“Volunteering” or “Voluntourism”? — Who cares! It’s how you design it!

Posted on: May 26, 2009 Posted by: Manin Oem Comments: 0

“Volunteering” or “Voluntourism”? — Who cares! It’s how you design it!

There is a discussion about volunteering/voluntourism going on here, Part 1 and here, Part 2.

I decided to add my long-winded and opinionated post obviously influenced by working in Cambodia and being passionate about the responsibility implicit in these issues.


This is a debate I often find myself in, as I run what could be considered a “voluntourism” organization in Cambodia. As I know “volunteer” is the words people are searching for, much more than “service learning” or “experiential education”, I had allowed the word to stay on our website, but I don’t like our guests thinking of themselves as “volunteers”, as that highlights the “giving”, and what I want to highlight for them is the “learning”. We don’t call them volunteers when they arrive and when we discuss our programs with them. Our goal is that they walk away knowing that their FUNDING helped sustain things which will last far longer than their short stay in Cambodia, and their new KNOWLEDGE will help them be advocates for the causes they came in contact with and will hopefully alter how they travel and give in the future. We let them know that their future actions will dictate the additional impact this experience adds to the world outside of funding something on-going which they got a chance to visit.

The visual I put in this post does a better job of illustrating my thoughts on when and how volunteers are helpful:

I want to add a totally different perspective: I think more voluntourism (as I define it below) is actually what we NEED to responsibly herd all of those looking to “do good abroad” these days, and the fact that they PAY is indeed the key, rather than more of this short term “volunteering” I see happening. And yes, I agree, people who pay to simply “volunteer” (vs. voluntour) are often doing the most harm.

Where do my biases come from:

  • I live in Cambodia and have lived here for nearly 4 years. I run an educational NGO called PEPY which we fund, in part, though “volunteer” and adventure tours.
  • Cambodia has the highest (supposedly) ratio of NGOs per capita
  • This also means there are TON of “volunteers” — many of whom are earning a salary a hundred times more than a local salary even though they are “volunteering” (take UN Volunteers for example) — which is a whole different topic, but does put into context the overuse and poor definition of the word “volunteer” in Cambodia. Many Cambodians want to “be a volunteer” when they grow up as the “volunteers” they see are the ones driving the SUVs, but I digress.
  • More and more short term volunteers are either a) staying here and making volunteer positions for themselves with little to no knowledge of Cambodia or development (I would have been in this category 4 years ago and have made many many mistakes because of it) or b) paying to volunteer for a short period of time (often times with groups who also have little to no knowledge about development themselves).
  • From what I’ve seen in Cambodia (and I will highlight below), these are having the least impact and often doing the most harm.

In order to understand better where my perspective comes from, let me tell you how we operate our trips.

How do PEPY Tours work: People pay a fee to join our trips (as they should, because it’s a TOUR at its core and they should pay for the experience to be involved in our work as we don’t want to take any passer-by non-paying person along to our projects as that takes our time and money and also doesn’t add value if not facilitated) and then they have a required fundraising minimum. That fundraising/donation amount goes straight to our programs. Hence, they are paying for an experience and then donating money ($500 minimum per week per person) to make sure that the projects they see are sustained long after they visit, by LOCAL people who aren’t popping in and out as many volunteer-run programs are.

What do people get involved in: Either hands-on support for our programs and/or what we call “facilitated interaction” with the people/programs our ongoing work supports. We do not tell our guests months in advance that they will be painting X classroom or watching a lesson on Malaria performed by Y child club. Instead we let them know that the interaction they will have with our programs will be facilitated by our staff based on the on-goings and the needs at the time. Yes Steve (from the last post), there might be “murals painted” if a new school has been built and that is what the teachers are looking to do at that time with their students with their own designs, but we aren’t doing things like “you will build a fence on your trip next December” and asking the community and programs to sit around and wait until the foreigners, with no fence building experience, get there to “help”.

What we have learned in our time in Cambodia, after doing MANY trips and programs wrong (see www.deedaproductions.com for a film called “Changing the World on Vacation” which highlights many of our mistakes) is that development work, ANY development work, in order to be most effective, should be defined by the constituents who are supposed to be the “beneficiaries”, should have their support and input, not just in the planning stages but in the enacting of the project (either financially, in-kind, through their labor, etc) in order for it to be valued, and should take local input into account in the monitoring and evaluation stages as well. This is, in my opinion, how development PROGRAMS are most effective. I capitalize programs to highlight that volunteering, or visiting a project for any short term, or really any term at all, is not a PROGRAM. It is an input into a program.

To sum up: a volunteer, or voluntourist, short or long term, is only going to be as effective as the PROGRAM designed to bring them in. If the program is designed well, if the program defines if the “volunteers” need to have certain skills or not, and if the facilitation is designed to integrate the visitors into ONGOING programs in a way that is non-disruptive to the long-term goals of the project, then FABULOUS! Call it what you like, -tourism or -teer, the visitors will be able to add value, because it was DESIGNED that way.

How do I personally define these words:

Volunteer: anyone who is giving their time, unpaid

Volunteer Program: a program which involves unpaid people giving their time over any period of time

Short-term Volunteer Program: anything that is a few months or less — in some cases they have to pay to “volunteer” for a week or two. These people are paying to “volunteer” and are being sold “volunteer programs.”

Voluntourism Program: anything that involves touring as well as “volunteering” — giving back to a program or supporting an on-going project. The worst cases define their “volunteer” portion as giving things away, though I would call that Philanthropic Tourism, and a poor version of it at that. People who pay to “see the sights and also give back” are likely being sold a “voluntourism program”.

