Exploring the Concept of Voluntourism

Let me first start by saying I hate the term ‘voluntourism’. A hybrid of ‘volunteer’ and ‘tourism’, to me it’s just as crappy a name as ‘Brangelina’ or, for all the Peter Andre fans out there, ‘Insania’.

But like the term or not, voluntourism is taking more of a leading role in the way that we travel. As people search for ways to add meaning to their travels, a holiday incorporating an essence of volunteering seems like the perfect way to give back whilst exploring a new country and culture.

Instead of returning home from a 2-week holiday with a suntan, local crafts and ideas of a country based on an all-inclusive resort, people now want to come home with more.

As travellers, we want to meet and get to know people, and leave knowing we’ve contributed to an aspect of another person’s life and community by sharing our experiences and skills whilst learning from theirs. And we want to have an adventure!

Sounds great, right? Well, not always. Despite the overall good intentions of the voluntourism industry, there are a lot of cases in which a volunteering holiday does more harm than good.

I’ve heard of cases of sending unprepared people to do jobs that they’re not skilled for, starting ‘community based’ projects without consulting the community first, and greedy holiday agencies taking the lion’s share of the money intended for the needy.

So I interviewed Lottie Reeves, Director of Global Handprints, a social enterprise dedicated to providing independent volunteer experiences at locally established projects, to see where the voluntourism industry is going wrong, and how Global Handprints manages their balance of volunteering and tourism experiences.

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Exploring the Concept of Voluntourism

Can you tell us a little about what Global Handprints does?

Global Handprints runs two types of volunteer opportunities;

  • ‘Teachers teaching Teachers’ placements: professional skills exchange placements in which international teachers work alongside locally qualified teachers in schools in rural South Africa.
  • Volunteer Road Trips: 2 week adventures that combine volunteering at community run projects, cultural experiences and adventure activities.

Volunteer Road Trips include a variety of adventure activities specific to the local area, for example scuba diving on the beautiful Elephant Coast or horse riding through the Drakensburg mountains. Volunteers also take part in a variety of local, cultural experiences; Zulu dancing and cooking, visiting traditional healers and making Xhosa beer!

Trips incorporate a variety of projects from education based to animal welfare and including agriculture. Volunteers get involved in repairing abandoned school desks for primary aged children, helping log and track rescue dogs and horses as well as dig, plant and harvest community vegetable gardens.

Our volunteers give community members a helping hand with something they are already striving to achieve. We don’t feel the need to come in as Westerners, imply we know better, tell local people what should be done in their community and then leave a few weeks later with local people picking up the pieces and the slack from the little that we achieved in that time.

By working in a community led way, we are able to incorporate short term volunteer placements into our Volunteer Road Trips; we focus on ongoing work or quick and simple projects that can be enhanced or completed when there are extra pairs of hands around.

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How did the concept come about?

People want to experience something different from our daily life; the routine, schools runs, office hours, shopping lists, household chores, daily commute, parking tickets. Everyone wants an adventure, and for many a volunteer holiday is exactly that; a chance to get out of our comfort zones, see what else there is to life, experience how others live and make a connection.

We believe that adding adventure activities to the menu makes our Volunteer Road Trips appeal to those specifically looking for an adrenalin hit. Many people love to be outside and doing something they wouldn’t ordinarily do at home. Pairing adventure with volunteer placements mean people are getting a truly memorable experience while overseas!

How do you choose your projects?

We have personally visited each of our projects, met with the project leaders and staff and have discussed how we can support them. Myself and our Operations Consultant roughly mapped out the two routes we wanted to put together then drove them ourselves. Along the way we talked to locals in shops, shebeens and hostels. We asked around, expelling our idea and what / who we were looking for.

In most cases, our contact with projects came about from someone saying “you should definitely talk to Ronell who lives about 1.5 miles down the road that goes past the little hut with a hand painted Coca-Cola sign on it”

We approached people and built partnerships with them once we knew more about their ultimate goals and when we knew we, along with our volunteers, could help achieve them. We don’t expect a long term commitment because we understand that needs and goals change. We keep in constant contact with our partners and work with them when things do change to make sure that together we can find an alternative that will engage volunteers and also develop the community.

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What is the rough split of volunteering to travel?

Our itineraries are action packed! We want to make sure volunteers get the most from all aspects of the road trip. Each route comprises roughly 50% volunteering sessions and 50% combined adventure and cultural activities. Although we stay off the highways, travelling off road and cross country, our routes have been put together to minimise the time spent in vehicles between stops.

