There is a Big Difference Between ‘Voluntourism’ and ‘Volunteering Your Skills’

Mark Horoszowski

Mark is the Co-founder of MovingWorlds.org, a global platform connecting people who want to volunteer their expertise with social impact organizations.

Voluntourism-debate

The New York Times recently started a discussion around “Voluntourism” in its Room for Debate. The question posed by the Times is “Can Voluntourism Make a Difference?: As students, retirees and others head abroad this summer in search of experiences volunteering, are they really looking to help others or just themselves?

While an interesting question, it is taking a one-sided view to “helping” and not considering the most important stakeholder. The question should actually be “Can short term talent make a difference?: As nonprofits, social enterprises, and startups try and cope with the ‘talent gap‘, can temporary workers help them accelerate their growth and cross the Pioneer Gap?

If the answer is yes, then you can replace the word “workers” with “volunteers” and the conclusion is that yes, volunteers can make a positive impact. However, voluntourists probably can’t. Call it nomenclature, but there is a big difference between applying your skills for social good to help solve real challenges vs. engaging in manual work for a feeling of “giving back”. At MovingWorlds, we support hundreds of organizations around the world looking for support in specific skill areas and consistently see the need for skilled volunteers.

In the debate about “voluntourism” it’s vital that we differentiate between “touring” and “doing work that matters”.

 

What is the Difference Between Voluntourism and International Volunteering?

The answer is supply and demand.

Voluntourists demand they go volunteering, and thus are willing to pay for it. If they are willing to pay to volunteer, it [likely] means the organization does not need that person to solve real problems, and instead has to charge the voluntourist to accommodate them. While this makes for an OK fundraiser, it is not sustainable; and, in many cases has negative impacts. Considering the size of the international volunteering industry, this is alarming.

Volunteering, especially skills-based volunteering, functions on demand from the field. Organizations who are actively looking to host volunteers will invest in the engagement, often providing volunteers free accommodations, and never charging fees.

I think about it this way… I live in Seattle, WA, one block from a middle school. What would happen if a man from Colombia knocked on the door of the school and asked to spend time with the children and take pictures with them? Of course, the school does not need this, nor his money, so they’ll call the police. This is voluntourism and its fueled by the wrong drivers.

But what if a Spanish teacher in the same school publishes an ad asking for native speakers from Colombia, Chile, and Spain to speak with her class so that they can understand different dialects? The teacher would invest in creating a good experience, handle the paperwork, and provide a collaborative environment. This is volunteering and it has a place in our globalizing world.

Service Learning vs. Voluntouring vs. Volunteering

There are some paid volunteering experiences that are in fact service learning trips. Groups like Global Brigades and PEPY Tours are some of the industry leaders for these trips and have specific training and processes to differentiate between the two. Done correctly, service is a very valuable learning tool and these organizations structure learning programs in collaboration with communities and organizations that benefit both parties.

In fact, PEPY published a new program, Learning Service, to highlight the benefits of service learning, and share best-practices. For more information about service learning, read this article in The Stanford Social Innovation Review that highlights the benefits of service learning trips.

 

Is it OK to Volunteer Overseas?

Yes, if you do it right. There is a right and wrong way to volunteer overseas. Here are guidelines our Experteering professionals (aka skilled volunteers) follow:

1. Ensure the Opportunity is Supply Driven

In order to engage in a meaningful experience, the hosting organization has to need your skills. As such, your skills should be skills that aren’t readily available to the organization and will be used to work on an important project. Considering that “access to talent” is becoming the leading barrier to progress, it’s all too easy to find these opportunities if you go through the right process. At MovingWorlds, we work with our network covering thousands of field organizations to guarantee our Experteers will find an organization that will never charge and is in need of their skills.