Why do I think “voluntourism programs” are having a better impact in many cases than “volunteer programs”, especially short-term volunteer programs where you pay? Because in the definition of voluntourism, you are saying you are here to SEE things, you are a TOURIST, you are not just here to “give” when you don’t know anything about the best ways to do that. In being defined as a tourist to begin with (something people who should be defined as such often take offense to) there is implicit in that the notion that you are NEW, and you DON’T know everything. You are here to see (and ideally to learn).

If you are paying a “volunteer program” to take you around, especially a for-profit one, their goals must include to “make money”, as any for-profit business must do to survive. When the goal of making money overtakes the goal of supporting development responsibly, as I often think it does, volunteer program operators start selling things people are demanding, as if the volunteer market economy thrived on the same supply and demand graph as canned beans. The problem is, when you add social responsibility into the mix of demand/supply, you are also adding another factor which is less necessary with the required product labels and content discloser requirements when packaging beans: KNOWLEDGE. Volun-shoppers often don’t have the knowledge required to successfully do their cost-benefit analysis as volun-opportunities don’t always come with a package that says: “Includes 1 part responsibly identifying partners, $1000 per person going directly to our well chosen charity, 4 parts looking after your safety, etc” – but it SHOULD. If volun-operators were responsibly marketing their programs, there would be full disclosure about what, if any, of the money is going to the programs visited, how the programs were chosen, any problems in the past and how they have been resolved, etc. The problem is, no one is demanding this, and until we, as consumers, do, people can still pack stale volun-programs into an unmarked bean can and sell it based on cost comparisons only. We shoppers need to be asking questions, and if we are not finding what we want, we need to talk about it, demand more information, or vote with our money elsewhere.

In Cambodia, there are many places where you can “volunteer”, some paid and some unpaid. Straight up volunteering through one of these volunteer programs implies that you are there to “give” and I have to say, from what I have seen here in Cambodia, sometimes the “givers” are taking a lot more than they are able to give.

How many orphanages take volunteers here to “teach English” for a few weeks or a few months? A ton. How many kids get to learn “head shoulders knees and toes” month after month from a new face? You get the point…. And yes, Darin from the last post, this IS how a lot of those programs get their funding, and I would argue that is a HUGE problem. They expose their students, who they should be prioritizing as the beneficiaries of their work, to new faces and new people sometimes unskilled, unsupervised, and in short succession, often invest more time in the volunteers themselves to “bring in more money”, and get so trapped in the cycle that they often don’t recognize that there are other ways to bring money in, to fund a local teacher to have ongoing continuity for the children, and be able to focus on their core mission. Some, in the worst cases, keep their children looking as poor as possible as they know that uneducated -teers and -tourists will give MORE because the kids “look so poor.” My thoughts on orphanage tourism in Cambodia here: https://lessonsilearned.org/2009/02/sometimes-we-take-ourselves-too-seriously/

The paying issue: If people PAY to be tourists and give back through their time, that funding can be used to support things like locally-owned hotels/responsible restaurants, and the residual funds can be used to operate the long-term development programs long after the volun-people leave. Unfortunately all too often the money is used, even by groups touting themselves as NGOs, to make a profit, and little to no money is given to the projects visited. VOLUNTEERS ARE NOT FREE! Hosting a volunteer, skilled or unskilled, takes time away from the core mission of the organization as their mission, in few cases, is defined as taking care of a visiting tourist.

It all comes down to how the program is designed and if the needs and sustainability issues of the development programs and their beneficiaries are put FIRST, above the desires of the volun-visitors. If a -teer or -tourist program is DESIGNED correctly to begin with, to support the long-term work of groups and programs following best practices in development, the impact will be highest. And, as long as the money is ending up in THOSE places, not in some operator’s pocket (or at minimum in addition to that), then why would PAYING be bad? In reality, the money that goes into these projects is often having more of an impact than the people themselves!

(Please do not respond to me as one operator of a big, shall I say politely least-impactful and least-responsible “volunteer” organization did by saying this: “but if we give MONEY to these groups, we could be adding corruption.” Are you kidding me!? We, as operators, have the RESPONSIBILITY, to pick non-corrupt groups, to send volunteers OR to send money. Yes, we will make mistakes, so then we need to MONITOR and then CHANGE if/when we do. If we write ourselves get-out-of-jail-free cards simply because are sending “volunteers” and not funds and think that gets US off the hook for “aiding corruption” we are obviously completely disconnected to what happens when people volunteer. THEY give their money. And they THINK that any group they have paid an arm and a leg to travel with has done their due diligence and research for them, so why would they not want to give money to these groups? If the program is DESIGNED well, with best development practices in mind, it will also not create a “dependency” on these funds. That is the responsibility of the operator as well as the partner/NGO group when defining the program/relationship to begin with — there need to be parameters. Should groups be able to visit a school to volun-stuff? Sure, if the program is defined well, the students are safe, and it isn’t disrupting class. Should these same people be allowed to come “do good” at school every day? No, not if is distracting from the work. There need to be parameters set/followed/monitored/changed as needed. For example, at PEPY we allow three groups per year to visit our schools, but that was even defined when our tours were way more disruptive. Now we still limit the visits but also time them with class presentations, school trips which allow for interaction, etc.)

If we do good work based on best development practices and only allow visiting helpers (be they long or short term) in when they fit the PROGRAM’S needs (not the visitor’s desires), when we wouldn’t have to be having this discussion to begin with. Those who came to help, would be doing so, and I wouldn’t have to watch “volunteers” disrupt and harm development here in Cambodia.

PEPY members and friends are starting voluntourism101, a site sharing these types of ideas and thoughts… coming soon.

(Forgive the length of this. I am obviously, I hope, more passionate about development work and responsible volun-programs than I am about brevity, spelling, and proper use of punctuation!)