Tourism Concern Launches Certification for Voluntourism Organizations

This was just tweeted by Tourism Concern. They’ve launched a certification process for voluntourism organizations.

There is a 5-page leaflet you can download that explains what they’ll be doing, including auditing and verification.

Download the report here.

— Check out the comments, join the debate! —

21 thoughts on “Tourism Concern Launches Certification for Voluntourism Organizations

  1. We will regulate you and give you a certificate also. We would like to see a copy of your financials. We’d like to take a look at your Marketing strategy. Oh…and while your sending all that to us for the certificate (not sure what it will say but whatever it is, we’ll put it on really nice paper) please send us your mailing list and leads. The certificate is 8×10. But if you send us your leads each month (we just want to verify them), we’ll send the certificate framed.

    Now, I’m assuming you are going to tell me your programs are fantastic and you have your own projects and you have your own staff and there is a ton of accountability. For $100 more, we’ll agree with you and put that on the certificate also.

    There you go. You’re a fully certified volunteer organization. Thank you for participating and thanks so much for that mailing list and all your leads.

    Seriously? Tourism Concern=idiocy. Look it up.


  2. Agree completely with Randy, this is laughable. “Nationally recognised” by the organisation that set it up but no one else. Non-industry based but developed in conjunction with industry partners.

    They claim to lead to increased staff motivation and greater recognition through marketing, is there any evidence for either of these claims? They are optimistic at best. How exactly is paying a separate company for a nice certificate going to lead to a more focused organisational practice? Involvement with organisations such as this increases the work burden on staff and bureaucracy within the organisation, it does not act to decrease it.

    I note also the memorandum of association is fairly broad for the remit of the organisation (

    I also note with great concern that they are requesting substantial business critical information from applying organisations and yet have chosen not to register with the Information Commissioner’s Office. This is either hopelessly naive or negligent depending upon who made the decision or omission. I would suggest that an organisation that has such substantial faults in its own practice is in no position to pass judgement on or guide others.


  3. i have not been backwards in coming forwards to say that we at people and places just can’t get out head around certification and codes of conduct – i have received much flack from those that believe in initiatives such as tourism concerns – but i have also served as an advisor during the research stage of a proposed development of a code by TIES – this is not fence sitting – I do not believe a code will work – but a lot of people do – and sometimes you gotta be on the inside to convince others your argument is valid.
    I believe in the power of the consumer – in voluntourism – volunteering thats the community -the projects and the volunteers – lets give them the tools to make informed decisions – for me I like the independent audit approach – but its got to be thorough – take a look at what do you think?
    And finally – yet again Randy is right – and if it is true that you have not registered with the information commissioner Tourism Concern – shame on you!

  4. I am not against certification, and have indeed benefited by having products certified by Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa, which is an NGO operating here.We are re assessed every two years to maintain certification. BUT

    There criteria for assessment were generated through a long process of stakeholder engagement, including the private sector,
    They do not claim to be a marketing organization or grow market share – although we have benefited from certification in this way,
    The assessment outcomes are verified by an independent panel, The report we get back does in fact assist us organizationally in that it identifies strengths, weaknesses and suggestions for improving sustainability.

    At least, being certified, when we make certain claims, we have a process of verification that we can refer to.

    There are more bad certifications than good ones in my view. Each should be evaluated on its own merits.

    BUT what I do know is that the tourism industry globally is not to be left to its own devices. Consumers have also not stopped the abuse of natural resources, people, and cultures. Some of the things happening in the name of volunteer tourism are a scandal. And some of the biggest operators, who continue to get consumer support are often blogged about, and written about in the media unfavorably.

    I dont know enough about Tourism Concern’s certification to comment on that. What I do know is that we need to find ways to identify good practice – and it should be verified. I also know that the voluntuntourism sector is growing, and is violating communities where I live.

  5. Thank you for the comments everybody. GIVS is being launched in a genuine attempt to work towards best practice. That’s the key thing here. Not for commercial gain; not for particular organisations; but to try to help raise standards in international volunteering in the UK.

    The need was identified following detailed research on the sector in 2007, itself commissioned following requests for help. It is open to ALL UK organizations who send volunteers overseas. It has been developed over several years, working with organisations including NIDOS in Scotland and Comhlamh in Ireland, and has been trialled with a range of volunteering organisations. There will be a transparent system for assessment, including an auditing manual, a process guided by our independent Advisory Panel (which I must stress has no industry members and hence no vested interest). Tourism Concern will charge for GIVS assessment, yes, but we are seeking only to make it self-funding and hence sustainable. I repeat: our interest is to promote best practice. We haven’t discussed what the certificates, if any, will be look like.

    Tourism Concern are a UK charity who have 21 years experience of working with communities affected by tourism. We have no commercial interest here. Check our track record. One of the things of which we are most proud is our independence from the tourism (and volunteering) industries. Indeed we turned down the possibility of some substantial financial support for GIVS when we realized the organisation concerned was itself involved in volunteering. I understand your concerns, and you are right that the question of data protection is a sensitive one – registering with the ICO is quite probably one essential element of this.

