3 questions to ask yourself before volunteering on holiday

It’s a pretty selfless thing to volunteer your vacation time to help those less fortunate, right? In principle, sure, but in the case of voluntourism – one of the largest growing sectors of the travel industry – the best intentions don’t always garner the best results. Sadly, voluntourism has been linked to damaging local economies and commodifying vulnerable children, amongst some other pretty depressing findings that have led many industry experts to warn travellers off voluntourism completely. Did you know, for example, that according to child-focused NGO Friends International, roughly 80% of children in Cambodian orphanages still have at least one living parent? Yet between 2005 and 2015, the number of Cambodian orphanages increased by 60%, with half concentrated in the tourist centres of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Convenient, that.

But it’s not all gloom and doom – there are some wonderful organisations (primarily NGOs) around the world helping to enact real change, and if you have the right intentions and are properly qualified to help, there are lots of opportunities to lend a hand. Before signing up to any voluntourism project, ask yourself these questions to ensure your time – and your money – is not spent in vain.

Think twice before volunteering with vulnerable children © Sarah Reid

1. Would you still do it if you couldn’t Instagram it?

It might sound cynical, but asking yourself this question really forces you to analyse your intentions for volunteering. Do you legitimately want to help people (or animals) in need, or are you more interested in posting pictures on Instagram to seek validation from your peers, or using the experience as career leverage on your LinkedIn profile? Perhaps you have a ‘saviour complex’, or maybe you just want to volunteer because it gives you the warm-fuzzies. If you’re more interested in what volunteering can do for you (any all of the above) than what you can do to help, that hard truth is that you may end up doing more harm than good by singing up to ‘help’.

2. Does the volontourism organisation have the same values and intentions as you?

It’s an unfortunate reality that many volunteering organisations around the world are designed to make money, rather than change lives (and many organisations hide this fact very well). If you’re set on volunteering, do your research to help choose an NGO that is genuinely invested in its cause. Key questions to ask organisations before you choose to work with them include:

  • How much of your money goes to the voluntourism organisation, and how is the money spent? Be wary of organisations that are reluctant to reveal this information.
  • How does the voluntourism organisation operate? If it’s an orphanage, how does it acquire its children, and how are the children treated? If it’s an animal ‘conservation’ facility, are its conversation initiatives legitimate? Do not take the organisation’s website at face value, as sadly many lie, even those run by seemingly reputable authorities such as, in the case of Thailand’s notorious Tiger Temple – monks.
  • Does the organisation work closely with the community, or does the organisation decide for itself what’s best for the community? Non-collaborative, neo-colonial attitudes regarding what communities ‘need’ should raise alarm bells.
  • If the organisation offers the opportunity to work with children, does it require qualifications, background checks, and a commitment of at least three months? Industry-leading child protection experts (such as Save The Children and Friends International) claim these should be standard requirements for working with vulnerable children.

3. Would you trust yourself – or be legally allowed – to do the job at home?

Chances are, you would not be able to work closely with vulnerable children in your own country without the appropriate qualifications and background checks. Neither would you be allowed to build a school if you’re not a chippie. Or teach English unless you’re a qualified English teacher. The same rules should be applied when working or volunteering abroad. Instead of jumping into a task that you’re not qualified to do, offer to help organisations with the skills you already have. If you’re a graphic designer, offer to build the organisation a website. If you’re a tradie, find out if the organisation needs anything fixed. If you don’t have any transferable skills, contact a local school, medical clinic or similar and find out if they need supplies you may be able to donate that can be distributed fairly among the community.

For more information about volunteering with children, the ChildSafe Movement website, run by Friends International, is a brilliant resource.

This article is an expanded version of a guest post I wrote for tasitravels.com, one of my fave sustainably-crafted Aussie women’s travelwear labels.