Volunteer vacations and global development: Why they have more in common than you thought

Steve Zev, a policeman from New Jersey, teaches students at the Global Academy in Hohoe, Ghana. Photo by: Nora Morgan / CC BY

In August, U.S.-based Cross Cultural Solutions sent volunteers to Salvador, Brazil. The group of 10 — ranging in age from 26 to 56 — spent their time working with children in urban slums and in free time, relaxing in a beautiful nearby beach community. In Mexico, a group of longer-term volunteers are helping research coral reefs in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere, where they’ll also be able to earn their scuba diving qualification through U.K.-founded Global Vision International.

Over the past 15 years, the intersection of volunteering and tourism, or voluntourism, has leapfrogged from a curiosity to a mainstream sector, with a growing number of organizations sharing the space also known as “volunteer vacations,” and sending thousands of volunteers overseas each year.

Just as quickly, people started questioning its merits — suggesting that this form of experience-focused volunteering can cause more harm than good and perpetuate a Western “coming to save” view that the larger global development community has been working hard to shed.

The concerns aren’t unfounded. Volunteers have returned angry at the lack or direction they received in-country, or upon realizing the bricks they were laying to build a new clinic were methodically removed each night and replaced properly by local laborers. And horror stories have emerged about well-intentioned volunteers who unknowingly helped to create a surge in the number of residential care homes to exploit children in developing countries.

The differences between pay-to-volunteer operations such as voluntourism and traditional aid projects are, of course, many. Volunteers, sometimes with little to no development experience or expertise, pay thousands of dollars for the trip, which is often tied to a cultural activity or travel. Their help typically lasts anywhere from two weeks to three months, so it’s easy to write the sector off as unattached to traditional donor-funded, contractor-implemented development efforts. In fact, it’s often frowned upon by those whose full-time job is to eradicate poverty and hunger and increase opportunity around the world.

Yet voluntourism groups are eager to make a positive difference as well, and they are reevaluating their programs and operations in an effort to overcome challenges with their image and with fundraising. They’re striking up new partnerships and folding their work into larger frameworks like the Millennium Development Goals, a set of development targets that are meant to be reached by the end of next year.

Short-term volunteers, long-term projects

Voluntourism groups, which rely heavily on funding from volunteers, have struggled in recent years due to economic slowdown. Those that remain in business argue that short-term volunteers — whether driven by curiosity, the opportunity for adventure or passion for development — can help organizations to reduce poverty and hunger and expand health care, education and opportunity even in some of the more desolate places.

But the challenges facing developing communities are rarely solved in two weeks, or by college students taking gap years. So how big of a help, or hindrance, are short-term volunteers really?

Part-time volunteer itineraries can fall short for a few reasons, according to Michele Gran, co-founder and senior vice president of Global Volunteers. Those that feature a day or two touring orphanages or a few hours a day working in a school can give the feeling of connecting with local people, but in fact may be unbalanced in the “volunteer’s” favor.

By contrast, quality international partnerships focus on ongoing local investment and engage team members in projects that support local leaders’ visions, commitment and contributions.

How an organization directs and manages its projects makes all the difference, said Steven Gwenin, director of operations for GVI.

If short-term volunteers are combined with a certain slew of other factors, they can make a huge difference. But that list of factors is long:

● High quality pre-departure support.
● Well-organized, proven partners.
● Long-term experienced staff.
● Year-round, ongoing initiatives.
● Clear project objectives and targets.
● High quality staff training.
● High quality volunteer training.
● High staff-to-volunteer ratios.
● Clear communication channels to allow easy feedback.
● High levels of volunteer support throughout their program.
● Longer-term volunteers to work alongside others.

It’s one that Cross Cultural Solutions and Global Volunteers, both U.S.-based volunteer vacation organizations, also subscribe to.

“Short-term volunteers are a vastly renewable resource in a way that development experts are not,” Gran said, noting that the average age of a GV volunteer is 50, people who often have more expertise to share than younger counterparts. But they’re not development experts, nor does Global Volunteers, which has operated for 30 years, see or package them as such.

The average volunteer for CCS, at 29 years old and with three weeks to burn, might not have applicable hard skills or expertise, “yet the impact they can have is phenomenal,” according to Farhana Rehman-Furs, executive vice president of CCS, established in 1995 with the hope of enacting social change through volunteerism.

Not arriving as “experts” with pre-arranged solutions, in fact, is often key.

