What is volunteer tourism?
According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, the definition for volunteer tourism is: ‘the act or practice of doing volunteer work as needed in the community where one is vacationing.’ In a nutshell, voluntourism is when you combine volunteering with traveling.
Voluntourism opportunities are offered by organisations around the world. They focus on global issues such as wildlife conservation, community development, and working with vulnerable children. Such volunteer trips are often based in developing countries facing issues such as poverty and other societal inequalities. As a result, a dynamic has evolved where such working vacations abroad are often described as an opportunity for volunteers to carry out life changing work. They give the impression that people can come and ‘save’ local communities in the host country.
Issues surrounding voluntourism
Whilst it is the case that there are many volunteer tourism experiences that make a difference, there are other examples where volunteer vacations are used to make a profit off of vulnerable people and communities. Instead of focusing on solving real community issues, the priority can often be about creating a ‘fun experience’ for the benefit of the volunteer. Even worse, it has been reported that some local NGOs and community organisations have been set up for the sole purpose of attracting funding and international volunteers. There is also a lot to say about how voluntourism opportunities are marketed and talked about. Language and the use of images by volunteer organisations plays a big role in the perception of volunteering abroad.
That is not to say that every travel volunteer opportunity negatively impacts the community. And it also doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t volunteer and explore the country at the same time. It just means that potential volunteers need to carry out their research and find organisations that focus on long term sustainability, support the work of local change makers, and offer a balanced experience for all parties involved. It is therefore crucial to assess your travel volunteer opportunity in terms of impact and responsible practices before signing up.
To read further, check out a fantastic article that Daniela Papi, the Deputy Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, wrote for the Huffington Post debating the current discourse surrounding volunteer travel.
Is Skilled Impact a volunteer tourism organisation?
Skilled Impact does not offer experiences that combine volunteering and travel. Volunteers are encouraged to spend time traveling before or after their placement, or to use their weekends to explore. Therefore, Skilled Impact is not part of the volunteer tourism industry.
The aim of Skilled Impact is to move away from what voluntourism has become, and focus instead on responsible volunteering. Rather than simply creating placements for the sake of attracting volunteers, Skilled Impact and our partners put great effort into role development so that international volunteers truly serve the need of local organisations.
In order to achieve this goal, we have set up a matching process that ensures that volunteers’ skills match organisational needs. As a result, we do not create volunteer experiences that compromise the benefits to our partner organisations. Vetting volunteers and partners ensures that the right skills are matched where there is a need. Skill sharing and collaborative learning can then drive social change.
Whilst Skilled Impact is focusing in skill exchange and cross cultural learning, we do encourage our volunteers to also explore the country. India is one of the most fascinating destinations to carry out your volunteer placement, and exploring the food, places, and people is all part of your cultural immersion – an important component of your volunteer experience.
What does voluntourism mean to Skilled Impact?
The discussion about the issue surrounding volunteer travel is ongoing, and clearly voluntourism has many pros and cons. Putting in every effort to create responsible and sustainable volunteer placements, we try to avoid the negatives impact that can be caused by volunteer tourism. As a result, our approach to volunteering abroad has a different focus than many other traditional volunteer travel opportunities. We do this by committing ourselves to:
- Creating volunteer placements that focus on long term sustainability and impact
- Not prioritising the volunteer experience over the needs of the partner organisation
- A detailed vetting process of both volunteers and partner organisations
- Only matching volunteers with placements if they possess the necessary skills for the role
- Collaboratively working with local NGOs and social enterprises, as they best understand the needs of local communities
- Working with partners to develop volunteer roles that are working towards the long term sustainability of local partner organisations
- Emphasising training local staff to build capabilities instead of creating dependency
You can learn more about our approach to skilled and responsible volunteering in our responsible travel policies. For more resources, check out the following resources:
- The Guardian on how to find responsible volunteer opportunities
- Further discussion of volutourism in The Muse
- The Guardian in defence of voluntourism
- Compilation of articles and opinion pieces in the NY Times on whether voluntourism can make a difference
“I chose the organisation for their emphasis on volunteerism and not ‘voluntourism’ and the nature of the placement which seemed to give me a higher level of challenge and responsibility than other volunteer organisations. Skilled Impact is a professional and supportive organisation and Anna has been great to work with throughout.”