Voluntourism at Home and Abroad

Combining your love of travel with a desire to help others? Sounds like it can’t be beat, right? Volunteering in your own community is a great way to give back to the people and agencies that serve you. But, there’s also a world-wide need for people with the time and resources to help out. Here are some of the pros and cons of “voluntourism,” the practice of going on a vacation to serve as a volunteer. Voluntourism offers a chance to do some good with your yearly personal leave time, while broadening your own horizons as well.

Pro: You’re an Inspiration

Actions speak louder than words, and actually going out to volunteer for a cause you believe in during your precious vacation time is a monumental act. You will inspire friends and family to start looking at how they can do the same — whether it’s by booking cheap flights to developing regions and pitching in or simply by looking around their own neighborhoods with an eye to do some good. When you go on a volunteering vacation, you’re also an inspiration to the people who you help and to the people with whom you are volunteering. There’s a lot to be said about being around a bunch of people who want to help others, rather than going to a resort to bask in the sun.

Con: The Money Might Be Spent a Better Way

There are some volunteering opportunities abroad which seem to spend more money accommodating foreign volunteers than actually contributing to the cause. If the organization didn’t have to arrange your accommodation, meals and transportation, would they then be able to use that money (or, in the case that you pay for those items, the energy) in another way? Be careful when choosing a voluntourism opportunity.

Pro: You’re Building Awareness

While time and money are things we can quantify and distress over, awareness is a less tangible benefit you might be bringing. Not only are you, through your support of an organization or cause, bringing awareness to them by allowing them to say that they have “x” number of supporters, but in your own circle of friends and acquaintances you will have another kind of influence. Even if your coworkers never give a single loonie to the cause, there’s a chance that they’ll bring it up in conversation to someone who will.

And, if you have children, teaching them from a young age to appreciate the power of volunteering will make a huge difference in their awareness of the world and their position in it.

Pro: It Counteracts Some Negative Effects of Tourism

Many of the world’s developing nations have economies that depend on tourism dollars. However, in some of these places, lax (or nonexistent) regulations may open the door for unscrupulous tour guides or business people to trample on local traditional cultures, the environment and area wildlife. Voluntourism helps to counteract some of the negative consequences of tourism and provides a model for sustainable business practices — so long as you choose a reliable agency.

Pro: You Don’t Have to Go Far

If you’re wary of going abroad for a volunteer experience, but you would like a change of scenery combined with a chance to facilitate change for others, there are voluntourism opportunities right here in Canada. Check with your church or local Chamber of Commerce for ideas in your province or territory.

Con: The Work You Do Might Not Seem Connected to the Cause

Sometimes travellers come back from their volunteering vacations dissatisfied because they don’t feel that they really got a chance to do any good. Instead of helping orphans face-to-face, they just sat in an office and made phone calls. Instead of educating poachers, they just gave baths to elephants a few hours a day. In these cases, even though you might not think so, you are still making a difference by giving your time to a cause. This arrangement might be perfect for some people who are uncomfortable being very physically active in an extreme environment, but might be disillusioning for others. The best advice is to carefully check out the company you will be going with before you pay for your trip, and to talk to others who have previously volunteered there.

About the Author: Pamela Taylor is a former NGO organiser with a penchant for community giving. She works as a grant writer, fundraiser and volunteer for various organizations in Montreal.