Does Your Organization Follow Any Specific Set of Voluntourism Guidelines?

Every few months, a new announcement—or at least discussion—about volunteer travel guidelines flies by my inbox.

Proposals of watchdog groups, new ethical and practical standards, and even research reports find their way onto voluntourism discussion boards like clockwork.

A few we’ve seen in just the past few years:

As many of us know already, there have been rumblings for years about creating a voluntourism umbrella group that would serve to unite providers and neutral parties alike—one that could attempt to pull together the scattered research and varied sets of guidelines set out by the many parties involved or interested in the voluntourism industry. At least from the discussion boards I frequent, I haven’t seen much conversation about this idea actually taking off—but would love to hear feedback from others about whether it’s happening, or whether you think it will or will not happen.

And so with all of that said, my question to you is this: as a volunteer abroad operator, do you adhere to any specific set of guidelines put out by researchers or other providers? From simple guides, to more complex ones, to membership and evaluation groups, have you actively set forth efforts to adhere to any particular set of standards?

And if so, where are you in the process? What have you found to be the most challenging part of following those standards, and what do you do to continually monitor and evaluate them?

36 thoughts on “Does Your Organization Follow Any Specific Set of Voluntourism Guidelines?

  1. Thanks for starting the discussion.

    As other standards, I also know of Fair Trade Volunteering which originated in the UK I think (http://www.fairtradevolunteering.com), as well as German QUIFD (which is not open to commercial organisation through, http://www.quifd.de).

    I also have recently come across Vofair (http://www.vofair.org/) and have contacted them, but haven’t heard anything back.

    At least the German standard is quite active, but as I said only for charities.

    Does anybody know something about the current situation at Fair Trade Volunteering or Vofair?

    • Thanks for the links, Frank! I hadn’t heard of Vofair, and am familiar with Fair Trade Volunteering, but haven’t heard too much about them either–it’ll be interesting for sure to learn more about them.

    • Dear Frank and Sarah and to whom it may concern,

      I am the founder of VOFAIR (which stand for VOLUNTEER FAIRLY), currently based in Chile and verifying fair volunteer projects in South America. Our listing patform will be launched within the next 2 weeks, please subscribe here: http://www.vofair.org so that we can let you know at the moment of the launch. If you have any questions, I am happy to answer, unfortunatelly your email Frank has not reached me:( My direct contact is paulina@vofair.org
      And to give you a quick update, we have recently certified projects in Chile and Ecuador, and have current demand of projects from Colombia, Argentina and Honduras. We are in touch with QUIFD, since the idea is to work together and manage a synergy of all the forces.
      Best wishes, looking forward to hearing from you!
      Paulina

      • Thanks, Paulina! Subscribing now–I’d love to hear updates as you launch, and about your certification process, if that will be on the site.

      • problem with neutral third party visits is cost sarah – that immediately excludes the small guys – how about a questionaire that is given by the badge company to sending orgs and volunteers send back to bage org? A start – not great i know.Also it would hntial volunteers and recieving orgs could check against these criteria? Ans so agree with you – up to volunteers to report back. And like you I agree with daniela – we must stop leading volunteers to believe this is a perfect science!

      • Absolutely agree about cost–having a team member meet with member groups would add up very quickly. In my previous position, we shouldered the costs of all visits to potential partners, and had each one fill out a massive questionnaire beforehand to see whether they were a good candidate for a visit. Obviously VG isn’t a watchdog group of any kind, but at least for working out partnerships, the cost and time commitment necessary to maintain at least one of those partnerships is prohibitive. The questionnaire definitely helped, particularly when we received multiple “Please partner with us, here’s our contact info” requests a day! We found that maybe one in…50 small volunteer groups was willing to actively work with us on their proposal. Frustrating because we know most were sending out feelers to every sending group they could find, but heartening to see the ones that wanted to really work through it.

  2. Hi Sarah,

    Great to see the resources you’ve amassed here. Several of us are working to have this conversation in academic communities / among universities engaged in global service-learning (see: http://criticalservicelearning.org/2013/01/29/new-resources-new-guests-national-dialogue-global-service-learning-in-2013/). One of the partners in that process, Amizade Global Service-Learning, has articulated a model of Fair Trade Learning: http://www.fairtradevolunteering.com/. I’d love to see and help work toward a certification process.

    • Thanks, Eric! Checking out your link right now–I’m very interested in service-learning, so would love to hear more about how your upcoming dialogues turn out. I used to work for the Peace Corps Fellows program (http://www.peacecorps.gov/fellows), and had the opportunity to discuss national service-learning with our university partners during our annual conferences and ongoing webinars. It was wonderful to see how international volunteers applied the tools and skills they acquired while serving abroad to their graduate studies and community internships back in the States.

      Thank you for the mention on the Go Overseas article below as well–a couple of my comments on it are listed halfway down the article (under Volunteer Global), and again 3/4 of the way. It’s a really great roundup of what people have to say on the International Voluntourism Guidelines, but I’m very curious to see if there are indeed volunteer sending groups that have tried to adopt, or even used those guidelines to continually improve or reevaluate their own services–particularly the ones that contributed to the study.