Playing a game with a family’s children while they wait, tired and scared, in a clinic waiting room has a huge impact on that family, for example. Volunteering may also consist of hands-on work with children at a daycare, conversing in English with teenagers at an after school program or helping patients fill out forms while waiting for help at a hospital.

“Our volunteers are not solving these huge problems, they’re providing moral and physical support to the people who are — the local people who are working in these organizations every day,” Rehman-Furs said.

There’s often a low level of resources at those organizations and a lack of individual attention, she said. This is where volunteers are most useful.

But is it community development or is it vacation? Is the focus on the local partner’s experience or the volunteer’s? In short, it’s possible for it to be both, according to Rehman-Furs and a recent study by Australian Red Cross.

Voluntourism operations must balance the tricky precipice of providing community impact as well as someone’s “experience of a lifetime.” Many groups try to steer clear of the term voluntourism, like Global Volunteers, which doesn’t offer any actual side tourism packages.

“For me, it’s equal parts about empowering local communities and empowering people to come back and share or make positive changes in their own communities,” Rehman-Furs said. “Our goal is to try to further that as a movement of people who are more globally aware.”

A glance at CCS’s website, for example, will show details of each city in which the group offers volunteer placements along with a brief explanation of the needs of the community there. CCS also calls it a “destination” and has free time built into its model so someone can take advantage of being in Peru or Tanzania.

“We’ve struggled with that a lot,” Rehman-Furs said of the balance. “When volunteers travel, they want to go to Machu Picchu or do a safari. We think tourism is a good thing, and it’s a benefit to the community and country when done responsibly.”

But their volunteers must commit to five days a week and aren’t allowed to take extra time off. Instead, CCS encourages them to spend free time with their organization by going back in the late afternoon.

“You are not the one with all the answers, they are, so assist them on their journey,” Rehman-Furs said.

In the process, many volunteers feel they gained more than they gave.

According to Rehman-Furs, volunteers often ask: What did I even do? Did I leave anything of me?

“And they did,” she said.

A focus on partnerships

The mission of many voluntourism groups is to have well-placed volunteers work side-by-side with ongoing community initiatives to support their agendas.

In every case of a CCS project, for example, a local organization requests the presence of volunteers, Rehman-Furs said.

GVI is approached by approximately 10 nongovernmental organizations, universities or government agencies per week with requests for support for a great variety of projects, Gwenin said. But for a project to gain GVI’s support, the group needs to know that the local partners already have a proven track record of success and impact, that the projects are demanded by local stakeholders, that they could achieve further impact given more support and that GVI would be able to recruit and train enough volunteers to supply long-term assistance.

CCS and Global Volunteers choose program locations based on the program director — a vital role to ensure community buy-in and ensure that volunteers are effective.

In Peru, a CCS team spent months to identify the right person to lead, and did the same more recently in Morocco.

“We never really thought we wanted to be in Rabat, but it’s where the best-placed person was, in terms of expertise and ability to lead a program,” she said. “These are country directors who have worked their entire lives there, built their network and know their communities well.”

It’s also important to make sure to only promise partnership where they believe volunteers will travel, Gran noted.

“If we don’t feel like we can ensure a steady stream of volunteers over a minimum of five, six or seven years, we’re not going to go there, we’re not about hit-and-run volunteerism,” she said.

Once identified, Global Volunteers will ask: What are the greatest obstacles to development? What areas would you like our assistance with? These communities have tremendous needs, but they may not have the wherewithal in community to meet them, Gran said.

It’s her team’s challenge to match the skills and energy of volunteers to each project for an “added value is far greater than what that community would be able to deliver on their own,” she said.

Leaning on monitoring and evaluation

Often, the debate is whether to measure contribution by the life-changing experience volunteering offers young people or its role in strengthening communities, the latter of which is more acceptable in the wider scheme of global development. But it may be that the two are so closely intertwined, it’s possible to measure one by virtue of the other.

Every year, CCS conducts an extensive survey with partners on impact. The organization may bring up Cambodia’s voluntourism-catering orphanages, for instance, during its monthly trainings with country directors and partners, where issues about vulnerable populations, financial relationships and the integrity of partners are always on the agenda.