2. Plan Extensively

The phrase “show up and throw up” does not belong in international development, and yet we see it all too often.  If you are going to volunteer your skills, it likely means that you are busy applying these skills in your home life and are likely very busy. Once you combine that work with the additional planning time of an international trip, we know it’s hard to find the time to plan ahead. However, pre-planning is the number one predictor of a successful Experteering engagement. Pre-planning involves:

  • Understanding differences in culture, communication, and learning styles
  • Clearly scoping the project
  • Defining success
  • Safety considerations
  • Sharing work and travel arrangements

3. Work in Partnership

In a recent TED talk, Cole Hoover, the Director of the Global Brigades Institute, shares the importance of collaboration in global development. In order for volunteering projects to succeed, they have to be done in partnership with the receiving organization. In fact, they should be initiated by the organization, and as a volunteer, your role is to fill a specific need. While maybe not as glamorous as envisioning and implementing your own solution, this process will drastically increase the likelihood of success.

4. Learn About Best Practices

In addition to our own training available to members of MovingWorlds, we recommend the following service to all of our Experteering professionals:

5. Plan and Understand that Success Happens After You Leave

If there is one lesson we hope to impart on everyone volunteering, whether it is locally or internationally, it is that success happens after you leave. In fact, during the MovingWorlds planning process, volunteers and the hosting organization decide on a success metric that can be measured one year after the engagement ends. In the words of Lao Tzu:

Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.

**

At MovingWorlds, we’d like to applaud the New York Times for picking up this debate and fostering a healthy discussion. All the contributing authors point out some very relevant and pertinent insights. And while we feel that it falls short by focusing on the wrong side of the supply and demand marketplace (the volunteer instead of the hosting organization), many of the authors did highlight the importance of doing meaningful work. And in our experience, for work to be meaningful, it has to be initiated by the hosting organization.

 

  • Marina Argeisa

    Hello! I am the volunteer of the documentary of “The Guardian”. It is very interesting your text.

    My reflexion is in the field of volunteering with children and specially in an orphanage: a protection children home should be working by the Government, (not individual people) and only for vulnerable children who need protection.
    My opinion is that the orphanages are set up 99%: for reasons different to ensure the welfare of children (for example, making money through donors, or volunteers) or with good intention (normally foreigners) who don’t know enough of the country (and with staff who probably will abuse or be corrupt). In the orphanages most of the children are not orphans. Therefore, it is much better for a poor family or with problems a project to help them (imagine that poor means give your child to a children home…!!).

    The volunteering in a home can damage the children because children need stability and do not feelings of abandonment, and changes of their habits. When I left Nepal the children were so attach to me and suffered, the girls of the video were crying even 2 weeks after I left Nepal. Most of the volunteers do not have skills or experience looking after kids and teaching and, other, can give to the child bad education without respect to the culture, sometimes because of pure ignorance. Rare cases, but there are volunteers who abuse of children. Many times, there is no schedule and volunteers spend with the children long time. It was my case, I slept in the orphanage which is terrible (imagine if a volunteer wants to abuse of children).

    A child is a child everywhere. So why to have a different atttitude towards one child in England or one in Nepal? For example, all of them deserve the same rights.

    Every country need depelopment from inside, and an orphanage which uses children to make money is doing explotation and trafficking. And a volunteer who, knowing or not, goes there is motivating these terrible crimes. As I did without knowing it.

    Before doing a volunteering in a home it is not enough to read about it. They lied to me even about the children. I had luck the second time because I was observing everything and there was a very brave little girl, but I need 4 months with a vert open eyes to get the reality. I found the fake NGO to do the volunteering in Lonely Planet. Before me lots of volunteers from around the world went there, as well.

    Thank you so much!! Best regards from Barcelona :)

    • Hi Marina. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s important that more people know about experiences like this… especially since you learned about it from a reputable resources (lonelyplanet).

      In order to help facilitate engagements that are beneficial to both parties, there is a significant amount of due diligence that needs to be done to both parties to make sure its legitimate; as well as training and planning to ensure engagements are successful.

      Since starting MovingWorlds, we’ve found that we have to increase the amount of time we spent supporting individual Experteers as well researching organizations because of other stories like yours.

      Thank you for sharing your story, Marina. And regards to you for being open about your experience and helping educate others and push for improvements to the system.

MOVINGWORLDS.ORG BLOG