Volunteer tourism or voluntourism combines travel with service, allowing travelers to use their time and passions and skills towards volunteer opportunities in education, public health, environmental conservation, agriculture, housing development, scientific research, and other arenas in visited communities. A few examples of voluntourism include assisting with language classes, construction projects, and wildlife studies. More recently, the term “experteering” has become popular in describing a subgroup of voluntourists: Those providing a specific professional skill set (such as coding, graphic design, business plan development, dentistry, etc.) as a volunteer while traveling. (See the directory below.)
While questions have been raised in recent years about the effectiveness of voluntourism and the potential for doing harm rather than good in the communities it’s intended to serve (see the articles below), there is consensus that voluntourism, when done correctly, has the potential to provide positive impacts to both travelers and visited communities alike, creating not just gains in development for local communities, but also fostering cross cultural exchange and appreciation.
As one of the fastest growing trends in travel today according to a July 2014 National Public Radio story, voluntourism has grown rapidly over the past 20 years – to more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists spending about $2 billion each year, with both nonprofit and for-profit organizations involved in helping to place volunteers. However, as voluntourism’s popularity has risen, so has the risk of harm and exploitation of local communities. For example, recent stories have led to growing criticism of orphanage tourism – with Australia becoming the first country in the world to recognize orphanage tourism as a form of slavery. Careful research of volunteer opportunities is essential to finding ways to do more good than harm.
Below are some recommendations and tips gleaned from articles and resources to help in the search for a suitable voluntourism organization for your project or destination.
The Business of Voluntourism: Do Western Do-gooders Actually Do Harm? (September 2018, Tina Rosenberg, The Guardian)
Power to the Hosts: How to Fix Voluntourism (April 2018, Pascal Scherrer and Jessica Steele, The Conversation)
Volunteering Abroad? Read This Before You Post That Selfie (November 2017, Malaka Gharib, National Public Radio)
How to Maximize the Benefits of Skills-Based Volunteering (July 2016, Catherine Chaney, Devex.com)
Where Does the Money Go When You Volunteer? (July 2015, Natalie Southwick, GoOverseas.com)
10 Traits of a Responsible Volunteer Program (March 2014, Jessie Beck, GoOverseas.com)
Giving Back: A Special Report on Volunteer Vacations (Jan. 2013, Dorinda Elliott, Conde Nast Traveler)
Traveler’s Philanthropy: Dos and Don’ts of Travel Giving (2009, The Center for Responsible Travel) In this 12 page booklet, a dozen experienced tour operators and tourism organizations engaged in supporting local community projects summarize advice on volunteering and donating.
- Voluntourism Organizations (both nonprofit and for-profit)
Cross-Cultural Solutions is a nonprofit begun in the mid-1990s that provides volunteers (individuals, groups, and families) of all ages, with projects of varying lengths around the world. Program fees cover food, accommodation, insurance, language lessons, some in-country activities and excursions, and support from local staff.
Earthwatch is a 40+ year old nonprofit that engages volunteers in scientific field research and educational projects worldwide. Volunteers work alongside researchers on projects in wildlife/ecosystem conservation, climate change, archeology and culture, and ocean health. Program fees cover accommodations, food, and all related research costs.
Global Citizen Year is a nonprofit started in 2009 that selects fellows (high school graduates) for a “bridge year” of volunteer service before college in Brazil, Ecuador, Senegal, and India. The program offers opportunities in environmental conservation, education, public health, agriculture, or social enterprise and offers financial aid to selected fellows.
Global Volunteers is a nonprofit founded in 1984 that provides various short-term placements for volunteers in the U.S. and around the world, with a focus on child health and development. Program fees cover accommodations, food, local staff support, and supplemental health insurance.
Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit started in the mid-1970s that is dedicated to creating affordable housing through new construction and renovation. Both short term and longer term volunteer opportunities are available globally in fields such as construction, finance, resource development and administration. Program fees include a donation to Habitat and accommodations, food, in-country support, and supplemental health insurance.
Help Exchange (Helpx) “is an online listing of host organic farms, non-organic farms, farmstays, homestays, ranches, lodges, B&Bs, backpackers hostels and even sailing boats who invite volunteer helpers to stay with them short-term in exchange for food and accommodation.” Very similar to Workaway, Helpx posts opportunities worldwide and requires hosts and volunteers to register (with a free and premier paid subscription available to volunteers). Volunteer opportunities, expectations, and requirements vary – with some hosts providing board only and others providing both room and board to varying degrees.
Moving Worlds is a B corporation founded in 2011 that facilitates experteering, that is, matches professionals looking to volunteer their skills with nonprofit organizations in need of specific talents. Moving Worlds bills itself as “a short-term Peace Corps crossed with match.com.”
Projects Abroad is a 20+ year old company that connects volunteers (individuals, groups, and families) of all ages, both professionals and students, with projects of varying lengths around the world. Program fees cover food, accommodation, insurance, and support from local and North America–based staff.
TalkTalkBnB is a free service that connects language learning hosts with travelers willing to practice speaking in their native language in exchange for a room (and sometimes board). Hosts and travelers create profiles and can connect with one another via the site’s messaging platform. A combination of couchsurfing and language learning/exchange.
Workaway is a subscription (yearly fee) based service that allows travelers/volunteers and hosts from around the world to post profiles and connect with one another through its messaging platform. The site also provides hosts and volunteers to provide reviews and ratings of their experiences, which are posted publicly. Opportunities include child care, hospitality, adventure sports guiding, farm work, teaching, and construction, among others.
WWOOF: World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms is an organization that has been connecting volunteers with opportunities to live and work on organic farms since 1971. Volunteer opportunities exist in over 60 countries on over 12,000 organic farms. In order to find opportunities and connect to the farms, volunteers join the chapter(s) of the country/countries where they would like to WWOOF. Depending on the country, membership may be free or fee-based.
About Eugene Kim
Eugene is an outdoor, travel, and food enthusiast. She has worked in the eastern U.S., Ecuador, and Spain on sustainable ag/food policy and educational initiatives.