March 18, 2012

Learning Something New

Posted in Organisational gains from volunteering, volunteer experience tagged , , at 4:04 am by Sue Hine

I’ve never been a fan of voluntourism.  Yes, I know it is a growth industry but I worry about who benefits.  The definition from a comprehensive website suggests this kind of travel is all for the tourist:

The conscious, seamlessly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination and the best, traditional elements of travel — arts, culture, geography, history and recreation — in that destination.

I have also heard the stories of people lured to foreign parts on a ‘do-good’ mission, only to find their time and energies exploited in tasks that do not match their skills and interests.  Worse, in my view, is the easy come-and-go of the voluntraveller with limited contribution to the development needs of local communities or organisations.  It convolutes the purpose of volunteering, and when a payment is required for the experience I have to ask if this is still ‘volunteering’.  Of course many voluntour agencies take a responsible approach, offering ‘reality-check’ information and a placement process.  Research studies find positive outcomes for the volunteers in terms of self and career development, but there is little recorded evidence of the impact of volunteering in communities where participants are placed.  And that’s what should matter, specially when governments in developed nations promote or support international volunteering as part of their aid programmes.

As for micro-volunteering – I have yet to get my head around how it works and to add it to my lexicon of volunteering.  Yes, I know it’s convenient for the volunteer and allows for innovative ways to support non-profit organisations.  Yet, again, I wonder about the cost-benefit outcomes.  Can the value of a short-term, bite-sized volunteer task really be worth the management input to make micro-volunteering happen?  Volunteers do not come for free!

Well – I happened to do a spot of micro-volunteering, as a voluntourist, during recent travel in Laos.

I knew about Big Brother Mouse before I left New Zealand, and paying the office a visit was on my list of things to do. Big Brother Mouse (BBM) is a not-for-profit, Lao-owned project, with Lao staff.  Its focus is literacy, publishing books and distributing them around the country, particularly to highland villages.  There were BBM books to be found at night markets and other places round the country, and on one remote mountain road a van sporting the BBM logo went past.

In Luang Prabang I expressed interest in helping young adults with English conversation practice.  That was going to be my micro-voluntourist effort: two hours chatting with a stranger from another culture.  I was assigned to a young woman who wanted English skills so she could better communicate with tourist visitors at her workplace.  We got on just fine, covered a lot of ground beyond the basic personal and family information, and two hours went by in a flash.

One small bit of experience does not answer my questions, but at least I have learned how it works, for one organisation in a developing country.  What made it work in voluntourism terms is the explicit information on the website, all geared for visitors to Laos who could be prospective donors and/or volunteers. On site, staff were clear and firm about expectations.  And I am sorry this meeting was a one-off, because it would be good to follow the young woman’s development.  Extending volunteer commitment is one of the spin-offs of micro-volunteering, but it will not happen this time.  I wonder too if there are any records of progress in language development – is the experience useful for the participant? As the volunteer I introduced myself to office staff and presented some relevant credentials but no details were recorded, nor references required.  (This type of volunteering would surely be subject to some risk management back home.)

So – I have had a taste of two unfamiliar brands of volunteering.  The task process (relationship- building) was familiar, and it was the context that was different.  I will not be chasing further experience in either voluntourism or micro-volunteering, but I will be keeping an open mind and an eye on opportunities closer to home.


  1. What an interesting experience! It does seem like there are a lot of potential issues around voluntourism; opportunities could be exploited, people don’t understand what they’re getting into, etc. Do you feel like you made a difference with the woman you met for two hours? Do you think she gained anything from the meeting?

    Also, what do you think about online microvolunteering like


    • Sue Hine said,

      Anything and everything goes online these days. Indeed, I am currently tutor for an introductory course on managing volunteers – all done online. Microvolunteering online (or virtual volunteering) is simply an extension – opening up further opportunities – of what is happening in the real world. I notice requires registration of interest and has a monitoring process in place, volunteer recognition and (through its terms and conditions) many of the standard practices for management of volunteers.

      As for my stint of micro-voluntourism, I did ask the young woman if the experience had been helpful to her, and I don’t think her enthusiastic response was offered just to please me.


  2. Steve Clark said,

    How disappointing to read such a naive and poorly researched opinion on volunteering from someone who purports to have previously been involved in Volunteering NZ.

    Your limited experience of voluntourism Sue sadly leads you with a poor impression which you seem to have applied to the entire voluntourism sector. Of course there will be both examples of good and bad so wouldn’t it have been better to make an effort to contact volunteers who have found the concept entirely positive to provide a more balanced view, particularly given you purport to support the concept of volunteering?

    As a volunteer who spent 5 weeks in Nepal 5 years ago i can only report what a significant impact it’s had on me and the undoubted positive results the program continues to deliver in Nepal.

    I was lucky enough to be part of a well integrated programme managed by VSN. In the first week we were given a fully supportive and well managed introduction to Nepal, the organization and our role within it. We were fully immersed into the culture, given daily language lessons, advised of expectations of us and given regular review meetings. This resulted in productive, enjoyable placements where we were able to make a difference.

