Ever had the urge to vacation in an exotic, foreign land and take a day or two, volunteering to clean up a dirty seaside beach? Or visit a local orphanage, swinging a hammer for a few weeks to help build a library? If so, you’d be joining one of the estimated, 1.6 million (mostly) westerners who have embraced an often controversial practice known as “voluntourism”. Voluntourism, now estimated to be a $1 billion industry, is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “the act or practice of doing volunteer work as needed in the community where one is vacationing”.

Defining Volunteerism

In 2017, Cambodia launched a crackdown on 2017 bogus orphanages, many of which are set up to attract donations from tourists. "There are many abuses inside orphanages," Minister of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation Vong Sauth said in a speech at the launch of the plan, adding that “80 percent of the 16,579 children in orphanages were not actual orphans and under the government plan, 3,500 of them would be returned to their families by the following year”. Children in orphanages develop debilitating “attachment disorders” with visiting volunteers, who stay for a few days or weeks and then disappear, never to return. Some social workers have appealed to tourists to stay away from orphanages declaring that so-called orphanage tourism enables child exploitation.

From pitfalls to triumphs: Decoding the billion-dollar industry of voluntourism.

In 2018, Australia became the first country to officially recognize orphanage tourism as a form of modern slavery, writing this into law as part of its Modern Slavery Bill. This led to a crackdown on fake orphanages and the imprisonment of key perpetrators, such as American Christian missionary Gregory Dow, a sex offender who started an orphanage in Kenya in 2008. Fortunately, there are also numerous examples of philanthropic, globally conscious westerners who turn their compassion for at-risk communities into sustainable, meaningful advancement for vulnerable populations and ecosystems within developing countries. Ken Budd, author of “The Voluntourist” relates how – often – poor rural communities simply don’t have the funding to hire skilled, local talent to address educational gaps. Relying on overseas volunteers is a necessary stopgap measure. He writes, “in Costa Rica, my wife and I taught English at a rural elementary school. The principal used volunteers because he couldn’t afford an English teacher. It wasn’t a choice between volunteers and paid teachers; it was a choice between volunteers and not offering English class”.Global Brigades, Inc., a Seattle WA - based global health organization, supports medical, dental, and community health worker training programs in Ghana, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. Global Brigades seeks to ensure regular and affordable access to improved healthcare for rural community members. To improve access, the program works with volunteers to implement mobile-clinics with the support of community leaders and volunteers. The “voluntourism” aspect of the program provides aspiring healthcare professionals, many in high school, college, and master’s degree programs, with the opportunity to gain vital training and experience in a medical clinic setting while making a tangible impact in global health.

Student volunteers shadow local doctors during patient consultations, support medicine distribution within the pharmacy, and lead health education workshops. Mobile clinics offering medical, dental, OBGYN, and vision screening stations are implemented in a community every 4-6 months. As part of Global Brigades' model, local, native Community Health Workers (CHWs) are trained in partner communities. These CHWs are tasked with providing basic health care, sanitation and hygiene education to the community – and capable of responding to the health needs of the community, providing referrals to patients needing a higher level of care.

Navigating the Voluntourism Landscape

Other western-based nonprofits working in the developing world take a demonstrably different approach to utilizing tours for volunteers and supporters. More often than not, pausing to do some homework, before leaping at an overseas adventure, yields meaningful insights that deliver long-term impact. This is true for individuals and nonprofits alike. One example of this more deliberate approach to “voluntourism” is embodied in the origin story for Austin -TX based Well Aware (full disclosure, I served on Well Aware’s Board of Directors from 2017-2020). In the late 2000s, Sarah Evans, a public policy and finance lawyer, was approached by a friend in Kenya to help support a community, Oltinga, in Kenya that was losing their goats and cattle to deadly diseases and malnutrition. Originally, Evans was asked to make a donation to help improve the health and longevity of the animals. Instead of traveling to Kenya, Sarah did extensive research, absorbing everything she could about local water systems, animal feeding, nutrition and engineering. She stumbled upon an article in her local Austin Statesman newspaper, and called the author, a hydrogeologist, to pick his brain. Combining this newfound knowledge with that of her Kenyan contacts, Sarah began to see a broader systemic problem affecting Oltinga. Sarah eventually realized that the problem wasn’t necessarily with the animals, their feedstock or care, but the unhealthy, local water supply. She gathered the best hydrogeologist, engineers and project managers, and set out to create a fresh, health water supply, eventually overseeing the drilling of a fresh water well.  Evans admits there was more than a little luck involved. 13 years and 130 fully operational fresh water wells later, Well Aware has made a dramatic impact on the clean water, health and development of thousands of young Kenyan women. A few years into her tenure as founder and CEO of Well Aware, Evans began organizing trips for ambassadors, potential donors, and supporters called Rafiki’s. Like most nonprofits operating in the developing world, but based in the developed world, the practice of bringing key advocates and supporters to see the work firsthand is vital to continued funding and operational sustainability.

