Volunteering and voluntourism: passion or business?

posted in: 5 W's, Focus Uganda, Volunteering | 4

(Last update: 15/07/2023)

My volunteering experiences have always been with organizations I either personally knew or had good connections with. They were NGOs, missionaries or even simple groups of friends that had won my trust.

In 2019, though, I organized a volunteering trip a bit different from the previous ones. The most difficult part had been finding a project that would treat volunteering honestly and seriously. I’m not saying the projects I checked were not serious. But many, too many of them considered volunteering as a business opportunity. This business, done at the expense of the volunteers and often the local projects, has a name, it’s called “voluntourism”.

A volunteer and a technician are painting the facade of a workshop
Simple handy works are often the most requested by many projects

Volunteering or voluntourism?

Voluntourism, volunteering-tourism, is defined as a recent trend, a travel style, usually international, linked to “doing good” as a part of the experience. It’s applicable to many different fields: from environmental programs to archaeology, from animal care to social assistance.
The volunteer leaves full of good intentions, pays a fee, works, participates in some local activities somehow pre-organized and goes back home satisfied with his experience and maybe also slightly shocked by some situations he had witnessed.

What’s wrong with this? In theory, absolutely nothing. The issue is that volunteering has been turned into a sort of tourist holiday. And like for any other kind of holiday, there are agencies and organizations that speculate on it. When volunteering turns into voluntourism, it becomes a money-making machine. This especially happens when the volunteers are purposely exposed to harsh situations to psychologically push them to donate more. I’ve heard tales of orphanages or children care centres visits with underfed, sad and half-naked children, with flies all around and dirty noses.

A crowded class in the north of Tanzania: volunteering focuses on changes, voluntourism focuses at the money
Elementary mixed-ages class

Don’t get me wrong, it’s good, very good, to see certain life situations for us lucky birth-lottery winners!
But a serious organization shows you transformation besides the need. It shows you the school that teaches the entire village bringing opportunities, the program that offers food to families, the children well dressed on Sundays, a mum that has a new eggs stall at the market thanks to the hens she received as a gift. A serious organization shows you how it is now compared to how it used to be. It shows you the potential in the future compared to how it would have been without the intervention of the project the volunteer is working for. And it’s a good practice, in my opinion, to show the outcome of how donations have been invested in the past.

Considering the amount of money some agencies ask the volunteers to pay, I wonder: “But with all that I gave you for a single week, you really can’t buy a clean dress for these little ones?”.

Children are doing their homework in a free after-school class
Children are doing their homework in a free after-school class

Pay to work

I’ve found it difficult to find a project that accepts volunteers on the field without asking for a fee. Or at least a fee proportioned to the local daily expenses.

With a quick search on Google, you’ll find dozens of agencies specialized in connecting volunteers with projects that are in need of volunteers. Those that work mainly with North Americans and Canadians are the most expensive. I’ve been asked even more than 500$ per week for room and board. And still, the fee doesn’t even include visa, plane tickets, insurance and any other extra which are obviously all on me. Let’s do some math to put this amount into the right context: with my 500$ per week, in some countries, an entire family of 5 can easily survive for an entire month.

And I wonder how much of this “program fee” actually goes to the project I’d like to work for. Usually unknown.

Children coming out of school play with soap bubbles the volunteers are blowing
Children coming out of school are surprised by volunteers with soap bubbles. Pure Joy.

Is volunteering for the rich only?

With voluntourism becoming the normality, it’s easy to have the impression that international volunteering is something only the rich can afford. But this is not the truth! Of course, an international flight doesn’t come cheap. But if someone can spend holidays in Thailand, then he should also be able to go as a volunteer. It should actually be a lot cheaper!

Goodwill volunteers are the victims here. And they don’t even realize it. The other victims are the local projects where the volunteers end up, because they often don’t benefit economically that much from these visits.

A serious project doesn’t ask for money to work. They know you have to invest in plane tickets, visas, insurance and maybe more. Volunteers also often show up with donations, gifts or cash, for the centre that hosts them. A project might ask you for reimbursement for the expenses, enough to feed you or to come to the airport to pick you up 5 hours away on an unpaved road. But is it really necessary to demand hundreds of dollars per week?
Let’s remember that volunteers are not on holiday, spending their day roasting at the beach. They often work full-time. They might not be specialized workers, but they are often open to doing pretty much whatever they are asked to do. If you don’t know how you could help, I encourage you to read what could a volunteer do on a volunteering trip.

A group of students shows off the brand new sport uniforms offered by the volunteers
Students show off the brand-new sportive uniforms offered by the volunteers

How to find a project that hosts volunteers rather than voluntourists

First of all, you have to decide in which field to want to invest your volunteering time. A volunteer can do pretty much anything and it’s usually unnecessary to have any professional experience or knowledge. If you’re a professional and you want to use your skills to help out, you could have a look into cooperation opportunities. If you don’t know the differences between volunteering and cooperation, it probably means you’re not (yet!) a cooperator, so let’s keep on talking about volunteering for now.

Personally knowing a project is always the simpler and safest way. Doing local volunteering, for instance, open the doors to useful contact in the field. Alternatively, churches, hospitals and social-focused associations often support international projects. You can ask for information and see if they accept volunteers, besides donations.

If you go through an agency, make sure you understand where the money of the fee you pay goes. How much it reaches the project you’ll volunteer for and how much vanished during its organization? Make sure you’re at peace with that percentage, to avoid ruining your mood once you figure out it’s only 3% of what you’ve paid!

If you’re out of ideas, drop me a line. I have two-three trustworthy contacts I’m happy to share!

A story of volunteering where voluntourism has not creeped in, yet: A girl shows to the volunteers how she has learnt to use the loom as part of her training at the local project
A girl shows the volunteers how she has learnt to use the loom as part of her training at the local project

All the images in this page are owned by the author and therefore protected by copyright.
Some can be bought on Shutterstock and Dreamtime.

Pinterest image: the volunteers minivan is surrounded by a group of children coming out of school in the suburbs of Arusha, in Tanzania. Differences between volunteering and voluntourism

All the images in this page are owned by the author and therefore protected by copyright.
Some can be bought on
Shutterstock and Dreamstime.

4 Responses

  1. Kathy Walker

    It’s a great thing that you’re doing volunteering to help others. I definitely understand what you are saying that if it cost so much to volunteer where is the money really going. I hope to follow your future journey and I hope it’s all you are wishing for. Wishing you good luck.

    • The Lady

      Thank you, I’ll try to keep the blog updated while in Africa too! 🙂 Indeed, where is the money going? That’s what troubles me the most. That’s one of the reasons I like going to the field, to actually see the real work!

  2. Kathy D

    I wonder why programs geared towards North Americans are more expensive than say Northern Europeans. Do you think it’s because we are willing to pay more? I think the idea of trying to plan something like this while avoiding the large voluntourism businesses and staying safe seems daunting to the average American. Great article. Very thought provoking.

    • The Lady

      Yes, I do think it mainly depends on the market: if you’re willing to pay more, they’re going to ask you more. I’ve seen this even on “normal” holidays: the very same tour/treatment can have 2 completely prices depending on the target. Another reason could also be that Americans are used to a higher standard of service and paying “a lot” gives the feeling you’re going to be safe and protected and served as you want. Which might be true or not true, I have no idea 🙂

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