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:
- The ethical guide to volunteering
- Our Experteering ethics and manifesto
- Additional volunteer training from ServeSmart
- Things to know before volunteering overseas
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.