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What's the Difference Between Volunteering and Voluntourism?

camera, kids, volunteer

Voluntourism has gotten a pretty bad rap lately. Articles arguing that the industry is turning into a form of neo-colonialism or describing it as the "white tourist's burden" bounce around the web every few months. Or you’ll find stats thrown up that voluntourism is one of the fastest growing areas of the travel industry and that it is doing more harm than good. But what exactly falls under this umbrella of voluntourism? And how is it differentiated from volunteering -- or can it be?

But what exactly falls under this umbrella of voluntourism? And how is it differentiated from volunteering?

I'd argue that there is a substantial difference between the two. Let's first look at the characteristics of both and then explore what those differences mean for the voluntourist/volunteer (possibly you) and the target community they're assisting.

Characteristics of Voluntourism

girl, happy, dress

Short-term

Voluntourism programs typically are a part of a larger vacation, which may include small excursions or entire days/weeks of leisure. The programs are meant for people who want to do good abroad but do not have the time to commit to a volunteer project and therefore tend to be shorter in duration.

For example, an alternative spring break such as a two-week trip which includes working at a school coupled with a safari in Kenya would be described as voluntourism.

Group oriented

More often than not, these programs will take groups of individuals on the trips. The dates are set in advanced and you can sign up based on your interests.

This both elevates costs of excursions and allows the participants to share the experience. It also means there is less interaction with locals -- though we do want to emphasize less not none at all.

No expertise required

The kind of work required of voluntourists tends not to require any special skills. With projects that range from construction work to teaching/tutoring, or working in environmental conservation, you don't necessarily have to have a background, degree, or previous experience to participate.

Instead, you are expected to have a go-get-'em attitude and an openness to new things, but otherwise you are not expected to be an expert in a particular field. The program will ensure that someone with the appropriate skillset is supervising the group.

Editor's note: Voluntourism or not, any program provider that allows you to work with children should require a background check and prefer that you've had experience working with children. Children are a vulnerable population and don't let the supposed "easiness" of working with them overshadow the potential harm volunteer programs can have if not done correctly and ethically.

Participation for a fee

Many volunteer and voluntourism programs alike require a fee. You the voluntourist will not be required to set up any of the logistics (in some cases this even includes the flight) and can be assured that you will have 24/7 support -- but that comes at a price. Because of the additional trips, nicer accommodations, guides and translators, the cost of the program is generally higher than a volunteer program.

Run by a company

Voluntourism companies are typically not non-profits (though some are). The vast majority are for profit companies, and a subset of the travel industry, not international development.

Probably the most distinguishing characteristic of voluntourism, however, is the focus experience of the participant.

Therefore, they are setting up these programs with the intent of making money in addition to giving back to communities abroad. While some of the fees do support the local staff, volunteer projects, development, and help to boost the tourism economy, a large portion also covers the salaries of staff members in the West who are responsible for the marketing, development and logistics of the programs.

Of course, if you're ever curious to know just how much of your money goes to what, ask your provider. The good ones will be transparent about everything.

Emphasis on the voluntourist's experience

Probably the most distinguishing characteristic of voluntourism, however, is the focus experience of the participant. Voluntourism companies want to make sure you come away feeling like you expanded your horizons, gave back to those in need and have therefore bettered yourself in the process.

They want you to have photos with smiling children and caring host families to remember your experience. You won't be expected to work too hard -- just enough to feel as though you contributed to the cause. Because it's a business and you're the client, expecting a positive, life-changing experience.

Characteristics of Volunteering

high five, volunteer

Length varies

Volunteering abroad can last a few weeks or a year, depending on the type of work you are doing. For the most part, the longer you stay the more effective your time will be. Many programs require a minimum of 2-3 months, in order to get you oriented and give you time to see your project through.

Of course, for some highly skilled professionals, there are short-term projects like Operation Smile or the UN's Short Term Assignments that are available to you. For unskilled volunteers, however, the chances of you finding and being effective at a two week project are lower (you'll need training in skills and/or language).

More expertise required

Which brings us to our second point: most volunteer programs require you to have expertise that will benefit one of their projects. These skills or previous professional experience might be in education, health, agriculture, art, business, camp counselor, or any number of other specialized fields. Depending on where you work, you may be required to already be fluent in a foreign language.

In short, the staff you are supporting are looking to you to help them develop their programs further by providing the prowess they are otherwise missing.

Fundraising

In some cases, you may not pay a fee to join the program but you will be asked to fundraise a given amount. In essence, you become an ambassador for the organization before heading abroad, and typically the funds you raise will be directed toward whatever project you are a part of.

It is a technique some organizations use to dissuade those who may be thinking of volunteering abroad for the wrong reasons.

