Voluntourism – the high road or the low road?

Great thought provoking article written by the folks at Voluntours in South Africa.

“Is it just a matter of time before

South Africa features as one of

these ‘irresponsible’ volunteer destinations?”

Although it is ultimately the volunteer who decides with which organisation they want to volunteer with and who will receive their hard earned money, it is vital that organisations provide responsible and ethical programmes. It is disturbing to see more and more articles online in which volunteers are over-promised and under-delivered. Is it just a matter of time before South Africa features as one of these “irresponsible” volunteer destinations?

UK volunteers have been scammed time and again, read about some of their experiences at the Telegraph and at The Times Online


Admittedly there is a growing awareness from consumers that they should do their homework properly. But even then, many websites look “responsible and ethical” – they use all the right terminology, are picked out by search engines looking for these key words or phrases. “Green washing” is difficult to see through and many websites promote themselves as ethical and responsible organisations.

Voluntourism in South Africa is booming! Every day we come across another operator starting up. Some plagiarising material from our own website without even attempting to change the wording. On face-value these websites looks good and say all the right things. But look a bit deeper and the cracks start to emerge. Some of them are not registered companies, some do not list their company registration number, some operate without a physical address, some only have a mobile number to contact them on …. and the list goes on.


The global trend of large wholesale tour operators offering voluntourism products has come to South Africa. A potential shortcoming in a lot of voluntourism models is that they operate their programmes like a normal retail travel booking – your community placement or should I rather say “booking” is automatically guaranteed and your money is taken. Importantly no screening or matching of skill takes place. What this means in practice is that the receiving community – in some cases vulnerable communities, with little rights and influence, often with OVC (Orphans and/or Vulnerable Children) in their midst – has no say on who comes into their community or what they will be doing. This “push” approach to volunteering does not always take into account the needs of the community and brings its own set of risks. In a worse-case scenario these operators could be sending paedophiles to work with children.

Voluntourism has many risks that communities themselves may not be aware of. Despite these risks, they often “buy-in” to voluntourism because of the promise of a monetary donation. One of the risks being that dependency is created and/or increased. And in some cases, the community often does not have the capacity to effectively utilize the large number of volunteers sent to them. If voluntourism is to make a sustainable contribution to communities then it is important that they do not replace local labour, but rather should work with local labour. Much of the “work” that volunteers are asked to do can and should be done by employing local labour. Should volunteer programmes be geared more at passing on higher-order skills than doing basic maintenance and repair work?


Volunteers should look beyond marketing-speak when selecting their volunteer organisation. Look at the way the organisation presents and markets itself, and what’s in it for the community. Some volunteer placement companies offer very short-term placements – this can range from a few half-days to a day or two where they are told they can make a difference. While others, offer a day or two in the community to “pass-on-skills” before driving their tour-bus onto the next waiting community. How best can the needs of the community be served? Are volunteers really able to pass on skills in a day or two? Should operators be educating their clients on the pitfalls of short-term volunteering or are they meeting a demand?

South Africa’s voluntourism market needs to look at the real issues before offering a community-based project. As a voluntourist destination, South Africa should be providing an ethical product and not placing our communities at unnecessary risk. As an operator you need to ask yourself, have you thought through the implications and risks of offering a community-based volunteer programme?


Should there be an independent body to “accredit” or certify responsible operators or programmes working with minors? Should we looking at best practice in the UK and the US where it is mandatory for anyone wanting to volunteer with children / minors to have a police clearance issued? Do you see the voluntourism industry regulating itself or will government step-in?

VOLUNTOURS published a Code of Good Practice: Volunteering in South Africa and we encourage other organisations to join us and adopt this Code thereby making South Africa more of a responsible volunteering destination.

Projects Abroad Volunteering as Crowdsourcing?

Interesting take on volunteering, nice essay from the folks at Projects Abroad – thanks Will for sending over.

Projects Abroad Volunteering as Crowdsourcing, By Thomas Pastorius

The most famous example of Crowdsourcing is Wikipedia.  By accepting the input from random web surfers, Wikipedia has built an Encyclopedia that rivals Britannica.  Less famous, but more important, has been crowdsourcing’s impact on computer programming.  Open Source programs like Firefox and Linux, which were created and tested primarily by amateur volunteers in their free time, have changed the business models of Microsoft and Cisco.

