5 Things to Consider Before Joining a Voluntourism Project

Posted on Posted in Ecotourism, Travel Blog

Voluntourism is a complicated subject, and its largely argued that it's negative impacts outweigh the positive. Still, under the right management  voluntourism can help organizations make lasting positive impacts on a community, without focusing on the promotion of the 'white savior complex.' My first trip abroad began with an ecotourism project, and it dramatically changed life path and career goals, while the projects I worked on continued to develop after I left.  

If you're considering a voluntourism project, read on to learn about 5 important considerations when choosing.

1. Do your research.

How much of the money you're spending will actually go to helping the community and project? How much of it is just going to keeping your accommodations cushy? Any reputable organization should be willing to provide you with a complete breakdown of what your money is going towards.

2. Don't pretend to be a martyr.

You are volunteering for yourself as well as the community you are working with. Volunteer work does not require suffering for the good of others, and if others expect that of you, screw 'em. It should be challenging at times, but hey...thats one of the reasons you want to do it, right? 

Voluntourism projects are constantly criticized for focusing solely on the experience of the volunteer, and thats often true, since volunteers are usually the main the source of funding for the projects at hand.  Unfortunately we don't live in a world where complete selflessness is the norm, and travelers often sign up for volunteer trips in search of some kind of self discovery, to learn a new skill, to boost their resumé, or to experience another culture without having to plan everything for themselves. Make sure you choose something you genuinely care about, and don't just do it for the photos.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when the fundamental point of an argument against volunteerism is that, "it's not volunteer work if its benefitting you." False. The benefits or real volunteer work are not suddenly void just because the volunteer gained some personal growth, learned a new skill, or discovered a career path.

Of course, I make this argument under the assumption that the volunteer actually contributed to a project that benefits the community in the long term. Unfortunately that's not always the case.

3. Choose a project that integrates the community and actually has a need for extra hands.
Relocating Turtle Nest
Relocating Taricaya turtle eggs into an artificial nest.

For example, during one of my first conservation projects, I volunteered to help with the protection of the Taricaya Turtle in the Amazon. For this project, I worked with local conservationists, helped build the artificial nests for incubating the eggs, and learned about the proper methods for relocating turtle nests. The species is considered vulnerable and is protected by local authorities. These turtles are heavily threatened by gold mining activity,, and poachers who sell their eggs on the black market. Having a consistent team of volunteers was extremely helpful to have multiple teams to locate the turtle nests before the poachers found them (the window for finding them is very small).

Check out this article about a Taricaya turtle release from last year.

Make sure the organization isn't just making up projects for you to do. One project that always seems to appear is painting murals. This can be a fun and beneficial if you are working with the community to strengthen bonds between the organization and locals, beautify an area, or commemorate a project or accomplishment in the area. If it's just you and a bunch of other volunteers painting a wall...who is that project really for?

I unexpectedly worked on a mural once during a reforestation project. While I understood that it was meant to be a break from the physical work, it felt...cliché. Not my cup of tea.

4. Contribute to a project that you know will have a lasting impact. Something that will carry on, even once you've left.

If you are considering volunteering at an orphanage, I beg you to please reconsider. Or at least do some EXTREMELY thorough research on how the children would actually benefit from your presence. Orphanage volunteer programs are notoriously unhelpful, leaving the volunteer with a feel-good experience, a new profile picture, and a boost to their white savior complex.

Often all the kids are left with is a new sense of abandonment when the volunteers leave, and maybe a friendship bracelet they made together. It has also become increasingly common that the children being kept in orphanages are not actually orphans. Their parents send their children there with the promise of access to education and food, but instead the orphanage makes a profit from the children being there by feeding off of the goodwill of travelers hoping to impact young lives.

Read more about the issue here.

So what projects leave a lasting impact? Environmental conservation projects can be great option, as they often incorporate public education, integrate the community into the projects, and focus on long term success. That means the projects continue even when the volunteers go home. And isn't that the goal of volunteering? Helping communities accomplish just enough to get the ball rolling so that the community can continue helping itself.

