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Assessing Volunteer Tourism (Voluntourism) and Traveler Philanthropy


I recently read a blog, one of many, which was striving to analyze how positive “voluntourism” can be. The questions tend to revolve around one core question, “If volunteers are unskilled or getting involved in unnecessary or low priority work, and they themselves are getting a lot out of the experience, are they really doing good?”

As I was thinking about this and trying to put my ideas into words, an image popped into my head: a spectrum of “positive impact” that ranges from 100% financial contribution to 100% volunteer contribution. This implies that if your volunteer time is:

a) necessary and high priority for the organization or community,
b) introducing locally unavailable skilled labor or
c) providing volunteer services that would otherwise be costly to the organization,

then financial support in addition may not be necessary. However, if none of the above applies, then there should be a donation requirement offsetting the costs of hosting volunteers. In either case, financial contributions help sustain ongoing project needs, thereby making the volunteer trip valuable beyond the activities taking place during short-term volunteer projects.

Does that make sense? If it doesn’t, perhaps this chart will illustrate the point. Based on my experiences, if volunteer tour operators or traveler philanthropy projects fall on or above the dotted line, they will positively impact their partner projects through the introduction of skilled and necessary labor on one end of the spectrum, significant funding on the other end of the spectrum, or a combination falling somewhere between the two.

At PEPY, participants volunteer time to a short-term project with the understanding that the most significant part of their contribution is the funds they provide to sustain ongoing projects. Additionally, they receive on-site education which, ideally, translates into future involvement. We believe that everyone, even “unskilled laborers”, has the ability to contribute. Even if volunteers lack knowledge about the issue or program, they can contribute by learning more and promoting awareness to others, and by providing financial support.

For me, the essentials for successful volunteer tourism are honest marketing (ie: being open about what portion of participant fees are going to the projects they visit and the relationships involved), setting clear expectations both for the communities/programs visited and the travelers, and an understanding of the diagram above. If volunteers are not contributing resources otherwise unavailable (i.e. high-skilled labor), then funding is needed to maintain an overall positive impact. Those organizations operating in the red area have a tendency to focus more on the needs/wants of the travelers, often conveying a false sense that their impact is extremely positive and necessary, without following through on the commitment to make that statement true.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. What do you think about this chart and these ideas? Please comment below.

* If you are a voluntourism operator and would like to contribute to the creation of a self-check tool on Volunteer Tourism Effective Practices, please contact us. We’d love your input to help make all of us better volunteer tour operators and participants!



ila's picture

daniela, this is awesome

I encourage you to share your ideas with another PulseWire member -- NGO abroad!

Ila Asplund
Half Sky Journeys
+ 1 (503) 877-4759
skype: half_sky_journeys
Portland, OR 97232 USA

Investing in women through meaningful travel

danielapapi's picture

Thank you!

I have no! Only just getting to these comments. Thanks for reading.

I have put up other thoughts on voluntourism since then.

This post is about my thoughts on how effective voluntourism projects are designed

And this post lists ideas I am trying with my organization, putting volunteers in their natural role... as tourists!

Would love to hear your thoughts.

suzanne's picture


Hi Daniela,
I am very interested in your thoughts on this topic as I have been mulling over the issues you raise as well. I am wanting to promote a travel experience for people here in New Zealand but know that often short term volunteering isn't that helpful to the organisations. My idea is to send or take people to India and Cambodia (possibly Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Iran in the future) and offer them an environmentally and socially sustainable tour with volunteering as an option. I am in the very early stages of developing the idea, so I would love to talk to you more about this and possibly partner with your organisation.
I am actually coming to Cambodia next week with a friend who has not been there before. This will be my 5th trip, and I will spend most of my time in Siem Reap and Battambang. Whereabouts are you based? If I can, I would like to make some time to see what you are doing and we can share some ideas.
KInd regards Suzanne

danielapapi's picture

I hope that I did not miss you!

Hi Suzanne -

If you are still in Siem Reap, please send me an email. I would love to meet up with you and tell you more about our work.

I just put two links up on the comment above which might be of interest to you. They explain how I think effective voluntourism options can be designed, or at least the best options I have seen, to increase the positive impacts on the communities and projects served. One key is REALLY knowing a place and having a very strong and ongoing (outside of just voluntourism visits) relationships with the community. For me, that means having full-time staff from the area, as I know I will never know rural Cambodia like they do, but also to spend a lot of time there myself. In this sense, I think it would be very hard to do voluntourism projects in many different locations at once, unless of course the first step was to identify partners as well as outside connections who you trust and respect and who know the areas very well and are based their full time, who can meet with your partners and offer monitoring and ongoing feedback.

