Faceless NGOs and Voluntourism

Sarah Van Auken who runs the Volunteer Global blog recently wrote a post called ‘Faceless NGOs’ and it struck on something I’ve believed for a long time. On most voluntourism operator sites the projects/NGOs are talked about but never named and their stories are never fully told. What has this community accomplished as a result of volunteers, what do they have to say, is there a picture of them, what are their development goals?

I understand that there is a hesitance to give NGO names as travelers could go direct, but why not tell their story more on your site? It’s one of the main things travelers ask for when comparing trips.

“Something I’ve noticed while researching international volunteer opportunities is the surprising number of groups who give little to no information about their in-country partners.

I see all too often something like, “Our group works with an organization/NGO in your host community to acheive our common goal of sustainable development/education/child care/etc.” With NO mention of who that NGO or small group is, whether they have a site you can visit, whether it’s run by locals, or what.

My first reaction when coming across groups like these has been to remove them from my website. I see this more often with larger placement groups that serve as a sort of travel agent, rather than volunteer organization. It’s easy to weed these ones out…but I’m concerned that even the small groups who work in one or two communities still have a hard time listing who they work with.

At the very least, could they at least say the name of the NGO? I can see the concern here, as the umbrella groups have a business to run…however, I feel it’s insulting to the NGO to be completely faceless on its “partner” organization’s website, handbook, etc.”


5 thoughts on “Faceless NGOs and Voluntourism

  1. Very nice discussion point to bring up! Voluntraveler gets around this by being the exclusive provider for volunteers for Para el Mundo and we share clear links to the charity. It helps that there is a cross-over when it comes to the staff – all of us at Voluntraveler have a hand in either running or supporting the charity through fundraising and awareness campaigns (like the charity walking tour I’m planning for this weekend).

    Since anyone who wants to volunteer with Para el Mundo (http://www.paraelmundo.org) has to go through us, we are not at all secretive about our partner charity, and instead celebrate their successes publicly with them.

    We hope that in the near future we can partner with other charities that would like to have us help support their volunteer program and be the preferred source for those volunteers. We’re already beginning talks with a few.

    I wonder if the charities on the ground are aware of voluntourism organizations keeping mum about them? I know if I ran a charity, I would want as many people to know my story.

    Jason Kucherawy
    Director – Marketing and Online Media

  2. Hello there,

    Interesting article. Check this out:

    SalaamGarage leads trips that combine adventure travel with citizen journalism (that means you).

    Our trips around the world connect participants with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Participants (citizen journalists or amateur storytellers) create and share unique, independent media projects that raise awareness and cause positive change.
    We are the media now. Join us.


  3. Thanks for posting this! I very much agree that the groups posting about “faceless NGOs” are typically the groups I would avoid. So often, when I see that, I think “Hmmmm…. if i find out who the NGO is, could I not travel with them directly, my funds would then support their work more significantly, and then my funds will avoid the middle man who acts often as no more than a travel agent.” This is very true for the travel agent types who are not adding significant value to the trip where as others of course provide a lot of services which the NGO would not be able to handle on their own.

    At PEPY Tours, we are largely partnering with our own projects, those run by the NGO arm of PEPY, so marketing our NGO work is always important to us. We also market other partners when we do projects with them, but sometimes we come across situations where we debate if/when to include partner info. For example, if there is a small(faceless!) NGO working in rural Cambodia doing AMAZING work that we love, and we want to support them, we might operate a trip to fund their work. We have one such partner and we typically donate about $10-$15,000 per year to them. We do list them on our website, but when sending out press releases, we might leave out there names, not because people will go straight there, but because if they DO go straight there, or if other tour operators do, they typically do not bring significant funding. The NGO gets request from big tour operators saying “can we come by for a visit” and when they do, they stop in, look around and take the staff time, and leave little to no funding.

    We believe in our partner’s work and recognize that volunteers are NOT free, that it takes valuable time and resources away from key projects and staff to host us and we want to more than contribute for our time, we want to FUND their work. At $10-15,000 per year we feel that taking their time for one or two trips a year is worth the trade off. If we hand out their name to operators who might try to exchange a day guided tour of their programs for a $100 donation, we do not think the trade-off is worth it.

    Yes, it is the NGOs responsibility to set the fees and restrictions which are needed to protect their core mission, and no I don’t think that most groups who leave NGO’s names off are doing so for the same reasons. I think most are doing so because they don’t want to tell you their partner because, in reality, they are adding little to no value on top of if you traveled with the group directly, but they are likely adding a lot of fees! One large “volunteer operator” tried to partner with PEPY for a trip before we understood the industry well. They took our $1,500 three week trip and DOUBLED, yes doubled, the price on their site, never listing us just saying a “bike tour through Cambodia supporting educational programs.” 100% mark up with no value added. Good thing people didn’t sign up for the trip as they would have been disappointed to know that 50% of their fees never touched Cambodia at all.

    When we are the group being the partner NGO, yes indeed it is VERY frustrating when your name is left out. Like here, http://content.yudu.com/A17rwm/2009MAY13/resources/index.htm this newspaper article talks about our tours in Cambodia on page 6, mentioning the partner in Dubai (Dubai Cares), but never mentioning PEPY. (This omission was of course the choice of the newspaper, not Dubai Cares.)

    If volunteering sending groups really want to support their partner projects, they should ask the partners if they want their names passed on. If they indeed do want to be listed, the volunteer sending organization can significantly increase support for the groups they are claiming to want to help in the first place by advertising their work. That of course assumes they their priority is indeed to help their “partner” NGOs in the first place versus those with a first priority of making money by selling a product people demand with little care of who/how good the NGOs partners actually are.

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