    Five years later i still look forward to receiving my regular monthly email newsletter with updates on all the children, keeping me in contact with the boys that i looked after. I avidly follow the results of the private schooling they now receive funded by VSN. The home the orphans live in is one of two built by volunteer donations to VSN and houses over 50 orphans in a safe, healthy and supportive family environment. Over 25 Nepali nationals now work in the organization providing additional value to the local community. The results of the program are remarkable…what a pity Sue that you didn’t bother to research a little further, particularly given its a partner organization to the GVN network based here in NZ.

    How damaging to take such a negative view and then broadcast to all on the web in light of the significant results that can be achieved.


    • Sue Hine said,

      I am sorry my post has given offence Steve, though I am pleased to hear you have had a good experience of voluntourism.

      My opinion is based on much wider knowledge and experience than disclosed in the account of my Lao adventure. I have a Masters degree in Development Studies which introduced me to theory and practice and also the history of aid to developing countries. Periodic travel in Southeast Asia has included opportunities to observe and learn about development programmes first hand, and to note how the most effective development comes from local communities leading and driving the programme. Before writing this blog piece I researched websites and academic papers on international volunteering, to see what other people are saying. Conclusions consistently record the benefits to volunteers, the gains in personal development and impact on career choices. The principal concern about voluntourism, noted several times in my review of the literature, is the lack of evaluation of the volunteer impact on communities. Until there is evidence that voluntourism brings measurable benefit the communities served I will maintain my reservations.


      • Steve Clark said,

        Thanks for the reply Sue. I understand your concern about voluntourism not creating any meaningful improvements for the local communities concerned.

        My frustration comes from your dismissal of the approach when my experience is that significant improvements CAN be achieved through a careful and sustainable approach. At VSN the lives of over 50 children changed from living in dilapidated, unhealthy, subsistence conditions to that of a newly built heated, clean and safe home….not only that, they are embraced as part of an extended family that ensures they receive a good quality private education and a loving supportive home environment. The first child to graduate from the school system is now at college, in a course with over 300 students his position after exams was 8th. If these are not tangible results then i don’t know what is. The employment of locals within the organization as well as the board and lodging of volunteers in local families provides further benefits to the community. There is much to applaud and learn from here.

        I respectfully suggest Sue that you research the VSN program in Nepal, directly or through GVN, to understand that effective development for local communities can and has been achieved through voluntourism. Then perhaps your next article could be a positive one about what’s required to be successful in voluntourism.

        In your capacity as an advocate for volunteering i think it’s what you should be doing rather than taking such a negative and unhelpful stance.


  3. As a Volunteer Coordinator of a non-profit charity organization in New Zealand, I can vouch for another type of voluntourism all-together — the working-for-accommodation kind. It has proven to be quite popular for international tourists who are travelling on a budget to westernized countries to be able to pitch in and help out in exchange for accommodation. Sure – there are a few kinks to work out on the management side of things. Particularly in the realm of figuring what we want as an organization – should there be a minimum commitment, what type of person do we want, how many volunteers can we manage? But as we work through some of those issues, I have found that we have started to establish are really amazing program here at our facility. Something that works for everyone which I believe is an important part of volunteering – it isn’t just about who you are helping and what they get out of it – it is also equally important to ensure the volunteer is satisfied with where they are at.

    I definitely think there are good and bad to voluntourism, but I think the bottom line is that it is like any type of travel – it is important to do research. Know what you want and know what you’re getting yourself into. If it’s something that doesn’t sound like a right fit to begin with, it probably isn’t. But don’t let that stop you from trying something else out – there are so many options on how a person can travel these days, just the same as there are so many options on what one can do to volunteer.


    • Sue Hine said,

      Thanks for describing your programme Shalane. You are aware of the pitfalls, and like any good coordinator / manager you are working on getting the best conditions for volunteers. Yes, research is important, for volunteering in my own community as well as international opportunities. Yes, I want good experiences for volunteers, but ensuring best outcomes for the host community is critical in a developing country. I am thinking of their limited resources, and the priorities they need to give to projects for the well-being of the people.


      • I completely agree with you. I think there are huge obstacles that generally go ignored when volunteers from westernised countries opt to volunteer in helping developing countries. Things even as simple as packing a bunch of toys in a shoebox to ship off to kids who have no clothes, food, water, family or even a home comes to mind (a common practice during Christmas in North America). All too often volunteers and organizations can jump up to conclusions and tell the developing countries what they “need” rather than listening to what the people actually might want help with. I’ve heard of programs to help communities learn how to use the internet and computers in certain countries fall to pieces because no one thought to consider the fact that the community doesn’t have electricity, much less clean water. I think the thing to remember as a volunteer going abroad is to help where its needed in a way that’s actually needed. There are many different ways of life on this planet – many different cultures. Being happy, healthy and safe may mean different things to different people. Though it is incredibly important for a volunteer to find the appropriate project for their skills, experience and comfort level, it is even more important that the projects being done are actually wanted and needed by the communities themselves.


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