The Truths You Need to Know about Voluntourism

Hit the road and save the world! It’s a brilliant idea… but just how easy is it to actually make a difference whilst travelling?

I have a confession to make… I have extremely mixed feelings about people volunteering abroad for a week here or a week there and then filling their Facebook page with pictures of them and beaming crowds of children.

Do they have any child-care experience? Are they really able to make a difference to a child’s life in just one week or do they risk forming a connection with an at-risk individual and then, simply, leaving?

I myself have made the decision to steer well clear of anything involving children when volunteering; I’m pretty good with kids but I have no real qualifications so it makes sense for me to stick with what I’m good at – namely, swinging a pick-axe and coordinating a team on a building project.

These days though, it seems even the simple pleasures of using a pick-axe in the hope of helping a local community are at threat – more and more stories are coming out of the wood-work of unscrupulous volunteering companies charging vast sums of money from their volunteers and then providing them with very little support on the ground; often the projects are found at the last moment and volunteers end up building toilet blocks which will never be used or painting classrooms in areas which cannot afford to hire a teacher.

Volunteering abroad is, in fact, an absolute mine-field. If you want to do it properly, it’s extremely important that you find a reputable volunteering organisation and think carefully about where your skills would be best applied.

Some backpackers, perhaps due to a lack of education or simple naivety, volunteer for all the wrong reasons – namely, to get a new profile picture for Facebook and to rant on and on about ‘giving back’. I’m under no illusions, I have probably spent a total of 8 months of my life volunteering abroad; this is not really enough to claim that I have ‘given back’, if you truly want to help a local community, it’s an ongoing process. I feel that I have made some good connections with people around the world; I have volunteered with some great organisations, some terrible ones and some unbelievably informal ones – I really do enjoy just rocking up somewhere new and seeing if there’s anything I can get involved in.

san blas

Adventure is very liberating.

A simple Google search for ‘voluntarism’ will bring up articles about its drawbacks rather than its benefits. The recent Nepal earthquake is a tragedy and I was planning on heading straight out there until I read some material which pointed out that, unless I was a doctor or somebody with a trade,  going to Nepal right now is probably not a good idea – they have plenty of blokes that can swing a pickaxe and, in short, I will probably get in the way. It’s hard to hear but it’s the truth – you should only volunteer when you bring real value to a project. That’s not to say you need a skill or trade to volunteer; you don’t. It is very easy to find an appropriate role for yourself where you can not only help out with a project but also learn new skills on the way – realistically though, a recent disaster zone is not a good theatre for unskilled or newbie volunteers.

Unfortunately, when it comes to volunteering, selflessness often marches hand in hand with selfishness. Well-meaning volunteers are taken advantage of. Recently, it has come to light that the huge demand by volunteers to work with orphans in Cambodia has actually created a ‘market for orphans’. Children are used. Parents will rent out their children to shady orphanages, which often aren’t actually even orphanages. I personally shy away from orphanages. I do not think it is fair for a child to bond with a stranger and experience abandonment on the same day. If you are going to work with children, I think you should put aside at least a month and be straight with the kid from the start; you will be leaving.

In some cases, the help one offers to a country does not get to where they are supposed to go or some people are paired with questionable not-for-profit organizations.  I had a somewhat shady volunteering experience in India, where a fellow ‘volunteer’ was in the country for a very different reason to me; namely to feel good about themselves.

Don’t get me wrong – you SHOULD feel good about yourself if volunteering but you should not be volunteering purely so that you feel good about yourself and can tell others what an evolved being you are – this isn’t what it’s all about.


This is what it’s about: Making connections with other humanoids.

In spite of these, don’t be turned off by volunteering. The fact is you help not only others but also, you are doing yourself a favour. You will learn something. You will call up first-hand awareness of the reality that some of our neighbours face daily. You just need to know your place and to be sure that you partner with a reputable organisation.

When it comes to volunteering; can help in many ways, both big and small.  For starters, you may be better off helping out somewhere close to your home. Getting involved with local outreach programs can be a better and more sustainable option. However, if you are thinking about volunteering outside of your comfort zone, I suggest you do your homework. The key is being well-informed and being prepared. If you really find yourself wanting to help out with a situation like the recent earthquake in Nepal, perhaps consider doing what I did – accept that, right now, you cannot help on the ground and, instead, organise a fundraising evening with all the money raised being donated to an organisation helping out on the ground; I highly recommend supporting the Disaster Emergency Committee.

When it comes to picking a good organisation to volunteer with – it’s all about doing your homework.  Does it operate for profit? Is it registered? Is it transparent? Workaway get’s my vote if you are looking for a grassroots operation.

There are some good companies out there with ethical practices, you just need to look. Orphanages are a particularly sensitive subject. If you do want to volunteer with children, it is essential you choose an organisation that has made a commitment to protecting children.

