Definition: Voluntourism is the combination of volunteering and sightseeing, enabling travelers to not only visit the scenic highlights of a destination, but also to engage in a meaningful way with the people and/or the environment, by giving back in a hands-on way. In recent years, there has been a strong growth in the volunteer travel industry. Leave UR Mark offers both internship and volunteer programs and deals with the ethics of the types of people to accept on our programs and their impact on our partner NGOs and Non-Profits in India. Recently in the media, there has been coverage about how many “volontourism” companies are operating as travel agencies that send interns and volunteers by the thousands to projects that they may actually be hurting instead of helping. There are reports of people working in orphanages in East Asia where the children are not even orphans but rather sent to the orphanage by their parents so they can make money from gap year travelers. In one article, a former volunteer of another organization discusses how she worked on construction projects that did not help the community but were rather fake projects for her and fellow volunteers to work in order to feel some kind of accomplishment. Some of these are legitimate concerns, but others that essentially write off all volunteering and interning abroad programs as being harmful need to investigate further on the benefits. With a slight shift of expectations, we feel we can open the discussion into what kinds of volunteer experiences we can offer and facilitate. We’ve seen our fair share of volontourists pass through India and after researching the trends for almost a decade, felt that we could share some of our ideas on how travelers with good intentions can avoid becoming voluntourists but rather meaningful participants in what is actually an extremely beneficial exchange of two (or multiple cultures). Here’s how Leave UR Mark avoids taking on volontourists and how you can avoid being one from the get go.
Try getting involved in other ways.
Say you come to India to “teach English” but actually you don’t really end up teaching anything because the children find your accent really hard to understand. Don’t feel entitled to force your teaching upon them, but instead come up with other ways that you can help. We had one volunteer who signed up for teaching at one of our projects but realized quickly that she was in India during the monsoon season and the shelter where the children were staying kept getting leakage from the rain. She spent her 4 weeks putting cement down so that the children would not be wet where they slept. Sometimes while volunteering abroad (just like everything else in life) you end up doing things you did not sign up for. Be open to that.
Change your vocabulary.
When a volunteer or intern says that they are signing up to our project to help poor people, we usually have to speak with them for a little longer and talk about how they won’t actually be “helping poor people”. Having an attitude and vocabulary change can set different expectations of what you will be accomplishing in India. Instead of thinking that your volunteer trip to India will allow you to help poor people, think of it more in terms of working alongside qualified staff and supervisors who are working on initiatives to increase income generation, provide more access to education, and develop long-term solutions for problems like water, energy, and environment long after you are gone. Once you realize that you are actually working alongside educated people that will really be training you, you immediately stop thinking that you are just helping but instead you are learning, growing, and exchanging ideas together as a team.
Don’t shy away from Fundraising.
Although the task of fundraising for the local NGO or Non-Profit wont allow you to have as great a Facebook album as taking pictures with cute children, it is definitely something that is needed and helpful to practically any NGO or Non-Profit in existence. If done right, even a small fundraiser that allows the orphanage that you work at to host a medical camp for the children for $300 can set events in motion that raises the standard of healthcare resources in the orphanage year after year. We’ve gotten many interns and volunteers who say that fundraising “isn’t really something they want to do and would rather do some hands on field work”. This is great and going abroad certainly should allow you to gain field work. However, it might be a good idea to add fundraising to the list of things that you can try to set up while abroad. It is not as glamorous and it can certainly be frustrating when the efforts are not working. However, for some volunteers and interns who may not have extremely specific skills needed by the NGO or Non-Profit, fundraising can go a long way.
Write. A LOT.
A lot of Leave UR Mark’s partner NGOs and Non-Profits have a lack of content because they do not have funds to hire out writers, bloggers, media specialists, etc. They are always lacking coverage of events that they are hosting, profiles on some of the people that they are serving, and many times good website content. Volunteers can sign up to document all the activities that are going on at the organization, help translate interviews, create case studies and update the organization’s blog (if they even have one) on a daily basis. This allows the NGO or Non-Profit to go back to all the content you provide them and utilize it for future press releases, marketing efforts, annual reports, and social media posts. On this topic, help create Facebook pages for these organizations and then make sure you are passing on the login information to the next volunteer. You can also create a “Volunteer Guidebook” from your own experiences that helps volunteers settle into the organization quickly. Hand this over to your supervisor at Leave UR Mark the end of the stay and tell them to give it to the next international volunteer that arrives so they are even more prepared than you were.
Stay a while.
If you have the time, stay as long as possible. Completely avoid any schemes that allow you to volunteer for one week because you may as well not even be there. It’s preferable to volunteer for up to 8-10 weeks. Some volunteers will say they want to volunteer in India but really just come for 1 week and then spend three weeks traveling. So actually they are not in India to volunteer….they are in India to travel and have a short feel-good experience for a few days. If you are volunteering, focus on that instead of trying to divert your attention to travel for the majority of your stay. Ask yourself why you are truly going to the country and be honest with yourself as well as the organization that you are signing up to volunteer with. At Leave UR Mark, we just do not accept 1 week volunteers as we think it doesn’t make sense to our communities and partner projects.
Will there always be some level of ineffectiveness, errors and mis-communication as well as mishandling of resources, time, and people while volunteering abroad? Of course. There is no organization in the world domestically or internationally that has perfected the model of managing people that want to contribute. However, we hope our experiences with volunteering abroad will help you analyze the type of work you want to do and the reality of what your own experience and impact will be. If you have other ideas, please help us continue the conversation! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know about your own good and bad volunteering experiences around the world.