at the staff house, a typical expat flat with tiled floors and scrounged furniture. A British computer programmer who’d already been there for six weeks led me upstairs, where I was introduced to an airline executive from Los Angeles and a middle-school teacher from Nevada. Local hosts were putting us up in Antigua; each morning, we’d be driven to the villages to help the Maya, who make up a majority of the country’s population, and who, in many communities, have an illiteracy rate of 80 percent and earn about $1 a day.

The women cook on open fires in the middle of their small bamboo-and-cane huts. Not only is the smoke extremely carcinogenic, but kids sometimes fall into the flames.

For our jobs, we got to choose between teaching Spanish to Mayan children or building stoves. Choosing the latter was a no-brainer (and not just because I don’t speak Spanish well). A stove, which pipes the cancer-causing smoke out of the hut, can add 15 years to family members’ lives and cut firewood usage by 70 percent, saving tons of trees in an area that’s rapidly being deforested. Figuring out how I felt about the rest of my situation was more complicated. The thing I like about traveling is what Spalding Gray called the “perfect moment”—that sudden feeling you sometimes get on a trip when you are so alive, so at one with the universe, that you can go home knowing the possibility of perfection is out there. Would I get it from being in homes so devastatingly different from my own? Or would I simply feel guilty about my fat-cat First-World life?

CNN Features Voluntourism Again

It’s that time of the year for the mandatory alternative spring break article, interesting though how its about domestic volunteering and not international travel this year.

FYI – Better Homes & Gardens’ March issue has a whole story on international voluntourism in the back as does Delta’s in flight mag.

(CNN) — This spring break, thousands of college students will ditch the bars and the beaches to do something more meaningful with their vacation time.

Brad Vonck (bottom, left) and other student volunteers worked with the Cherokee Nation in Stilwell, Oklahoma.

Brad Vonck is one of them. A sophomore at the University of Illinois, Vonck will travel to San Juan, Texas, in a group of 13 students to volunteer with La Union del Pueblo Entero, an organization that helps strengthen the communities and lives of farm workers and their families.

“Learning about different cultures is very important to me,” Vonck said. “I like to engage in different areas of life that I don’t really understand.”

Every year, more and more college students, like Vonck, are choosing to spend their valuable time off from school participating in “alternative spring break” programs — community service-based opportunities dealing with the most pressing issues of the day, including hunger and homelessness, disaster relief and global warming.

“If you can name a social issue, then students are doing trips around it,” said Jill Piacitelli, executive director of Break Away, an organization that trains and helps colleges across the United States promote alternative break programs.

For the past six years, these programs have been growing in popularity among college students. Break Away estimated that this year, nearly 65,000 students will participate in its alternative break programs, an 11 percent increase from 2008.

“It’s a student-led social movement. … This is a group that very much wants to be involved in the world around them,” Piacitelli said of the volunteers. “They’re solution-oriented. They want to innovate and lead and involve their peers.”

The average domestic trip costs around $250 or $300, Piacitelli said, which includes “housing, travel, social activities, food and often a donation to the community.”

Many university programs offer financial aid and the option to raise money to help pay for trips. “It is rare that anyone who wants to go on a trip cannot go,” Piacitelli said. The affordability is part of the reason why so many students return for second or third trips.

Voluntourism in Appalachia

I recently watched the Diane Sawyer special on Appalachia, it got my attention enough that I tweeted a simple note wondering why we send people to volunteer abroad but Appalachia needs our help just as much. In reply to that tweet I got a bunch of volunteer operators saying they would love to get involved in Appalachian programs but they don’t know of any good partners. I also got a reply from Rachel Gossett of the Appalachia Service Project saying they needed volunteers. I asked her to write a little blurb for me, so have a look below.

It’s an interesting option for voluntourism operators – as people are keeping their budgets tighter but still want to volunteer – why not introduce some domestic opportunities?

Appalachia Service Project (ASP) is a home repair mission organization that makes houses warmer, safer and drier at no cost to families in need, while offering life-changing experiences for the families, volunteers, and staff alike.  Each year, ASP brings 15,000 volunteers from all over the country to repair 500 homes throughout Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.  High school students can serve with ASP during our summer Youth Program, and we also offer a program designed specifically for adults that operates September-May each year.

Even with all the volunteers and resources we have today, ASP can serve only one in ten families that apply for our home repair assistance. Choosing which family we serve (and which nine families we have to turn down) is a difficult decision, and we base it on a number of factors, including proximity of the house to the center and hardware store, depth of home repair need, whether children are present in the home, monthly family income, and the list goes on and on.

The communities in which ASP serves generally have poverty rates up to three times the national average. In the Central Appalachian region we serve…

  • 8,500 homes lack adequate kitchens
  • 9,000 homes lack complete plumbing
  • Nearly half of the families have household incomes below $20,000
  • One in four lives below the poverty level – more than 50,000 children, 90,000 adults, & 15,000 elderly

For more information on ASP’s Adult Program please visit: or call Rachel Gossett at 423.854.4408.

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!