Is Voluntourism Dead?

Something Scott Gilmore recently wrote seems to be ringing true with a lot of operators I have talked to recently; “You get what you pay for. Volunteer staff are never as effective as paid employees.  Yes, please, regale me with tales of the group down at the local church who get together every other Sunday to sew dresses for poor African girls. But let me ask you this: If you lived in earthquake country, would you rather your kids went to class in a school built by volunteers, or one built by certified, paid professionals?”

Companies that send volunteers abroad have told me that their numbers are down YOY, some are even thinking of shutting doors altogether – where do you stand?

Let’s first look at what has contributed to this possible decline:

  • Market saturation
  • Price competition
  • Bad projects were created resulting in negative media about voluntourism, there are no more fluffy stories out there
  • Disintermediation (it’s happening with adventure travel as well) – volunteers are still going abroad in droves they are just booking directly with the project and not using an intermediary.

My take? I think that the number of people going abroad to volunteer is always on the rise, but I think the number that are going direct versus going through a company has dramatically increased. You have an ethically minded traveler to begin with, and if they can leave all of their money in Nepal versus 50% of it in a marketing office in New York, I think travelers are leaning towards that option. We have seen this trend in adventure travel for the last few years and now I think it is starting to happen to voluntourism.



7 thoughts on “Is Voluntourism Dead?

  1. The reputable non-profit voluntourism organizations have a philosophy that understands the issues involved with professional work versus unskilled volunteer labor. When I went down to Nicaragua with an organization that does water sanitation projects, the project was really managed by professional labor. Our role as volunteers was subsidiary and carefully supervised, and more importantly, our role was as much or more about community partnership. When voluntourism operators are focused on cultural exchange, bridging international differences, and partnership, a lot of those objections that you cited go away.

    It’s great if people want to go off on their own to a foreign land and volunteer directly at a site, but that kind of volunteer work is different than that offered by reputable voluntourism organizations. It’s a different kind of focus that is not just about the labor–the labor is really part of a complete package that focuses on community issues.

    And for many people, traveling overseas to another country, where one speaks the language poorly if at all, where crime rates are high and the infrastructure is poor, there is value added in being part of a group of people who travel there together, where personal safety is paramount, where translation services are available, and where community exchange and learning activities can be incorporated into the overall schedule of activities.

    I think both kinds of volunteering–the group and community focused, and the individual traveling on their own to donate their labor–have their place.

  2. Pingback: VolunTourism In The Context Of Globalization, Personalization, And Education

  3. Interesting post, Alexia.

    But no mention of the bad economy the last couple of years as a factor? I think it’s a major one – although perhaps only time will tell.

    Speaking of saturation: I get emails every day from organizations abroad asking me to send them volunteers – to Africa, Israel, India, you name it. I used to receive just a few of these emails every month, but now I get 5-10 emails every day – and rarely repeat ones. It seems anyone with an email address (not even a website) has jumped into this business the last few years.

    Also, no question that more travelers are volunteering abroad “on their own” without intermediaries. Many of my own alumni return to the host country with friends and colleagues and basically help the latter for free, taking the place of organizations like mine. (No sour grapes, I’m just reporting.)

    Lastly, I still see plenty of fluffy stories out there about voluntourism. But yes, I am seeing more and more articles questioning the industry, which I hope will weed out eventually the bad operators.

  4. Totally agree. One note on the economy. Adventure travel and volunteer travel tend to track fairly similar as they aren’t that different – travelers wanting a cultural experience.

    Over the last 6 months adventure operators have started to rise steadily out of the economic slump but from the operators I’ve talked to volunteer orgs are still down YOY.

  5. I’m late to the party. Sorry. Not dead. But certainly on life support. The majority of people coming to our site, and that’s about 1200 people per day, 7 days a week, go to the PAID opportunities. Last year those pages trended up, the year before that they were never touched.

    The economy is NOT better. People are spending more, yes. But they are buying fridges that broke, a new clothes washer. The things they need. They are NOT buying travel. Just in the last week I have heard of 2 reputable vollie orgs shutting down. 3 more in serious trouble. And these aren’t the “bad ones.” They are wearing the white hats.

    2 years ago, people were laid off, had a nice severance, used it to travel and escape and they enhanced their resumes. Now people who are lucky enough to find a job are getting, after one year, a 2-week vacation and they are NOT able to take it all at once. No one in that demographic has a month to give.

    Certainly the bad press doesn’t help. And the guys who offer programs at $120/week have done their share to hurt, not help. All of us…ALL OF US…who are senders of volunteers know you cannot do this on $120/week.

    I think the industry ate itself. Massive pile on. Massive jerks offering scant trips for less than they cost. Of the 12 orgs I reached out to, 100% of them are either down, out or at best, flat.

    • Randy- I am looking for a reputable non-profit voluntourism organization to work with to go on my honeymoon this december. Can you recommend any? I am completely new to this too. Any tips or advice you would be willing to give would be greatly appreciated.

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