With the soaring popularity of voluntourism, a number of articles have recently surfaced in the UK newspapers attempting to pop the voluntourism euphoria bubble. Undoubtedly, the negative voluntourism experiences cited are real and serve as a good reminder that voluntourism, like any travel, will not always result in positive experiences.
A huge concern for people is the money and what percentage of it actually reaches the projects. Many travel companies are supportive of the local businesses they work with, but determining which one is no small task because there are big differences between companies and there are so many companies around. Tourism industry watchdogs are campaigning for a code of practice that all volunteer organizations can participate as well as creating a strategy for a system of self-auditing. Certainly that would be very helpful, but travelers still need to be vigilant and be realistic.
Travel will have its share of disappointments but you can minimize them by actively safeguarding your trip through research, planning and managing expectations.
Here are five ways to minimize voluntourism disappointments:
1. Remember the major goal of volunteer trips is to benefit the community you’re going out to help. Now projects seem to have become far more about the benefit to the person making the trip.
2. Find out as much as you can about the organization before you pay. Good companies will work in partnership with a local organization and they should have a long-standing relationship with the project. Find out how much the project is driven by local people and what the project’s objectives are. Check what’s included – emergency rescue, insurance, etc.
3. Research your options. Don’t just go for the big companies – there are plenty of smaller organizations that charge a lot less. To understand the pros and cons and find out what’s a good fit for you, check out our posts on Why Pay to Volunteer Abroad and DIY Voluntourism.
4. Think about what kind of trip you want to do. Do you want to do a project for a few hours a day while staying in a comfortable hotel or do you want to be fully immersed, staying with local people, eat what they eat and really experience how they live?
5. Look for an organization that wants to interview you before they offer you a project. These companies want to ensure that volunteers are accurately matched to projects and are looking for specific skills. Avoid companies that seem more interested in your ability to pay.
Finally, keep in mind that generally volunteer travel companies make only a small profit — so most of them are not in the business to get your money. Real Gap indicated that just 1% of net revenues in 2008 was profit.
[Note: Most of these UK newspaper articles use gap year trips interchangeably with voluntourism.]