This caveat compels you to get to know the ins and outs of the organization's work and make sure you are aligned with the cause. It is a technique some organizations use to dissuade those who may be thinking of volunteering abroad for the wrong reasons. And fundraising of course is an important aspect of any non-profit!

Intense orientation and on the ground training

Volunteer programs want to make sure you understand the culture, etiquette, and language before they let you lose -- yes, you may receive this with some voluntourism programs, but for volunteer projects, especially longer ones, their interest in investing in your training is stronger.

After all, not only are you there to help them be more effective, but you are a representation of their organization. How you act in the community can affect the success of their work, and you will be of more use if you understand the context.

Capacity building

One of your responsibilities as a volunteer is to help build capacity within the local staff and community. There is a reason the organization took on someone with your skillset, and it is reasonable to assume therefore that they don't have anyone on the ground with such skills.

At the same time, the intention isn't for you to fill this gap forever. You essentially want to be "working your way out of a job", so to speak. Thus you will spend part of you time training, creating guidelines and making manuals to allow your work to continue once you've left.

Emphasis on benefitting the community

Unlike a voluntourism program, a volunteer program is an integral part of an organization that is working develop a given community. The organization obviously wants you to come away with a positive experience, be healthy and safe, and will undoubtedly help with the transition process.

However, the main goal is not to make the volunteer feel better about him/herself. The goal is to make an impact on the local community. Therefore, you will be expected to pull your weight and live up to the expectations agreed upon.

So, What Does It All Mean?

Tourist taking photo from van in Tibet

What it comes down to is this: Voluntourism usually combines an exotic vacation with a seemingly altruistic volunteer work. Travelers are coming abroad with little experience and expertise and trying to "fix" communities in the developing world. This notion is flawed in a number of ways, most notably the assumption that the impact needed on the community in question should come externally.

Volunteers on the other hand are working alongside an organization and community to use their expertise to develop and build capacity. The volunteer is invested in the cause and less interested in personal gain from the experience.

I won't go so far as to say that all voluntourism programs are bad and volunteer programs are good. Nor will I claim that all volunteers make a difference while voluntourists do not -- these are vast and unfair generalizations that ignore all the grey areas, exceptions, and indirect impacts both parties have.

In the end, there are definitely examples of voluntourism programs that help improve the quality of life in communities abroad, and volunteer projects that are run poorly or irresponsibly. For example, you could have a locally run volunteer program that is poorly managed and does little good -- they are disorganized, not strategic in their plans of action, or lacked qualified individuals. Intentions are good, but ultimately the time you spend on this project and the money you fundraise for it would likely go to waste.

On the other hand, you could find a fantastically well run voluntourism program that has added jobs to the local economy through tourism (and has adjusted to the growing demands of the tourism market for more "experiential travel"), provided monetary donations that aided in local development, and perhaps positively influenced local perceptions of foreigners. Yes, the intangible impact the volunteers have may be small -- you aren't eradicating HIV or illiteracy in a week -- but it's there. It's there in every interaction you have.

In the end, there are definitely examples of voluntourism programs that help improve the quality of life in communities abroad, and volunteer projects that are run poorly or irresponsibly.

That certainly makes the value call a bit more complicated, right? Of course. But then does that mean you should blindly shirk all voluntourism projects? Not necessarily. It really depends on what exactly you want to do in the first place.

What we want you to understand is that in either capacity, the participant should be mindful and responsible. Regardless of if you're embarking on a voluntourism service-learning adventure or volunteer-and-travel gap year program, do your research and ask the right questions.

You should also manage your expectations. If you're a highly skilled professional volunteering abroad for a full year, the impact you make is going to be vastly different than that of an unexperienced voluntourist who spends one week in a community abroad. Again, this doesn't necessarily mean you'll have zero impact, but you're not saving the world either. Know what you're in for.

And finally, be mindful of your host community and culture. Both kinds of programs can be detrimental if those in charge do not the the interests of the community in mind or are disregard the context and culture.

Voluntourists’ hearts lie in the right place. More often than not though, the outcome of their actions is only really beneficial to them. If you want to give back, volunteer abroad. If you want to take a vacation, do just that. By combining the two, you are not dedicating enough time and energy to make a real positive impact (honestly, your money often makes more of an impact than your "work"). However, if you understand that you won't be having a huge impact and do want to just "experience something different" -- then voluntourism can absolutely be what you're looking for.

And remember, with whatever program you choose -- do your homework, look for responsible organizations, and be prepared to be a responsible participant.

Photo Credits: Brian Gregory, Maddison Cooper, and Elaina Giolando.

Lindsay Denny

Having studied abroad in Florence in college, Lindsay caught the travel bug. During a year off, she volunteered at in a hospital in Ghana and traveled to Argentina. She also spent 6 months studying and interning in the Philippines in grad school. She now lives in Cambodia, running an NGO and exploring Southeast Asia.