    This highlights an important issue here. We are launching GIVS to help UK volunteering organisations, in response (in no small part) to requests from UK volunteering organisations. We would love constructive contributions to help make GIVS as meaningful as possible and, with the help of the Advisory Panel and feedback and discussions with people such as yourselves we intend to continue to hone and fine tune GIVS and the process of assessment. As Sallie says: ‘sometimes you gotta be on the inside to convince others your argument is valid’.

    Finally I do share your distrust of some forms of certification Sallie and completely agree that an independent audit approach is best – this is what GIVS is intended to be.

    Peter Bishop

  6. Dear Peter and others commenting,

    I do not appreciate either the cynical sarcasm of some of the comments, or the rather superior and hectoring tone of TC. Codes of conduct rarelely work except as an interim exercise prior to government regulation.

    However, we do need a means to highlihght the geuinely good volunteer placement orgnisations – such as People & Places who, I feel, set the gold standard. We need a system to encourage those less effective to raise their standards.

    Less war of words and more open communication is the key, perhaps?

    Marcus Cotton
    Tigermountain Npal

  7. Hello all – Thank you for everyone who’s shared their comments and insights above. I can’t agree more with many of you who noted the importance of open discussions on these matters.

    While my comment may be slightly off-topic as it does not specifically address Tourism Concern’s program, but I wanted to share some information regarding TIES current (and ongoing) project on international voluntourism guidelines.

    Since our industry survey report for this project was published recently (close to the announcement of the Tourism Concern’s program), I’ve come across some discussions online expressing concerns about potentially having “TWO separate standards?!?!” (in addition to all the existing ones).

    To clarify, TIES has not launched any voluntourism certification program or standards. Our current project ( is in the second stage (industry feedback) following the publication of the summary report of the industry survey (which was the first stage). We will be holding stakeholder meetings at two upcoming major industry conferences (TIES and ATTA) where there will be many stakeholders who represent the target audience for the project (voluntourism providers seeking to improve sustainability practices, or those wishing to start offering voluntours and need help in the process).

    As discussed at the voluntourism conference in June in Denver, TIES and our project partners continue to seek advice and input from voluntourism stakeholders and practitioners. One way to provide feedback on our project is to share your insight through this short questionnaire:

    *A big thank-you to those who have already shared their opinions and recommendations through this form and in other ways.

    *If you’ve responded to the industry survey we sent out in May, please feel free to fill out this questionnaire (or just send me an email) if you have any additional comments and feedback to share. In addition to these questions, we would welcome your advice on the project in general – for instance, how do you think the guidelines should be presented? what length, style, format, etc. do you feel would be most useful for voluntourism providers to implement?

    Questions, comments, suggestions? Please contact me at aezaki[at]ecotourism[dot]org

    Thank you very much!
    Ayako Ezaki, Director of Communications, The International Ecotourism Society (TIES)

  8. Hello again… I also wanted to note – related to some previous comments about all these separate efforts to set up certification processes and standards, etc. in voluntourism creating confusion – that TIES and our project team has been in touch with Mr Bishop (Tourism Concern) about collaboration between our initiatives, with related goals but with different target markets and purposes. In addition, properly referencing and incorporating existing knowledge and tools within the voluntourism fields, including Tourism Concern’s program, will be one of the most important aspects of our voluntourism guidelines project, and we will do our best to avoid reinventing the wheel – and very much welcome your advice on what we should do that we are not already doing.

    Thank you!

  9. A code of practice, certifications, guidelines… At first glance these may sound fine.

    Beneath the surface wouldn’t a definition of what voluntourism truly is be needed before anything could be certified?

    With big and small organizations in every corner of the world now hosting volunteers, who sets the rules and judges the right and wrong of things?

    Where is the line between a small dog rescue in Sri Lanka hosting travelers who stay in a nearby beach resort and a large tour operator stopping for 4 days at the 33, 000 acre Best Friends Sanctuary in Utah? How can any single entity say what is right for a ‘teach kids English and surf program’ in Peru and an orphanage volunteer program (with or without a built-in tourism component) in India?

    Cultures, program size, grassroots, 3rd party providers – the line as to where tourism becomes a part of voluntourism is also not black and white. We are dealing with a thousand shades of gray. So who is qualified to be the judge, putting a seal of approval/defining best practices under so many varied conditions?

    In most businesses – nonprofit or not – it always tends to be the organizations with the most money and the best mechanics for PR spin that win such seals of approvals. If this happens with volunteering /voluntourism the little guys may lose out, despite their need for volunteers. That would be a tragedy!

    Perhaps it is the varied volunteer travelers themselves who need to define the practice of good via communication with each other in writing, social media… so that good programs of any size/anywhere are given a chance, while bad ones are publicly held to task.