  3. Hi Sarah as you know people and places was involved in the drawing up of the TIES guidelines and we also worked with Tourism Concern.We at p and p believe that organisations need to demonstrate HOW they follow guidelines – its all too simple to claim one does so! we are also concerned that smaller organisations who may well be doing great work find it difficult to allocate resources to demonstrate thier commitments – our advise – pick the guidelines that are the most important to the work that you do and prove that you follow them – you can address the others in time.
    all too many organisations allude to guidelines – use smoke and mirrors to suggest they follow them… and the rest is marketing! KISS – make a promise – prove it. And those such as TIES who see organisations suggesting they are using the guidelines – please call the bad practice to account.
    Thanks Frank i hadnt seen the german guidelines either – also I was approached by Fair Trade Volunteer but when i asked who else was allowed to share thier kitemark they were not prepared to share this with me – so i declined – thats as much as i know

    • Hey Sallie! I was hoping you would weigh in–absolutely, I agree they should demonstrate *how* they follow, not just say *that* they do. I would be very interested to see how smaller groups–such as those that accept the volunteers that placement groups send, as well as ones that don’t partner with larger ones, but that still accept international volunteers–manage the balance between organization, volunteer, and community.

      Very interesting to hear about Fair Trade Volunteering! I wonder if any groups out there have publicized that they’re members? I saw on their FAQ page that once organizations are approved, they can use the logo. Has anyone seen a group that’s associated yet?

    • I’d for sure like to see what some might have to say about how they demonstrate it. This part applies to groups applying to be members of one fo the myriad watchdog groups: My main frustration is that those membership groups either refuse or are unable to showcase exactly *what* their member groups are doing to maintain their badges or seals of approval. We know from visiting that company’s website what a group needs to do to get that seal, but what do they do to maintain it, and do they have examples from their members? Do they have regular site visits from a neutral, third party organization? Do their members have to provide reports and proof to back up their claims? What is that proof?

      For smaller groups, particularly ones that don’t partner with larger ones, and instead operate on their own–it’s up to them to strive for the best quality they set for themselves, and it’s up to them to communicate exactly how they’re achieving their goals to the volunteers that might work with them, and the community in which they’re working. And it’s up to the volunteers and community to provide feedback on their work, and–I hope–those organizations will take it to heart and continually improve their services.

      In a perfect world, I’d like to see more of what Daniela has done–be completely honest about the pitfalls and successes, and the truth as it applies to them as they move along, about operating and maintaining an organization that accepts international volunteers.

  4. Im concerned about third party checks – how is that done without the costs being prohibitive? I worry big boys will be able to adopt but not smaller orgs. How about using volunteers to report back to badge org in some way? But I also agree – that in this internet age it is much easier to demonstrate good practice – volunteer feedback is essential – how do we comabat all the fake posts so many organisations put up? And daniela – a heroine of mine! -we repetaedly tell volunteers that they do not have more knowledge than the communities they will work with – just differen. And we need to be clear with volunteers – this is not a perfect science – mistakes will be made – its how we put those mistakes right on all sides – that counts.

      • thanks Sarah 🙂 we ask our volunteers to act as auditors all the time and we ask for warts and all reports – we try very hard not to mislead volunteers – but if an organisation asks for a deposit before the volunteer receives information or previous volunteer contact I would suggest that transperancy and best practice are not high on their agenda – or is that just me?

    • What if there would be an organization that all of us volunteer facilitating organizations would appreciate being there and being a member of this organization would enable and compel us to let all of our volunteers send in an online feedback form that would give a good insight in how responsible we have been with (these) volunteers. In return for our (paid?) membership, we would get the processed feedback reports on every volunteer simultaneous with these being published on the website of this organization, to which we – as members – have to compulsory link on our homepage. Would that not counteract possible fakeism of hip-hip-hurray testimonies on our websites?

  5. I just wanted to give a high 5 to this discussion. The Planeterra Foundation supported the creation of the TIES guidelines because so many private sector organizations were entering into the voluntourism field without thought to previous experience, standards, or ways of ensuring local communities were benefitting. We had an intern put together all known best practice, an advisory body, and TIES representatives and Planeterra held forums at both TIES and ATTA conferences. In my mind, the next step is to move towards more private sector education on the topic. Of course there are many NGOs in this field. They were not the target of the TIES guidelines (be sure to have a look at the introduction which explains this). The big companies need to be aware of the guidelines and there needs to be more outreach, education and discussion among them on how to be sure communities are properly served.

    • Thanks, Megan! For sure, I understand the target audience for that specific set of guidelines isn’t the smaller NGOs worldwide that accept volunteers–I think the discussion just evolved on this thread to focus more on those smaller groups, partly because of the sheer number of them compared to sending organizations. Have you heard back from any of the larger groups that might have taken the guidelines to heart and started revamping their practices based on them? There are lots of important points in the guide that I think too few organizations actively try to follow, from “smaller” points like avoiding poverty marketing, all the way to monitoring, evaluating, and continually improving community involvement and impact.