Crowdsourcing is about more than just computers: it’s about using groups of amateurs to solve a problem.  In fact, crowdsourcing is the very same concept that Projects Abroad uses in setting up its self-funded service projects.  Like the makers of Wikipedia and Firefox, Projects Abroad defines projects and creates the infrastructure that enables motivated amateur volunteers to do their work.  By collecting and focusing the group’s efforts, Projects Abroad creates effective solutions at a fraction of the cost of traditional international development agencies.

Self-funded volunteering is changing the way that we think of international service work, just as open source software is changing the computer business.  We’re both bringing down costs, involving a broader community of people, and creating a generation with real connections to a project that is bigger than any individual.  As with most changes, some groups stand to lose in the revolution, and those groups will naturally fight against it.  For example, Microsoft complains that Open Source programming does not produce quality products, that it exploits the contributions of individuals, and that it has a higher failure rate than other software endeavors.  In the same way, traditional development charities and aid organizations complain about the quality and values of self-funded volunteering.

Contrary to their claims, the results speak for themselves.  To start, take just the economic benefits of Projects Abroad: our 5,500 volunteers will create over $45 million of local expenditure in 2009 alone.  Since this expenditure is not touristic or administrative, but is used mainly on locally provided services, a significantly higher than average multiplier effect should also be expected.

Moreover, the service work provided by our volunteers is well received.  In fact, this week Dr. Peter Slowe, Founder and President of Projects Abroad, is presenting at the Conference on Tourism and the Third Sector in Neuchatel, Switzerland on this very topic.  Dr. Slowe’s research indicates that 70% of our placements view the impact of our volunteers’ work as either “positive” or “strongly positive,” while only 11% considered it “negative” or “strongly negative.”

I believe that the 2000s will be remembered as the time when we discovered, as one of my idols James Surowiecki called it, The Wisdom of Crowds.  We discovered that a group of motivated amateurs, when organized into the right structure, can effect enormous positive change and create innovative new solutions.  Projects Abroad is an important part of this movement because it brings the power of crowdsourcing out of the computing world and into – not just the real world but – the parts of the real world that need it most.

Abercrombie & Kent Offers Luxury Voluntourism

First the Ritz, now Abercrombie & Kent – ‘luxury’ voluntourism seems to be on the rise, but is the phrase an oxymoron in itself? How do you successfully merge giving back while charging a high price tag? The Ritz has been criticized but A&K seem to be making the most responsible shot at it that i’ve seen – what do you think? $9,995 for 11 days in East Africa, 4 projects and a safari.

Here is an excerpt from their recent press release:

“It began with a commitment to preserve whatever we found, wherever we went.”  Thus begins the introduction to a new Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy web site (www.akphilanthropy.org), which showcases opportunities for travellers to become involved with 50 pioneering projects worldwide.

“As travel increasingly becomes about the things money cannot buy – shared experiences and treasured memories – more and more of our guests want to make a personal connection and a positive contribution to the places they visit,” says Abercrombie & Kent Vice Chairman Jorie Butler Kent, who guides Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy. “We hope to use this new web site to multiply the impact of what our guests have started.”

Working through A&K’s offices around the world, Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy identifies and supports proven grassroots organizations. Guests who want to give something back can contribute to one of these local projects with a tax-deductible donation which can be made directly through the secure AKP web site. 100% of all donations go directly to the chosen project.  Guests travelling on many of A&K’s small group escorted journeys, private Signature itineraries or Tailor Made programs can visit projects in person, learning more about their destination through the work of its most dedicated people


Voluntourism as a Honeymoon Option?

Interesting article about honeymoons and voluntourism – it seems to be a growing trend, are you finding that with your company? Is it possibly a market you should considering targeting?


(and yes I admit this is a shameless plug for an article I helped with, but on a FAM this week and no time to write a real post =)

To Have and To Hold – and to Help

Many newlyweds opt for candles, champagne toasts and rose-petal-covered beds, but Meghan Courtney and Rich Shaner had a different idea of romance.

Their honeymoon was a little dirty. And sweaty. And exhausting. And not at all what you’re thinking.

Courtney and Shaner, who were married Aug. 1 in Pennsylvania, honeymooned in Boulder to help build a house with the Flatirons Habitat for Humanity.

“We wanted something other than the standard Hawaii trip, a different take on the honeymoon,” Courtney said. “They had some pretty elaborate honeyteering trips abroad, but they were too extreme for us, so we looked to create our own and give back.”