5. As tempting as it may be, a conservation project is seriously flawed if at any point you are riding an elephant, or playing with a tiger.

By now, someone on your Facebook feed has probably shared a video documenting the abuse of elephants for the benefit of travelers looking for a cool thing to ride. If not, you can read more on the ongoing issue here.

If you are looking to work with animals ethically, you should consider animal reservations and rehabilitation centers. Unfortunately, the reality of rehabilitation is that it usually requires very little human contact, since the goal of rehabilitation is to release the animal back into the wild. An animal that is accustomed to hanging out with humans is unlikely to survive very long, especially if they have developed a dependency on humans as a food source due to hand-feeding.

If you are looking for hands-on contact with the animals, I suggest looking into sanctuaries or rescue centers. These organizations rescue abused or mistreated zoo animals, entertainment animals, or exotic animals that have been kept illegally as pets. These animals are often extremely domesticated, and being released back into the wild is no longer an option. Instead, they are provided with large enclosures and given a better life, which sometimes means they are provided with more human interaction.

Another option is volunteering to help with conservation breeding programs, which almost guarantees that you will get to help feed the baby version of something! Just be aware that any project involving animals will automatically be more expensive, and I guarantee that cleaning up animal waste will be a part of your daily life. If this is something you are considering as a career path, I think spending the money to experience it first may be the better choice in the long run. Rather than accumulating student loans and discovering you don't actually enjoy the work.

As always, make sure you do your research and make sure the "sanctuary" isn't just stealing animals out of the wild.

Have you had any good or bad expriences with voluntourism?

Any recommendations or warnings? Feel free to comment below!

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11 thoughts on “5 Things to Consider Before Joining a Voluntourism Project

  1. My partner done a volunteer project in Kenya at the start of the year! He went to a local school and helped install a new gutter system and also installed a water tank which collected the rain water from the gutter! I do believe doing research is very important so you know exactly what your getting yourself into.

    1. That sounds like an awesome project! I’ve done something similar involving the installation of a new drip irrigation system to help a school maintain a productive vegetable and fruit garden. It was part of a project that would help provide fresh food at schools instead of the snacks the government provided (which was basically cookies or crackers).

    1. Thank you! That sounds like a great plan…we could certainly use the help at this point. Particularly helpful projects are those involved with sustainable agriculture (since deforestation is largely caused by massive agriculture projects), reforestation, and anything involving ocean research. Those are some of the largest, most fundamental areas needing help today. Working with animals is also really helpful to more immediate surroundings, and can be an incredible experience!

  2. Everything you said in this post is true. People should consider the long term impact of volunteering. It s a nice cause, but they have to make sure they are doing it for something important and long lasting.

  3. Volunteering for the right reasons and for causes you fully believe in are so satisfying. Just think how much better out world would be if everyone did. Also, you don’t have to travel to an exotic location to make a difference for good with your volunteer work.

  4. These are all great things to keep in mind when joining a volunteer project. It is important to do research beforehand and understand what you’re contributing. And like you said, you should make sure that the project will have a lasting impact.

  5. Oh my, this hits home. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while and concluded it’s, well, not for me. Precisely for the reasons you mention. So many people go into development work for all the wrong reasons (khm, Instagram), forgetting what it’s actually about. The next step is to figure out what that may be…

  6. This is an honest post and touches upon some really important aspects of voluntourism. I do agree with your point of don’t expect to be a martyr. I think it always has to be the right balance of contributing to the cause, and in the process growing too. Why else would you do it anyways – I know a lot of people who do not travel for social media and genuinely are on the road and finding meaningful projects to contribute. Honestly, I have never worked for a conservation project, but I have been teaching as a volunteer and I always felt it mattered – because as you said – what my student learned has stayed with them until today.

  7. Such a thoughtful and interesting post. The ethics of vounteering in general go really deep, I was a volunteer manager in the UK and these things (except the tiger!) all apply to home based volunteering too. Thanks for starting the discussion.

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