Speaking of experience, be ready and be practical. If you have limited hands-on skill, invest in it and learn. Time and energy is best spent building bridges and training yourself up so that you can help out with more ambitious volunteering programs in the future.

Do not become just one more camera-happy ‘Gap Yah’ student – stop and think – you can make a huge difference to the world, you can be a positive influence; all you need to do is be sure that you are putting your energy and time into the right place in a sustainable manner.

Take as much learning as you can from a volunteering experience but not at the expense of the communities you are supposed to help. If you put an emphasis more on volunteering than tourism, you will be on the right path.

So, what are you waiting for?! Make the commitment today and get yourself on the road to making a difference in a sustainable manner.

Want to know more about travelling on the cheap – Learn how to travel the world on $10 a day!


  • Avatar Labi says:

    We think alike Will. My take away from this post: do something for the right reasons. Period.

  • Avatar Straatloper_ says:

    Beautiful article! Especially in situations regarding children with a difficult past or a vulnerable situation (poverty, no family) it’s so important for them to have the right environment and sustainable role models/caretakers. Everyone considering volunteering abroad should read this article first 🙂

  • Avatar Tara- Hippie Hits The Road says:

    Yet another great post Will!
    I haven’t done any official “voluntourism” yet, although I am looking forward to doing some in the future. I did, however, have some great experiences in Galway, Ireland through some people I met through Couch Surfing. I was there for a month, and every Thursday we had work parties at different houses around the community working on vegetable gardens (or doing some guerilla gardening) or building projects. I even got to help out and learn about the social currency project starting up there!
    Thanks for the info and I hope tons of people read this before they go gallivanting off and do more harm than good.

    • I read about your time in Galway, looks like an epic adventure, somehow exactly what I expect from Ireland with a few surprises thrown in! My mum’s folks are from Galway originally and I have been meaning to go for a while but, more often than not, I am far away from the UK….

  • Avatar lyn barden says:

    Hi Will, A real worthwhile article.Some great point for would be volunteers to consider before embarking on the journey. Both parties need to be enriched by the experience of volunteering.

  • Great post and you make some solid points about what volunteering really is. I always say it’s about the cause and how much value you can add to it, it’s not about you or how good or grateful it makes you feel. I wrote a post with a similar message a few months ago about how to be objective by asking the right questions before you sign up to volunteer for a cause. Here it is if you’d like to take a look.

  • Avatar Sjurdur Hammer says:

    Spot on! From your blog and the comments I can see I’m not the only one completely disillusioned with the volunteering tourism industry. I went to “help out” for 4 weeks in Honduras with OpWall, but while it was an incredible trip and lots of really nice people, I didnt get an impression that I had actually contributed in any way which would benefit the conservation research in the rainforest we were in. I felt like I was being entertained more than actually giving my help and support to what I imagined was important conservation research.

  • Avatar Tine says:

    You are spot on with this article! I have met so many travellers who thought that they were going to save the world by volunteering, but I felt sad for the children, because they didn’t tell the kids that it was only for a short amount of time and it just seemed like all they wanted to do was to get photos of them “helping” the children by being there…..

  • This is great Will. I think you’re spot on with your approach (or non-approach?) to volunteering with children – and in general. It’s nice to have the desire to help out, but having relevant skills and THEN applying them somewhere that will make a lasting impact is a bit more of a serious undertaking.

    My approach to all things travel is usually to sort things out on-location – but the orphan example you gave makes me think I should do more due-dilligance in the future.

    • Hey Andrew! Thanks man, I really appreciate the feedback 🙂 Rocking up somewhere new and simply seeing what needs doing is a great approach but is it always worth doing a quick google search to see if there are any issues one should be aware of for that particular area. Nothing worse than dedicating time and good intentions to an unworthy / poorly managed cause.

  • Hi Will,

    Excellent! Your fair and balanced view works for me.

    My wife Kelli volunteered at an elephant rescue place in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Not the famous one, another smaller one. OK experience; the people meant well but capital was super scarce, and since the elephants were on chains, it drove her mad. She got it, but couldn’t stick around because it was very unorganized. Chalked it up to an experience.

    As for me, my volunteer bit is this; during virtually every stop, we take in like 1, 2 or 3 street animals. All over they are, in SE Asia, and we’re always here 😉 We feed them, love them and pet them, and then, before we go, we like to hand them off to the next person or to someone in the community. In most cases these animals are doing fine on their own, and an ex-pat or local looks out for them, but you can see their hearts open up a bit in all cases, and they learn to trust folks a little bit more. At least the good folks lol…it’s fun, rewarding, and it helps put a little dent into the stray issue and suffering, one little furry friend at a time.


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