Volunteering is supposed to be a selfless ‘giving’ activity, but the truth is there are many reasons why people decide to participate in such a programme. The ‘feel good’ factor of doing something worthwhile and rewarding is probably the most basic of these. Respect from peers/friends maybe a subconscious driving force for some, whilst still others are aware of the benefits it may have on their CV/résumé and their future employability.
This may seem slightly cynical, but these are just some of the reasons voluntourism projects are growing in popularity all the time. However paying large sums of cash up front to a commercial company to organise that ‘payback’ experience may leave many with a sour taste in their mouths afterwards!
A great many have considered or are considering putting a little back into their travel experiences. Plenty of travellers have been blessed with amazing opportunities to visit exotic and exciting destinations and really wish to contribute a little more than in the past.
Providing a local community with a some assistance that may provide long term benefits sounds like a really worthy and satisfying thing to do and an excellent reason to travel along the way. There are a great many worthwhile projects out there and almost as many organisations claiming to provide a connection to these.
There is where the real problem lies, who really benefits from the ‘assistance’ provided; the local community project, you or the executives and shareholders of the organisation involved? There are a plethora of companies claiming to offer a worthwhile volunteering experience but many are merely independent tourism companies that have jumped on the ‘bandwagon.’
Some offer a mix of adventure and volunteering but when the ‘client’ arrives at the destination; there is very little actual community project work involved. There are also occasions where the parent company outsources to a local one and the volunteering is reduced still further. The prices of these ‘experiences’ varies greatly; but in many cases very little or even none of the money benefits the project involved.
Some may feel that spending a few days of a three week vacation working in a community gives them a warm fuzzy feeling inside and that they have in fact contributed. However it is more likely that the ‘volunteers’ involved will just feel that they could have done so much more and their money could have benefited the people that needed it a great deal more also.
There are also some accusations that spending exorbitant sums of money to participate in these schemes is merely self indulgence. This viewpoint may not be have much merit though; as many do genuinely want to make a difference and may think this is the best and simplest option. Having an outside agency sort out all the organisational aspects will seem attractive and it will also appear to be a safer option to many.
Those wishing to make a real contribution should at least do a reasonable amount of homework first; research the organisation involved and find out whether an acceptable percentage of their profits goes to charitable projects. The chances are if they have pretty, glossy brochures depicting the beauty of the place, and the opportunities for outdoor activities rather than volunteering ones it will probably give a clue as to their priorities.
If several of the executives also appear on Forbes rich list, or similar then show a degree of scepticism. Either choose another organisation or some serious research will be required to ensure they are not getting there from the proceeds of their ‘charitable’ travel company.
Once the list of potential providers has been whittled down it is time to contact them, do not merely book online. Speak to a representative, personally if possible if not then at least over the telephone. Quiz them ruthlessly; ask to see a breakdown of the community help phase of the trip, and specific assistance you will provide. Request to a see evidence that some of their profits are being recycled into community projects, profit and loss reports would be an impressive indication of transparency.
Any genuine organisation should be perfectly comfortable with providing such information and probably eager to do so. If they are not keen to do so or the figures provided do not make perfect sense look elsewhere.
Request to see testimonials from other volunteers, and check online forums, speaking with somebody that has first hand experience of the project will provide the most accurate method of assessment.
Make a real difference and say no to those companies that are making a profit out of those wishing to volunteer, using communities in desperate need of genuine help to raise their own profit margin. It is about time they were hit where it will hurt on the profit and loss report!
There are some good options though and for those interested these seem to have a decent reputation:
Original Volunteers – require some payment but are generally low-cost and have decent feedback.
Volunteer Match – aims to put the right volunteer with the right project and also works with non-profit organisations.
UN Volunteers – it is assumed that the United Nations is an organisation with integrity.
Favela Adventures – not strictly a volunteer organisation at all, but an adventure company that actually works with communities. However Zezinho is a great contact that has put people in touch with useful projects.
There are almost certainly many other great contacts, please leave any useful comments here. Especially if you do know any worthwhile organisations that others may be interested in, or have anything to contribute either about good or bad experiences share with everybody.
Do you have any voluntourism experiences good or bad to share, are there any specific pitfalls you wish to share or maybe a tip that could help anybody considering volunteering?