Volun-tourism, Scam or Legitimate Option?

How can volunteering your time to help a nonprofit be a scam?  For the most part, especially if you volunteer in your own community, it won’t be.  Volunteering locally allows you the opportunity to investigate the nonprofit because you can actually go there.  You can talk to other people who have volunteered there, you can see the projects they are doing and judge for yourself, if the nonprofit is having an impact.  What about deciding you want to go abroad to volunteer?  There are many companies offering "Volun-tourism" to countries struggling with poverty, disasters, disease or environmental crisis.  Spending a little time and some money to help make things better is the least you can do, right?

Volun-tourism has become big business and while there are many legitimate companies who do operate ethically and who do help resolve specific needs there are plenty who do not.  Before you embark on a "volun-cation" or go on a "volun-tour" do your homework!

Starting online and googling  "Volunteering Abroad", "Volun-tourism", or even being more specific "Volunteering to provide medical aid or education abroad" dozens of opportunities pop up.  Settle in and get ready to investigate what you find!  You will discover most of these companies charge you to volunteer.  This may surprise you, but the fees cover your room and board and ground transportation, perfectly legitimate expenses.  Spend a little time searching the going rate for accommodations and ground transportation to determine whether the fees are reasonable, or highly inflated which might be suspect.  Further investigation may find stories of volunteers who discovered the supplies/medicine/food they were required to bring with them to support the cause, or money they donated, never actually benefited the children or villages it was intended for. Sometimes those items end up on the black market and the profits in the pockets of the operators of the "charity".    Read reviews of these companies, a little internet sleuthing generally leads you to legitimate reviews or stories.

Another consideration, especially in areas devastated by disasters, is whether you volunteering to rebuild housing or other infrastructure is taking away a possible job for a local person who needs to work.  Sometimes there isn’t money to pay anyone, however it is worth the time to investigate who is providing or paying for the supplies to rebuild, who is managing the work sites, and do they also engage the locals in rebuilding the community either paid or unpaid?  Bear in mind safety concerns, if you have never handled a chain saw and all of a sudden are being tasked with using one to clear debris who is going to cover you if you are injured or you injure someone else?  If you can easily research the lead organization such as the American Red Cross or a well-known faith based organization, you will find the answers to those questions.  If you contact the lead organization and they evade answering your questions or provide less than credible answers steer clear!

Consider another factor in volunteering abroad.  Are you going to be volunteering with a vulnerable population, such as children, the disabled, the sick, or traumatized victims of disaster or conflict?  Do you have the training to do what you will be doing?  If your volun-tour is going to deposit you at an orphanage for a couple of days to "teach" but have not vetted you to determine if you have any ability at all this is probably not something you should be doing.  No legitimate nonprofit in the United States would place you in a classroom without first doing a criminal and sex offender background check on you, training you in working with the student populations, and supervising your work with children.  At the very least, you’d be paired with an experienced volunteer who can "show you the ropes".  In addition, is your presence for a few days actually helping?  Alternatively, when you leave will you be just one more person who abandoned a child who is already struggling with issues of abandonment?

If you decide to "volun-tour" do careful research.  Try to locate people who have done actual volunteering abroad.  Talk to former Peace Corps members, or disaster relief volunteers.  Contact state- side based aid organizations with sterling reputations like Medical Teams International, Peace Corps, Red Cross, Humane Society International, All Hands Volunteers, Fronteering, Volunteers Forever, or Love Volunteers,  to name a few,  to find out their requirements.  Each of these organizations is dedicated to providing real benefits to their chosen projects, not just providing a volunteering "holiday" so the tourist can feel good about what they’ve "done".  Some of the larger international aid organizations, like Mercy Corps, only recruit volunteers to serve in the USA.  Overseas, they staff from the local communities to help bolster the economy.  For some nonprofits, or NGO’s (non-government organization) abroad, the fees you pay to volunteer with them do legitimately fill a funding gap.   These organizations will have clear, comprehensive project guidelines for volunteers.  Many will ask for a considerable commitment of time, not just a few hours or a day or two.  Many have a very extensive application process and once you are there, a training process and very clear expectations for you and for them.

Consider one last thing, volunteer in your own back yard first!  Connecting with a nonprofit in your own community will give you a sense of the power of volunteerism.  If you aren’t sure where to start Volunteer Connections, a program of the Human Services Council, is a local resource for connecting you to the nonprofits in Southwest Washington who will benefit from the time and talent you offer.  Contact Volunteer Connections at www.hsc-wa.org/volunteer-connections or call 360-735-3690.


Our Mission is to connect the wisdom, experience, and talents of volunteers with opportunities to enrich the quality of life for themselves and their communities.