Well Aware goes to great pains to provide meaningful training and educational sessions to any guest supporters and donors traveling to visit projects in Kenya and eastern Africa. Two mandatory, separate orientations are held; logistics and culture. The cultural orientations are devoted solely to local Kenyan culture, traditions plus “do’s, and don’t's” - unearthing and challenging assumptions for all visitors about the country they’re about to visit.This process occasionally reveals potential participants who are not willing to adapt to local culture, nuances, and guidelines.  Evans has had to reject applications for potential participants who don’t get it. Well Aware generally avoids a voluntouring model, relying on local staff, nonprofit partners, and village leaders with the skills, perspective, and relationships to support the wells they’ve drilled. Evans attributes Well Aware’s success to this hyper-local, community-based sustainability model, which trains and relies on local villagers to service, troubleshoot, and maintain the wells and related systems. Notably, unskilled tourists pitching in to do the work local villagers can for an afternoon are NOT part of their operational plans. With Well Aware’s growth in the last 13 years, they have been able to hire eight local staff; hydrogeologists, engineers, operational experts, and project managers. This local model stimulates the village economy and surrounding areas, sourcing all materials in the region and country wherever possible.Maui-based Skyline Eco-Adventures, a Certified B Corporation, avoids voluntourism altogether. Instead, they leverage adventure-seeking and ecology-minded tourists’ interest in supporting local conservation efforts. Skyline, the first commercial zipline company established in the US, encourages visitors to enjoy their ziplines and tours of the Hawai’ian Islands, but forego the volunteering. The company donates 10% of proceeds from their eco-tourism business to plant native Koa trees, conduct ocean plastic cleanup events, support reforestation initiatives, and Maui-based environmental and community nonprofits. Their guides undergo extensive training centered on Hawai’i’s unique ecosystems and culture.

Skyline is a contributor and signatory to “1 % For the Planet”, a global network of more than 5,000 businesses and 6,000 environmental organizations working together to support people and the planet. Members pledge to donate at least 1% of annual sales to environmental organizations. In 2020, Skyline was Certified as a Sustainable Tour operator by the Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawai’i.

Navigating the Ethical Landscape

So what can a thoughtful, globally conscious traveler do to give back a little to improve the fragile, pristine, or still developing destinations and communities they’re visiting? Can one actually enjoy themselves on vacation AND do some good? Generally speaking, local volunteering is better and safer than attempting to positively impact a foreign, unfamiliar community. Supporting local nonprofits in the destination you’re visiting is laudable and impactful. One can always support local merchants and shops during a visit. But if you do decide to undertake a voluntourism adventure, embracing these common sense guidelines will help you do so safely and wisely. •Before committing to an organization, reach out to past volunteers to hear their experience or read reviews.•Take an honest, personal inventory of the skills you have to offer.•Make sure your efforts would be providing local communities with the tools, resources, and opportunities to learn and advance their interests.•If you have a special skill or expertise in a specific field, look for organizations that train and empower local staff using your skill. That way, you’re making a lifelong impact for an entire community rather than a temporary one.•Research the organization's credentials, using Charity Navigator or GuideStar.•Avoid organizations that encourage handling of animals when it is not veterinary, research, or conservation-related.•Support projects that are run or managed by the local community.•Seek out projects that are genuinely needed in the destinations where you want to volunteer. Ask yourself if the volunteer work provides a "band-aid" fix or a long-term solution to a local issue.It’s well-documented that volunteering is good for one’s physical and mental health and career. But sometimes, keeping volunteerism and tourism separate, however, allows one to reap the benefits of each fully.

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