“Exploitation of young gappers and vulnerable communities MUST stop” – or should it?

Sallie Grayson sent me this controversial article – what do you think? I’m off to Nepal so the blog will take a hiatus but let’s keep the debate raging.


“Irresponsible, lazy, ignorant, insensitive, disrespectful, uninformed and with no purpose”

This is the opinion of people and places – which is a volunteer recruitment organisation! But they’re not talking about young ‘gappers’ here. They’re talking about many of the organisations that recruit these young people for “volunteer” experiences.


people and places work has just been recognised by the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards – the most prestigious and competitive of their kind in the world – winning the best volunteering category for 2009.


Judges Citation: “people and places has exercised leadership in a sector bedevilled by poor practice and established a replicable business model. Committed to reporting transparently on the money that volunteers pay, they ensure that the volunteers meet their full costs and are not a burden on the community; and carefully match the skills of volunteers to the needs of that community without replacing local labour. They have taken the ground breaking step of having their work externally audited and publishing it online. These four principles set not only a practicable standard for operators to aspire to, but offer valuable guidelines for tourists seeking legitimate and socially beneficial volunteering experiences.”

people and places has been working with local communities in Africa, Asia and South America for the last 4 years, matching skilled volunteers to community needs, with the vast majority of volunteers to date having been over 35, with hard skills to offer.

Now the organisation believes this programme can be extended to the GAP market. As a campaigning organisation, it is keen to bring about change in this least responsible sector of the volunteer market.

“There’s much debate about the validity of volunteering by the traditional ‘gapper’ – post school or university,” says Sallie Grayson, programme director at people and places, “but we firmly believe that these young people have real skills to share, and that with good management and planning, they can help to make a real difference in the communities we serve as well as having a meaningful adventure.

“We’ve worked with our local partners and their communities to design volunteer placements specifically for ‘gappers’, adding a younger element to the larger programme. These young people won’t be replacing local employment and will be part of an ongoing programme that is helping vulnerable communities build the future they want for themselves. We started people and places to campaign for integrity in the volunteer travel market and to promote responsible volunteering – we’re proud that our work has been recognised by such prestigious awards, but we’re not using this as an excuse to rest on our laurels! We see this award as an opportunity to raise the bar and challenge others to do the same.

Well-run volunteer placements provide true social interaction and can develop a profound understanding among people – they can be life-changing experiences for volunteers and local communities.

BUT, all too often, a volunteer trip can be a recipe for disaster – for both parties.

When host communities are vulnerable and eager for assistance, it is a common occurrence for them to be bullied or exploited by volunteer service providers. All too often, a project has little say in the numbers or experience of volunteers who they feel obliged to accept. This lack of consultation can have devastating results – a school may be sent 10 or 12 young volunteers who find themselves hanging around with little to do, other than get in the way of hard pressed local people; gullible (but not guilty) young volunteers may arrive in their projects to discover that their hosts cannot afford to feed them because they cannot afford to feed themselves; volunteers find out that none of their hard earned money has found its way to these hard pressed communities.


There is often equally serious exploitation of young gappers.


“We hear far too many stories from young volunteers of abandonment at airports, last minute changes to completely inappropriate projects, placement in communities where no-one knows anything about them or the fact that they’re coming – until they’re “dropped of” by the local representative (who they can’t contact for the rest of their stay.)


“Inaccurate information is breathtaking and bordering on illegal – descriptions of homestay families who aren’t real but more of a ‘template’ to give a general idea of where these vulnerable young people “may” be staying.”


But how do trusting, well-meaning gappers find themselves in this kind of situation?


All too many volunteer organisations sell a smoke and mirrors promise, using all the buzz words and taking advantage of the fact that they can tell volunteers what they want to hear: “responsible, meaningful, sustainable, ethical, community driven – SAFE!”

people and places has developed a list of questions to ask – and they strongly suggest that all potential volunteers should ask these questions of any organisation they are considering travelling with.

“There are good organisations out there – usually with little or no marketing budget to compete with the presence of ‘the big boys’ – organisations like Blue Ventures, Peru’s Challenge, CREES, Azafady. We want to encourage gappers to find them, and we’ve produced the questions as a helpful tool – we also want gappers to search the chat rooms and forums, read newspaper archives, talk to their friends and families about volunteering.

“And if you’ve had a bad experience, post it on the web or contact us and we’ll post it.

“The bottom line is – do your research – use your head, not your heart!”

Supporting Local NGOs

So pretty much once a week an NGO in a developing country comes to me and asks how they can attract volunteers to their project. Some are in it for the money and some genuinely need help, my question to all of you operators out there is: what next?

What do you look for in a NGO that helps you decide if they make a good partner or not? What advice should I give them on how to get your ear if their whole premise seems sustainable???

TIME and Research

In case you haven’t read the TIME article about luxury voluntourism that came out this week – here you go: Room Service and a Shovel: The Rise of Voluntourism http://bit.ly/2cy7yd

It also seems that there have been a lot of new stats circulating out there about the industry but none of them have been sourced in any way so, here below is a little refresher of the Volunteer Travel Insights Survey we did with GeckoGo as well as the report on the State of the Industry. Not perfectly scientific but they both give a great pulse!

Mistakes to Avoid when Training Volunteers

The folks at Volunteer Teacher Thailand offered up this great blog post about mistakes they’ve seen made when training volunteers. I think its a great list to start with, what would you add from your experience??

1. Fail to explain the problems volunteers are addressing within the specific cultural environment. It is vital to give volunteers – caring, intelligent people but probably lacking local knowledge – a clear understanding of the local culture and how they fit into it. They need to know the root causes of the problem, how it is being tackled, how they are helping and what difference they are making to the local people, animals or environment.

2. Fail to explain local cultural etiquette, acceptable ways to dress and the kind of behaviour that local people will find respectful and will, in turn, respect. This extends, importantly, into conveying that volunteers are serving the local people and need to adapt to the culture.

3. Fail to explain in detail what the volunteer work involves and how to do it. Getting the best from volunteers and leaving them satisfied with their experience is a skill that should include carefully and kindly making sure everyone knows: a) the work and how to do it; b) the structure of the work, when and where, and the time off; and c) the respect felt by the organisers for people giving their time, within or outside their professional skills, to improve the chances, say, of 500 poor children a week learning English.

4. Fail to balance work demands. Too little work for volunteers is as bad as too much; and the tasks need to take into account the volunteer’s ability and suitability to undertake them.

5. Fail to give constant onsite supervision, help and training. This needs to be done lightly, with tact and with the understanding that the volunteer is a person of value who just has not come across this kind of situation before. The worst mistake is to let anyone take this coordinating/training role who thinks it is a personal ego trip. Post-service help should include a certificate and an open invitation to ask for an employment reference.


This list of training mistakes was compiled by staff volunteers at Volunteer Teacher Thailand, which gives English lessons in schools and among adults in the tsunami-hit areas of southern Thailand. Further details on VTT’s website at www.volunteerteacherthailand.org