We spend a minimum of 2 days at any project and in most cases, 3 days. This is because we know that our community members enjoy meeting new people and want to get to know them. Spending one day somewhere really limits the amount of work that can be done alongside the socialising and interacting that you get with people from different cultures working together.

We choose projects and activities that can be done in a short amount of time, or that are ongoing so that permanent staff can carry on where we have left off without disruption. In many cases, our volunteers are extra labour so that more can be done.

For example at our animal welfare project near to Coffee Bay, volunteers help with logging and tracking the equine and canine patients that turn up on Open Treatment Day. This means permanent staff can spend more time seeing to the patients therefore more treatment can be carried out.

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Who typically joins a Global Handprints tour?

One of the great things about our Volunteer Road Trips is that there are no restrictions on age, gender or professional experience. We run the trips in small groups with a maximum of 5 making them perfect for a family holiday with a difference, a group of friends or a professional development corporate trip.

They are also suitable for lone travellers or couples and by joining a small group, you know you wont get lost in the mix! We don’t require volunteers to bring any professional experience or qualifications with them for these projects. All we ask for is a sense of adventure, an open mind and a huge smile!

What are some of the most common myths you hear about voluntourism?

There are many negative myths associated with voluntourists; that no good can be done in a short term placement, that people are more focused on taking selfies with people from other cultures to receive ‘likes’ on their social media, that the fees paid go to those high up in an organisation rather than those on the ground, that as westerners we feel we have the right to tell others where they are going wrong.

There is an idea that westerners go overseas having seen people living a lifestyle we perceive as unfortunate and wanting to help them ‘better themselves’ by helping them to take on aspects of our lifestyles and aim to achieve our standards.

This isn’t what voluntourism is about, it shouldn’t aim to make people all over the world live to the same standards, with the same traditions, cultures, habits and expectations. Life is different for people all over the world and we shouldn’t be aiming to standardise that. Voluntourism should aim to support people and communities to achieve their own goals and standards as set by them, not by us.

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What are some of the voluntourism pitfalls that people should look out for?

As with any industry, there are the good, the bad and the ugly. As a voluntourist it is our responsibility to ensure the organisation we choose works with communities giving them ownership over placements and activities that revolve around them.

It is the organisation’s responsibility to ensure volunteers are fully prepared for their cultural immersion, that they understand the aims and objectives on a larger scale and that their individual motives align with the greater mission of the placements.

Organisations are accountable for being transparent in where, why and how their money is spent and for reinvesting finances, time, man power and support into the communities.

It should always be about long term impact rather than a short term financial gain. For any voluntourism holiday you should ask yourself and your chosen organisation:

  • Does this company organise trips purely for the benefit of the tourist, or have the local community been involved in the creation of the project?
  • Will my presence be a help or a hindrance?
  • Will my presence take away jobs from the local community?
  • Where does my money go?
  • Will I be able to see the difference I am making?
  • Why are the placements happening in the chosen area?
  • What happens after I leave, does the interaction with and support of the community continue?

Where do you see the industry in 10 years’ time?

This is an industry that will continue to grow as long as our need and desire to explore far-flung corners of the world and their inhabitants increases. With this growth will come a larger number of organisations meeting that need; non-profits, social enterprises and for-profits alike are offering the chance to embark on an adventure.

As the industry grows as does the social responsibility of both the organisation and the voluntarist; responsibility to ensure the quality of the trip and the impacts they will have.

While the world is becoming smaller and more accessible with the opportunities that are available more apparent, volunteering and adventuring are the holidays of the future. We want to know our neighbours, want to help them in the times of crisis, and to both teach and learn from them.

You can learn more about Global Handprints on their website, or find them on Facebook.

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Hayley is the author behind A Life of More, a travel and lifestyle blog with the goal of helping you to live a happier and more fulfilled life, whether you're currently travelling or happily settled.

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Comments 1

  1. Kaleena's Kaleidoscope

    Sounds like an awesome organization! I wanted to do a lot of volunteering during my RTW trip but I’ve found that a lot of places are just charging exorbitant prices for you to do something that isn’t even making much of a difference. I did really enjoy my experience volunteering for a week at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, as I felt my money was really going toward a good cause and I was making a small difference by assisting at the park. We need more “voluntourism” organizations like these! 🙂

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