Anyway, I would love to talk to you about these things. I hope we can touch base while you are here in Cambodia.

Best - Daniela

Maria Cuellar's picture


Hi Daniela,

I have been wondering about these issues as well. I have volunteered many times in Southeast Asia and Latin America, and I always try to choose organizations with short-term programs that I know will make a big difference (like teaching children how to read, or providing free eye care). But after all of this I still think it is difficult to know when someone's life will be better if I try to help or not, especially when it deals with my area of expertise: Physics and Math education.

This is what confuses me about helping out. I know that people around the world need better Math and Physics training, but I know that they need better health care and jobs more. I suppose Math and Physics training would fit in the top left side of your graph, like the surgeons who don't have donation requirements.

But who wants to learn about Math and Physics when they don't have enough food to live? I have thought that maybe I need to help in communities that are not hungry, but they just need a better education system. But I'd like to help everyone: if someone is poor it doesn't mean they don't have the right to learn math. It's sometimes hard for me to understand that I can help with scientific knowledge.

Can someone help me figure this out?
Thank you!
Maria (confused)

danielapapi's picture

Thanks for the post, Maria

Hi Maria -

I understand this quandary. I was just describing a similar situation to a friend today.

There is a program I really respect in Nepal called "READ Global". They "build libraries" - but it's much more than that. The process they use is what makes them exceptional. When a community approaches them to build a library, they must also provide an idea for an income generating project that fills a need in the community. For some places it might be to rent the under-library area as stalls for a market and for others it might be converting a tuk-tuk into an ambulance and charging a small fee for the service of a ride to the hospital. READ helps them start the income generating project and once it is running on it's own and making income, they build the library, buy the books and train the teacher. Then it is up to the community based organization (CBO) to manage the income generating project well and continue to bring enough revenue in to fund the librarian. In this way, the project can go on without READ in the future.

This relates to your post because, guess what... the system doesn't work so well in Cambodia. READ hasn't tried it here yet (though they have considered it and have opted for other places first), but other groups have tried similar things, and yet it typically hasn't work well here. Why? In my mind there are two major factors. One of course being the Khmer Rouge legacy - people don't trust each other and sometimes they trust only their families so the whole CBO concept is difficult when it comes to shared resources, people are still living for today and find it difficult to invest in the future, and there is less value put on education (both from the Khmer Rouge destruction of education and the fact that there are few signs that education really does produce financial results for families). The other reason I think it doesn't work so well, is that LIBRARIES are not high on people's priority list, in part because of value for education, but even more so because there are OTHER needs. Like you said, why do people want to study math when they don't have food on the table?

We are skipping steps here in Cambodia, trying to build libraries and education when rural communities want to find ways to build economies. I think it needs to be a two prong approach - supporting the older generation with capacity building and new or improved skills and then connecting them with opportunities to use those skills to improve their livelihoods while also providing education to the younger generation to be able to improve their lives and their country in other ways.

That being said, physics education IS needed for those who get to that level. There are places where it WON'T go down so well, where people can't put value on physics when it means disregarding the work that needs to be done to get food on the table, even if they are school aged children. But then again, there are places where it will work well. The "poorest people" might prefer other skill building than physics, or might be in a place where that is beyond the schooling level they will achieve for the majority of students in this generation, but there are some who will and your skills can support them. As I put in some of the links I just pasted above and in other posts on my blog, I don't think having someone like you come into a place to teach students, especially if it is for a short time, is the best use of your skills. Instead, if you came in and taught TEACHERS, and helped them improve their ability to pass on those skills, that would be fabulous!

If you are coming through Cambodia, I know some high school science teachers who would love to learn from you!

I hope those thoughts and the thoughts on my blog are useful. I would love to further engage in this discussion with you or any others who are interested in this topic, so please write back any time!


danielapapi's picture

A skeptical look at voluntourism

Here is an article which takes a skeptical look at voluntourism:

And this is from my blog - some thoughts of what a traveler should look for in a voluntourism operator.

We have just put up - but we still need to work on making it more user friendly. I hope some of these thoughts are useful.

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