Honeyteering. That’s the media-coined phrase for volunteer honeymoons — lumped in with another word fusion: voluntourism.

Despite the economy and its gloomy tourism numbers, voluntourism is still booming, according to the State of the Volunteer Travel Industry survey by Littleton-based Lasso Communications. In fact, 61 percent of travel companies surveyed said they expected to send more volunteers abroad this year than last, and 16 percent expected the same amount.

About 9 percent of these people travel with their partner, according to another study, Volunteer Travel Insights 2009 by GeckoGo.

Not many. Yet one of the greatest complaints about volunteer vacations is that people get lonely and want someone to decompress with, the studies found. Not to mention, the GeckoGo study found that 99 percent of participants thought their trip was meaningful or very meaningful. Some respondents said it was the best experience of their lives.

Sharing that with your new life partner can deepen the relationship, advocates say.

Alexia Nestoria, of Littleton, is a consultant for the volunteer travel industry who writes the blog voluntourismgal.com.

She attributes the volunteerism growth to an extension of the green movement; a weak job market that has pushed graduates to look for alternate kinds of experience; and layoffs that have left Americans with more time on their hands.

“I think honeymoons are changing, to be honest. It’s no longer a booze cruise or lying on the beach,” Nestoria said. “Budgets are tighter, and people want every dollar to count.”

Plus, the generation that is getting married right now is more aware of the need to help. They are savvy travelers who ask questions and want to know where their dollars are going.


Voluntourism Effective Practice Guidelines Published

A great piece of work by the good folks at PEPY Ride and Karina Kloos, what are your thoughts on the guidelines? How can they be improved?

Read the whole version here: http://lessonsilearned.org/2009/09/voluntourism101/

Volunteer Tourism Effective Practices

Volunteer Tourism Effective Practices is designed for tour operators who are looking to or already incorporating volunteer projects into their trips. Additionally, we hope it will also serve development organizations, volunteer tourism participants and community members in helping to identify and engage in great volunteer projects. We gathered research, input and experience from many people working in the areas of voluntourism, development, and traveler’s philanthropy to create this guideline and are grateful for those who have contributed their input. This is a working, living resource, meaning that we are continually seeking feedback in the form of opinions, experiences, lessons learned and anecdotes relating to the outlined effective practices, and responses to the design and content of this guideline. Through our collective efforts, we hope to minimize potentially damaging consequences of volunteer tourism and maximize the good intentions of everyone involved.


1. Responsibly identify partner organizations

This section is intended to help tour operators identify volunteer project partners (NGO, nonprofit, social venture). For tour operators organizing and offering their own volunteer projects directly to participants, the same indicators and questions apply with regard to the projects and host community relations.

Locally Run Community Programs

  • Are project leaders based locally?
  • Are project leaders working in close collaboration with the local community?
  • Are project leaders familiar with the region: local businesses, organizations, government officials; customs, traditions, and laws?

Community Buy-In

  • Was the volunteer project/ community interaction designed in consultation with the community based on community interests and needs?
  • Does the project have the ongoing support and involvement of the community?

Long-Term Program Sustainability

  • Does the partner organization have a stable relationship with the community?
  • Can the partner organization be relied upon throughout the planning and implementation of the project involved?
  • Is the project geared toward building capacity within the community to manage its own long-term development?
  • Was the volunteer project/ community interaction designed to further progress on a larger goal, which existed before volunteers arrive and will continue after they leave?

Corruption Mitigation

  • Has the partner organization developed relationships with community members?
  • Has the partner organization set up a monitoring and evaluation system, which involves checks and balances as well as outsider input and assessment?
  • Does the partner organization have a deep understanding of local customs and laws?
  • Do project leaders speak the local language?
  • If there are select beneficiaries (certain members or families within a community, or one community rather then another) of the program, is the selection criteria transparent?

Documentation and Reporting Structures

  • Can the partner organization demonstrate reliable documentation, measurement and reporting about their organizational operations?
  • Is the partner organization legally registered in the areas in which they work?
  • Are they actively measuring and reporting the short- and long-term effects of their projects?
  • Are the financial reports of the organization transparent, both annual and project-specific reports?
  • Is the partner organization willing to openly discuss the use of the program budget?