GVI records impact in terms of U.N. Millennium Development Goals and records figures such as the number of primary and secondary students and adults taught, improvements in literacy rates and grade results, the number of hours of education supplied in areas like literacy, numeracy, information technology, health and environment. And Global Volunteers, too, looks at indicators like child health and academic test scores and tracks implementation of a gardening technology called Earthbox.

On the other hand, the process also includes evaluating its own volunteers with sex offender background and reference checks, and CCS, for example, launched an online training platform in 2013 to provide volunteers with information on how to be an appropriate and responsible volunteer, especially in behavior with vulnerable populations and children.

“We want to make sure that we’re not exposing our partners to negative situations,” she said.  

The organizations might be happy with the number of local people and groups impacted, but another long-lasting payoff is the effect the experience has on the volunteer.

“Surprisingly, given the stats, where I feel we make our biggest difference is through global awareness,” Gwenin said. “Through our volunteers and staff, our passion and knowledge has now been shared with over 130,000 people directly, and millions through our media channels.”

Similarly, CCS and Global Volunteers’  greatest accomplishments are their 30,000 alumni who have had an amazing experience in another country.

GVI is also seeing more of its alumni — whether former staff, volunteers or local partners — holding increasingly senior positions in the global development sector.

Recession has forced everyone to tighten belts

Just as the recession forced donors to tighten their belts, volunteer-sending organizations felt the effects, but on on both sides — in the number of people with the funds available to volunteer and in the recession-hit groups they were aiding.

The cost of voluntourism programs has often been criticized.

CCS has one of the higher program fees — a two-week trip to Lima, for example, would run approximately $3,300 — but “we have a program model that we are proud of and over the years, we haven’t changed it very much,” Rehman-Furs said.

And as a nonprofit, the organization has no other source of income aside from the volunteer program fee. Fifty to 60 percent of income goes to operating a “home base,” in each location, a large home that accommodates all volunteers in one place. Operating year-round, CCS employs local staff from senior-level country directors to drivers, cooks, housekeepers, language instructors and security guards, all receiving fair wages and benefits. And in the United States, each volunteer is assigned a program specialist to help prepare them.

“Good programs do cost, and it is important to help people to see why and where their money goes,” Gwenin said. “In GVI, we have spent almost 70 percent of all of the fees we have received on our field programs.”

But transparency is no match for a global economic crisis, and voluntourism operations have been hit hard. The number of volunteers sent by CCS, have declined substantially.

Global Volunteers, the most lean in terms of infrastructure, with only one office in the United States, drastically cut its budget, which meant laying off 14 employees around the world and suspending programs in South Africa, Ghana and a flagship program in Jamaica. Once sending nearly 4,000 volunteers a year, the group currently sends approximately 2,000.

“It’s agonizing,” Gran said of having to back away from a partnership, no matter the reason. The people who are hit the hardest are their clients in the field, she added.

This is when the pre-selection of which projects to be involved with comes into play most heavily.

“We are not so interdependent with [local groups] that we leave them in a shambles, as can happen when a development project gets defunded,” she said on ensuring that volunteers are only aiding ongoing development projects.

Short-term volunteering embraced as development method?

All three organizations report impressive repeat rates. Their sector isn’t going to disappear anytime soon, even as it continues to undergo change. In fact, short-term volunteers will be even more embraced by the larger development community if their advocates have any say in it.

“We believe that short-term volunteers are the missing link in scaling up comprehensive community development, which can be a method to sustain the initial investment of funding and expertise in traditional development models,” Gran said.

In the coming years, Global Volunteers, with the help of expanded technological resources, hopes to become more efficient at recruiting and training volunteers to do this.

“We don’t have even a fraction of the number that we need to support the work that we could be doing,” Gran said. “They’re out there. I think people will become more comfortable as they understand they have a tremendous amount to share.”

Gwenin also considers the recession the push the sector may have needed, hoping it forced untrustworthy operators out so that those who remain can be recognized as reputable.

“We have seen this happening, but there are still many cheap operators out there effectively selling cheap backpacker-type travel experiences under the guise of volunteering,” he said.

This is where volunteers need to be just as careful in choosing their volunteer-sending operation as the operation is in choosing its volunteers, locations and local partners.

Tell us your own volunteer story on Facebook or tweet us using #DoingMore, and check out all Doing More content here.

Doing More is an ongoing conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Australian Red Cross, Cuso International, IFRC, MovingWorlds, Peace Corps, Scope Global (formerly Austraining International), United Nations Volunteers, Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance and VSO.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.