      • Sarah, I think it needs follow up. At Planeterra Foundation there was alot of discussion about this. I met with a Cornell professor as part of my new Senior Fellowship at the Center for Sustainable Enterprise who is trying to create a global network around service education. He is very informed and I am trying to get him to join this list serve, as he is forming an international body to study these issues on a large scale.

        I have always found the title of this list serve to be a problem. I myself did not take it seriously at first. I forwarded him the information, but again the title! Have you ever thought of changing it now that you are taking the reins? I think it is critical that a body is formed that does not seek to certify, as this is a nightmare, but to move towards more global education on the topic with some form of support from the private sector, grants, and academic back up. Just a thought.

    • I agree wholeheartedly Megan – how do you suggest that the large senders are engaged – my cynical view is that most will only engage when consumer pressure is such that they cannot ignore. I do think one way would be through member organisations such as The Year Out Group in the UK? though sadly – a recent contribution by thier chief exec suggests that they do not considfer much of the code thier area of responsibility take a look at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBYWtAGRNJc&feature=share&list=FLigKLW_9KoK12k8UoOZdcGg

  6. Really appreciating the tensions, best practices, and challenges posted here everyone. Above I shared a resource but used the wrong website. As a sending / partnering NGO Amizade has developed a Fair Trade Learning approach http://fairtradelearning.org/ that strongly articulates transparency and places it at the center of the dialogue. Have a look.

    • Thanks for the update, Eric! While I haven’t worked with Amizade (just sent emails back and forth sometimes), I’ve been continually impressed from afar at least from what I’ve seen of their work over the years 🙂

  7. Coming from the academic sector and working with colleges frequently interested in partnering with community-based orgs, travel organizations, and large sending NGOs, I’m very interested in how transparent industry guidelines can become, how fact-checking could work, and how standards articulated in academic, NGO, or industry sectors could become agreed-upon standards across sectors. The core challenges, it seems to me, are (1) transparency and fact-checking, and (2) publicity about any such standards sufficient to reach the (relatively) un-initiated.

  8. .. have our partner organizations ever been asked what they consider ‘help’? Could it not be that from what our partners (in the developing countries we connect with) say they find useful, a pattern emerges that could serve as a landscape of ‘minimal desirable outcomes’ for every voluntourist’ venture to be undertaken and called ‘successful’?

    • Hi camille – you are so right – we should be asking the projects we seek to support what they need – then we should be monitoring that that is what we are delivering without asking already over stretched under resourced organisations to do too much extra work

  9. Dear all, As nobody seemed to know much about VOFAIR, I took things into my own hands and interviewed the founder, Paulina Rakowska. She told me how VOFAIR intends to fund its operations, what their minimum duration for volunteering in orphanages is, where commercial volunteer sending organisations fit in and why VOFAIR stopped the certification processes of several projects.
    You can read the interview here http://www.aab-marketing.com/en/volunteering-sustainable-tourism/vofair-new-volunteering-standard-for-voluntourism-industry/. I hope this is helpful.

    • Thanks for the interview, Frank! Also signed up for the VOFAIR mailing list and would love to hear more as it’s launched.

  10. After my post of a few minutes ago, I looked again through the new posts that have been added since I decided to interview Paulina (VOFAIR). I’m impressed by the lively exchange! I think that the interview provides some interesting points of view regarding topics such as the financial aspect or how small organisations can benefit from a standard.

    In general, I think that any set of guidelines or certification program that wants to be taken seriously by the volunteers and the volunteering organisations/projects must find a way to pay for independent third party visits that control if promises and declarations are really put into practice. There is really no way around it! Some discussants here have suggested to request proof from sending organisations that declarations are really carried out. But I wonder how the public could evaluate if this proof is trustworthy or not. As long as the information is provided by the volunteering organisation/project itself, there will always be the danger that the data is simply made up. There is a new business model to find to pay for third party verification. VOFAIR is exploring an interesting path in this regard.

    I think that volunteers in most cases don’t have the skills and only in exceptional cases the context to assess projects. Especially if it’s a “good” volunteer who is humble and doesn’t want to impose her view on the volunteering project, how can they ask questions, sometimes nagging questions, about the quality of the project without spoiling the volunteering experience both for the project and the volunteer?

  11. Frank thats fine for large organisations with a big resource well available – but it would exclude many small organisations – also call me a cynic but i suspect that once “members” start paying they will call the tune!

    • Hi Sallie, I think that’s only right if you stay with a very traditional business model. VOFAIR for example tries to make potential volunteers participate to the costs, by including a website into the model. One might also consider that countries of origin and/or host countries fund a common pool. Local certification bodies (like VOFAIR) might be used to lower transportation and salary costs etc. So I think that there are a lot of unexplored possibilities.

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