Volunteering & Voluntourism

What does it mean to “volunteer”?

Almost everyone has heard the term before: “volunteering” – you spend your time to do an activity to help others, often in a different place than home. This activity is unpaid but deeply rewarding, as you contribute to a benefit for others to improve their situation.

Another term often used is this context is voluntourism”, which is defined on the responsibletravelreport.com as “a seamlessly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination along with the best, traditional elements of travel—arts, culture, geography, history and recreation—in that destination.”

When comparing volunteering and voluntourism, the difference can be made within the length and the purpose of the project. With voluntourism travellers usually have little time, days or weeks they want to spend during their vacation doing something social or environmental. Activities are developed to give the tourists a special experience and a good feeling to take home with. Whereas these short term activities might not have much direct impact on the projects, people or animals, they can help to develop a local economy, create jobs like drivers, coordinators, hosts etc. and thus indirectly help the community.

With volunteering the focus lies on long term duration and the necessity of skilled workers who help to develop a sustainable project. The purpose of the trip for the volunteer is to spend time and effort to work on a specific project without being paid.

In recent years the combination of volunteering and travelling has increased significantly, as David Clemmons Founder of VolunTourism.org commented: “What we call voluntourism – the integration of voluntary service and tourism – and a variety of related travel- and adventure-inspired philanthropic actions have blossomed into a global travel phenomenon.

The travel industry has largely failed to repay people and communities in developing countries for the astonishing wealth and value they provide to travellers from the developed world.

Matt Fenton, CEO, Inspired Escapes

Now, this might sound like a great progress towards making the world a better place. But unfortunately it’s not that easy. With the best intentions people join a volunteer or voluntourism program, pay often a lot of money and are dedicetd to do their best to improve the lives of others or help protect wildlife and environment.

But as a serious demand for “doing good while travelling” generated great opportunities for more and more businesses to make money – the good intentions of travellers turned into negative effects for many communities in developing countries. The profit-driven companies focus on placing as many paying volunteers as possible into various projects – thus often fulfilling the expectations of the volunteer, but not considering the real needs and requirements of the receiving end, whether children, communities or wildlife. Especially volunteering at orphanages in countries like Cambodia or Nepal has become big business with devastating results for the children and their local communities. Read here a detailed report on orphanage volunteering and its impact in Nepal.

But volunteering done the right way is a great means to help developing projects which are set up to sustain local communities and thus improving the lives of many. It is a great way experiencing new cultures, learning and understanding from each other – that’s why it matters.


But how do you find a good volunteering program? What are the criteria for a trustworthy organization?

To prevent negative impacts for the local people or personal disappointment it is necessary to do some profound research. A great article by Lindsey Denny on gooverseas.com is listing a few check points you should consider before signing up for any volunteering program. Generally important points are:

  • Be realistic in what you expect to achieve.
  • Longer program durations (3 months+) are generally more useful than short term.
  • Do you have the skills and qualifications to do that type of work?
  • Higher cost of the program is NOT a quality guarantee!
  • Be open “to learn” as much as “to teach”.
  • Take time to research options.

A hugely insightful book with various perspectives and thoughts of volunteers and travel experts is “Adventures Less Ordinary” by Inspired Escapes. You can download the free e-book from their website.

I have listed a few great projects mentioned in the book who offer volunteering and voluntourism opportunities. Check out the book for more options and inspiration.

The website VolunTourism.org provides a list of various projects for voluntourism trips and introduces the founders through webcast interviews.

Here a few further links to volunteer blogs or communities which provide good advice and information.