Ethos and Ethical Alignment

  • Do you share the social, environmental, and development values of the partnering organization?
  • Do you have a similar philosophical approach towards community development, and ecological / heritage preservation?
  • Do you share the same project goals?
  • Is there clear discussion and understanding of any cultural or organizational differences?
  • Have you consulted references from your own sources (not only sources provided by the partner), to better understand perceptions and impacts of the partnering organization?

2. Build relationships based on collaborative project management and assessment with the partner organization

The impact volunteer tourism trips have on the volunteers and host communities will depend largely on the partnership between the organization and tour operator. Miscommunication, misunderstandings and any problems that exist could potentially undermine the efforts of everyone involved and so it is important to think of how best to manage the communication and responsibilities of the organizers.

Project Monitoring and Assessment

  • Are there communication channels in place for any project updates or changes?
  • Are there monitoring structures in place to evaluate volunteer impact and the capacity to make any necessary adjustments?

Project Follow Through

  • Are there clear expectations of how long the tour operator will provide volunteer support and how that aligns with the expected duration of the project needs?
  • Are there built-in protections in the volunteer projects design against unpredictable fluctuations in the number of volunteer participants? (how might a decline in tourism affect the outcome of the project?)

Volunteer Planning

  • Is it clear who is responsible for providing to volunteers any necessary pre-trip information regarding the issues the volunteer project addresses, the volunteer project itself the partner organization and the host community?
  • Is the partner organization provided with information about volunteers?
  • Is it clear who is responsible for any follow up information or activities with volunteers?

Memorandum of Understanding

  • Have you developed a clear understanding of responsibilities and expectations for both organizations?
  • Do you have in place structures for continual assessment and re-evaluation of partnership relations, project goals, volunteer experiences and community impact?
  • Do you have documentation of all agreements?

3. Ensure beneficial relationship for partner organization and host community

With increasing interest in volunteer tourism, there are increasing demands on tour companies to incorporate volunteer projects in their tours. Tour operators “and volunteers “ should keep in mind how their efforts are actually contributing to the needs of the recipient organization and community.

Volunteer Contribution

  • Do volunteers provide valuable services to the organization and community? (Some questions to consider: Do volunteers provide locally unavailable skilled labor? Do volunteers provide services that would otherwise be costly for partner organizations? Are volunteers taking the place of local jobs?)
  • Does volunteer participation in the project contribute negatively to the local environment?
  • Is volunteer participation culturally appropriate?
  • Will the volunteer be employed in a position, which will create dependence or create a void when the volunteer leaves? Alternatively, will their position build the capacity of local people and programs to better sustain themselves once the volunteer is gone?  (For example, is the volunteer teaching English directly to children? Or teaching teachers how to improve their English thereby providing capacity building to the teachers?)

Financial Contribution

  • Might the financial contribution be more effective than volunteers?
  • Are the financial costs of hosting volunteers considered?
  • Would a financial contribution help to sustain ongoing project needs?
  • Would a financial contribution potentially create any dependencies?


4. Design projects based on local needs and input as well as volunteer sustainability

Again, the increasing demands on tour companies to incorporate volunteer projects in their tours can potentially lead to poorly designed projects that cater to volunteers’ interests rather than – and sometimes at the expense of – the needs of the host organization and community. This section is intended to help ensure that projects are designed on a needs basis.

Project Planning and Design

  • Is a representative from the partner organization and/or community involved in all steps of the volunteer project planning and implementation?
  • Is the community directly contributing to the project in any way?  Did beneficiaries have to earn these contributions in some way?
  • Does the short-term project contribute to the long-term goals and needs of the organization and community?
  • Are volunteer projects adaptable? ie: if project timelines or community needs change, can the volunteer project be altered to meet the new demands?
  • Are projects adaptable to changing tourism trends? ie: might  the project discontinue if tourism declines in that area?

Volunteer Contributions

  • Are volunteers’ skills appropriately matched to the projects’ needs and activities?
  • Are there valuable tasks accessible for non-technical or “unskilled” volunteers, especially if the trip is being solicited to unskilled volunteers?


  • Does planning allow for flexibility if/when the project needs change?
  • Would the timing of the volunteer project potentially keep the progress of the project or other related project on hold?
  • If the trip is designed to be repeated, is there time allowed for potential changes to the volunteer interaction based on the assessment of previous volunteer projects?

Read the whole version here: http://lessonsilearned.org/2009/09/voluntourism101/