    In this new media era our jobs as ‘educators’ on the topic may be more to encourage travelers to communicate their experiences, provide forums for that communication and to bring those experiences to a wider audience, letting the travelers then define for themselves what is right for their own travel style.

  10. Nola, you are so right and the huge variances in organisations that recruit volunteers and the “work” they wish them to do is one of the main reasons why I have real problems with a code as such.
    You mention another of my big concerns – the ability of large big budget organisations to slip the code into their marketing budget – (part of what I call “smoke and mirrors” ) – whilst most small grassroots organisations who as second nature conform to “the code” do not have the time or skills to undergo an audit or assessment –
    My other reservations include the need – in my opinion – to encourage improvement – so my organisation conforms to the code – do i stop trying to improve?

    Randy’s point in his blog about liability is important too – what will the penalty for breaking the code be? and who will carry that penalty.

    To me one of the most important issues – measuring the sustainability of the volunteers work – who should do this? Most will reply the local community – the beneficiaries – must have a major voice – how do we ensure this without burdening them with onerous reporting systems? Now do we ensure that localm people share the negatives with us – there is a natural inclination not to criticise honoured guests in most of the communities that host volunteer programmes.

    I need to be assured that a code will genuinely protect the consumers of voluntourism – the local communities and the volunteers and not simply be another badge for organisations that can afford such badges.

    I close by repeating Paul Miedemas statement –
    “I also know that the voluntuntourism sector is growing, and is violating communities where I live.”

  11. This is an interesting discussion. I also read what Randy has written on his blog, and I am not sure about the liability issue. The world has many certifications, not only in tourism, but on all kinds of products. Like I have said before, I carry certications from Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa, which is an NGO without large resources. I currently work with some American Operators who publish the certification logo, and the issue of liability has never come up. I am no expert in this field however.

    While Nola and Sallie also makes some interesting points, I still ask the fundamental question of what do we do to stop some of the abuses that are happening within the sector. There is currently an exploitation of both volunteers and communities where I live.

    As I mentioned earlier, tourism does not have a good reputation in terms of making strong commitments to sustainable development. While it is better than 20 years ago, there is still a long long way to go.

    Is it possible that certification can be one mechanism we could use to highlight those companies that are committed to sustainability. Perhaps.

    The issues are complex, and certainly local context is perhaps a barrier to global standards that can be agreed upon.

    And Indeed, size and differences of capacity in volunteer hosting organisations are also an issue as Nola pointed out.

    But if we do not entertain a thorough debate, and perhaps engage with entities like Tourism Concern who have at least made an effort to look at this issue, along with TIES and others, what are we suggesting as an alternative, and how does the market differentiate between sustainable and un sustainable companies.

    With any certification there will be tensions around criteria etc. And its certainly no cure all, but is it a step in a positive direction. I think it all depends on how its implemented, how the criteria are developed etc.To reject it out of hand is not the way to go in my view.

    Lastly, we use our FTTSA certification as a sustainability management tool. Sustainability is something we strive for. After every 2 years we are re certified, and the expectation is that we improve over time, and recommendations are made to us in this regard. So its an improvement tool if well structured, and not something we achieve and then sit back and relax around.

    I do appreciate this discussion.

  12. Thank you all for such a stimulating discussion. I’d like to open by repeating Paul Miedemas: “I also know that the voluntuntourism sector is growing, and is violating communities where I live.”

    What’s missing is an open public dialogue on the ground in the affected communities, in the capitals and at the international conferences. Please no more conferences held behind closed doors or worse without live streaming and a proper hashtag.

    At the very least I propose we take on the topic — — in the 2012 Responsible Tourism Week Unconference and that all major tourism conferences in the next six months use livestreaming to connect the world to what is being said about volunteering.

    I have yet to read the documents from Tourism Concern or TIES but I look forward to calmy reviewing the materials for later dialogue.

  13. Hi Ron,

    Just so you know we had a Voluntourism conference to start discussing these issues in person in June. It was not behind closed doors, the invites were sent out on this blog and through social media. I only charged $100/person which didn’t even cover my cost so there was no live streaming but there was a hashtag and I published videos and presentations from the event the day after on this blog.

    Would love you to join us next year.


  14. Thank you, Alexia! First for the blog and for your passion toward this topic. I hadn’t seen much of this blog before this post. I certainly don’t mean to knock the event you coordinated in June.

    My view: 2011 (and certainly 2012) should be the year in which all tourism events have livestreaming. Otherwise we’re not engaging the folks that cannot enter the physical doors. It would be good to have presentations on Slideshare (for comment!) before rather than after an event. We all have different ways of doing things but if our objective is to improve the nexus of volunteering and tourism then greater transparency AND dialogue is a must.


    PS) I am having trouble accessing the RSS feed of this blog. I’d like to add the widget to the Planeta Wiki

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